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Ask a Biologist

February 13, 2006

The Ask a Biologist web site has answered more than 18,000 life science-related questions from elementary and secondary students and their teachers. Biologist Charles Kazilek and the School of Life Sciences founded the site in 1997, as a way to give members of the community access to the diverse scientific expertise available at Arizona State University.

After eight years and several awards, the site remains a volunteer-based program that runs “on a shoe-string budget.” Various web-based games, puzzles, experiments, quizzes and other materials enhance the question submission feature that forms the core of the site. ASU faculty and graduate student volunteers in various biology and life science fields answer the submitted questions. 

The activities and other materials on the Ask a Biologist site include “backyard experiments” such as how to press plants and create a herbarium, and quizzes on subjects like ants and beetles.

Throughout its existence, Kazilek has remained the primary site developer and caretaker of the Ask a Biologist program. He finds the responses he gets from students and teachers who have been helped by the site to be among the most satisfying aspects of the program. 

“The thank you notes and feedback from students and teachers who have used [the site] are one of the most rewarding parts of the program. It is wonderful to know that you have helped a student, teacher, or parent understand a life science concept,” Kazilek says.

For Kazilek, often the greatest challenge of running Ask a Biologist stems from finding the time to devote to the site. 

“Without the help of volunteers to answer questions the site would not be as successful as it has been,” Kazilek says. “The fact that it has been running for eight years says quite a bit.”

The web site continues to grow in popularity, receiving around 1,000 visitors each day. Additionally, over 4,000 downloads of site content occur each month. Some of this content has been created in conjunction with other organizations. For example, a recent addition to the site, Birds and their Songs, was done in cooperation with the Arizona and National Audubon Society, Kazilek says. The project features over 200 bird species and over 400 birdsong recordings. 

Kazilek notes that the benefits of the Ask a Biologist Web site go beyond the help that is given to students, teachers and parents. The site has also had a positive influence on the volunteer scientists who participate.

“Many of the volunteers are amazed at the [high] level of questions we have received, many of which are from young children,” Kazilek says. 

In 2002-03, the Ask a Biologist project received the Arizona State University President’s Award for Innovation, which recognizes “innovations that improve the educational, administrative, or other organizational processes through creative approaches.” The site was also peer reviewed by the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT) and received a five star rating.

When asked if he had any advice for others who would like to begin their own outreach program, Kazilek responded: “Think of not only how you will be creating the program, but how it will be sustained. Many programs that grow and die do so because they have no long-term commitment. It is as important to build in survivability as it is to create the program in the first place.”