WASHINGTON – A self-described “myopic and geeky” group of science buffs discovered it can make science hip by using pop culture as a hook.
The team’s “Why Files” Internet site has a name reminiscent of the “X Files” – one in a flurry of too-cool-science-fiction television shows – and is designed to make science accessible to a mass audience.
Two years ago the National Science Foundation made a five- year commitment to fund the Why Files.
Since then, the six-member team on the campus of the University of Wisconsin has been digging up hot topics that cry out to have the underlying science deciphered. Members create a new package of articles for their World Wide Web site every two weeks.
“We zero in on what Americans are talking about over their backyard fences,” said team leader Susan Trebach.
By the time cards and candy hearts hit the shelves for Valentine’s Day, the Why Files site had explored how the male black-tipped hang fly woos passing females with scrumptious spiders.
When newspapers and the nightly news were awash with the Clinton-Dole horse race last year, the site recounted monster flub-ups pollsters made in years past.
And when the hit movie “Twister” was playing in theaters last year, the Web site described how satellites might soon be able to use optics and electronics to predict tornados.
The group usually finds something to focus on by “just prowling around,” said Darrell Schulte, the Why Files’ 24-year- old Web master.
“We usually seem to hit it right and get good responses,” he said. The awards and accolades showered on the site since its inception in February 1995 seem to prove the point.
The Why Files was named “Pick of the Day” by Microsoft and “Pick of the Week” by Yahoo. It also has been listed under the “What’s Cool” picks by Netscape.
Site editor Terry Devitt said the Web-surfing public loves the site too, although he can’t put a number on how many people stop by. But, conservatively, the staff estimates about 2,000 to 3,000 pay a visit each day, he said.
“Cool Science Images,” one of the high-traffic areas of the site, allows visitors to gaze at captivating images only nature could produce. Visitors can get a glimpse of baby stars through the eyepiece of a state-of-the-art telescope, a developing fruit fly embryo through a microscope or a volcano through the eye of a satellite.
Clicking the sports icon at the bottom of the page will lead visitors through a sports-inspired, brain-busting quiz. Example: If thrown from a window, will an inflated basketball hit the ground before a flat basketball? Answer: Nope. Explanation: Visit the site.
There is also a forum where visitors can weigh in with comments on topics ranging from how sap gets to the tops of trees to cutting-edge theories on particle physics.
Little aids for getting around the Why Files are abundant. Within every feature article, science jargon can be decoded by clicking on the term in question for a definition. And complete glossaries appear at the end of each article. Teachers, too, will find ready-made lesson plans sprinkled throughout.
In addition to creating a science-friendly site for a mass audience, the Why Files staff uses the site as a “test pad” to figure out how people use the Web.
They track where people click first with their mouse, how long visitors stay and if they come back.
Staffers discovered most people who visit the site are strongly tethered to the home page, Schulte said. If visitors enter somewhere other than that page, most will instinctively want to go back to the home page before checking out other areas, he said.
“People mill and throng, come and go,” Schulte said. “But they need that grounding, to find that top level. It’s a huge navigational tool.”
The NSF is interested in promoting science literacy through the site and hopes the research will show if the Web is a good fit for teaching science, said NSF spokesman Bill Noxon.
NSF gives the Why Files $90,000 each year for salaries, equipment and other operating costs. There are three more years left for the grant. The site can be reached at http://whyfiles.news.wisc.edu. – 30 –