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Answering the call of the curious

April 10, 2018

ASU's Ask A Biologist website, recently redesigned, has 50 million visits and growing

Do reindeer have red noses?

Of course they don’t. (Sorry, but they don’t fly, either.)

However, if you posed the question to the website Ask A Biologist, you might be surprised by the scientific truth. When it’s very cold, reindeers’ noses heat up. If you look at them under infrared light, they glow red.

Hosted by Arizona State University since before Google existed, Ask A Biologist provides answers like that every day to people around the world. The site, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, unveiled a new redesign last month. 

Ask a Biologist by the numbers

• more than 50 million visits
• more than 40,000 questions answered
• more than 30,000 visits every day
• 46 percent of traffic comes from abroad
• 4th most visited page on ASU’s website
• 1,200 top search results in Google

“Without a doubt we teach more students than any instructor at ASU,” creator and developer Charles Kazilek said. Include the fact that teachers download content for their classrooms, and “it has a multiplier effect,” he said.

Video by Jamie Ell/ASU Now

It started because of people trying to reach experts at the university to answer questions. Kazilek, a senior research professional in the School of Life Sciencespart of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, had an idea. He grew up in a small town where you could call a help line at the library.

“But you’ve got to have someone on the other end of the line to answer it.”

So, the site started with an oath to answer the question within 72 hours. That gave the faculty time to research the question and respond. The time frame has another benefit too.

“That allows us not to be turned into a homework site,” Kazilek said. “We’re here for the truly curious.”

Each semester, a student teaching assistant and a graduate student playing Dr. Biology route the questions to the appropriate expert. There are more than 150 volunteer experts. (Not all of them are from ASU.)

Answering questions can get complex. The answer to “Why is milk white?” involves chemistry and physics, as well as biology. When the answers come back, they’re turned into kid-friendly prose.

“We offer a service and we package it in plain language,” said Kazilek.

The site has more than 5,000 pages of content. There are resources for teachers and games and activities for kids. Virtual tours of rain forests, deserts and the inside of a beehive are on tap. The Bird Finder tool can help identify mystery birds in your backyard. There’s also a dedicated Youtube channel.

“Its footprint has been growing stronger and stronger,” Kazilek said. “Lots of ASU creativity and vision and desire to communicate to the world … It reaches such a large global audience. It is a bit of an ambassador for ASU.”

ask a biologist 

Top photo: Chuck Kazilek, ASU's chief technology innovation officer, and the creator and developer of the "Ask A Biologist" website, works from his Computing Commons office on Wednesday, April 4. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News


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Social embeddedness takes center stage

April 10, 2018

A recent ASU conference connected faculty and staff engaged in community partnerships

Part of the mission of Arizona State University is to enhance its local impact and social embeddedness, and one of the best ways to achieve that is to connect people.

ASU's Office of University Initiatives this year expanded and scaled its outreach luncheon with the inaugural Social Embeddedness Network Conference, which aimed to include and support engaged faculty and staff working in domains of community engagement.

At the event, held Friday, April 6, at ASU's West campus, participants engaged in a variety of breakout sessions and workshops designed to coalesce their network, shared strategies for forging meaningful and mutually beneficial partnerships with the community, and generated institutional dialogue about how to advance socially embedded research, teaching, student development and practice at ASU.

ASU Now spoke to Lindsey Beagley, director of social embeddedness for University Initiatives, about the goals of the conference, some takeaways and how faculty and staff can get involved in the embeddedness effort.

Question: What is the Social Embeddedness Network?

Answer: The Social Embeddedness Network is a collective of faculty and staff at ASU who are engaged in partnerships with community organizations within their scholarship, practice or teaching. In whatever capacity they may be partnering, these are faculty and staff who have a special set of competencies, knowledge and experience about how to effectively bridge the gap between ASU and the community, but in way that is mindful of the different environment, priorities and resources with which our partners may be operating.

The Network is a platform for these engaged faculty and staff to exchange best practices and lessons learned across disciplines. It’s very likely some of them are working with the same partners or in the same communities and don’t know it. They may be working on the same social challenges, but through different disciplinary lenses. Because social embeddedness doesn’t live in any one place at ASU, there are plenty of reasons to connect across silos.

Q: How did the conference get started?

A: The event started in 2014 as a joint effort between Access ASU and University Initiatives to connect those who were working on K–12 initiatives across ASU. Since that time, the annual Social Embeddedness survey has illuminated a number of other types of community-engaged efforts that would benefit from being connected across silos, and so we have been steadily growing the scope of the event to be inclusive of all social embeddedness activity.

Q: What topics were discussed at the conference?

A: The breakout sessions covered a variety of topics that represented shared experiences among community-engaged faculty and staff regardless of the disciplinary context, such as: tribal perspectives of partnerships with ASU, balancing the community impact with student learning outcomes in community-based learning experiences, participatory budgeting, building an ethical framework for equity-centered partnerships, and thinking about the future of a socially embedded ASU.

We enjoyed a phenomenal keynote which was a fireside chat between Gabriel Shaibi of the College of Nursing and Health Innovation and his community partner Shannon Clancy of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. They shared the tensions and opportunities that partnering represented for each of them in their distinct roles as a scholar and a social services provider.

Q: Who attended the conference?

A: Nearly 200 people attended from over 70 distinct academic and non-academic units throughout ASU. 

We would like to figure out how we can expand the event to include our community partners to join in these conversations next year.

Q: What opportunities are there to get plugged into the Social Embeddedness Network going forward?

A: I encourage folks to sign up for the monthly social embeddedness newsletter to learn about ongoing events, grants and award opportunities that are related to social embeddedness on-campus and nationally. You can also search the Social Embeddedness survey data for information about social embeddedness activity in other units.

Top photo: Lindsey Beagley attends the Social Embeddedness Network Conference on Friday, April 6 at the West campus. Photo by Jamie Ell/ASU Now