By Chelsie Boodoo (@SciWithChelsie)
Edited by Simon Bakke
Dr. Joe Palca was the perfect person to introduce me to science communication. Joe did not realize what science communication was until long into his career. In 1982, Joe was completing his dissertation at the University of California Santa Cruz on sleep psychology when he saw an advertisement for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship. This fellowship was focused on training scientists to strengthen their connection with journalists. Not enthralled with his research, he knew he did not want to stay in academia and wanted to try something new. Joe decided to give the fellowship a try; it was an opportunity to explore something new that valued his degree without constraining him to a laboratory.
“The part of grad school I really liked was teaching and working with students,” Joe said. “[The fellowship] was everything grad school was not — it was different every day.”
He was suggested by an AAAS Mass Media Fellow to take a writing test to be a vacation relief writer for the ABC station on San Francisco KGO. He took the test on Thursday, and on Friday he received a call asking him to start Monday. He assured me that anyone could be a science communicator, that all they had to was give it a try.
“Just take a swing. I don’t know if I wrote prize-winning stuff that first week, but I did OK, and that led to another week,” Joe said. I believe this is true; some people are afraid to take the first step towards a career in science communication, but the outcomes are rewarding.
Within a few years, he achieved his goal of becoming a television science communicator. Unfortunately, he developed a distaste for local news.
"Local news is very much dominated by sports and weather and gore. I didn’t really care for that,” Joe said.
Again, he switched careers. He was offered a job with Nature through his connections from when he was a Mass Media Fellow, and switched again to working at Science for a few years. He made the final career change to National Public Radio (NPR), where he has worked for the past 26 years. I was surprised he left reputable companies like Nature and Science, but pleased when he said, “I think it’s a good thing I left. I found myself happier with a news organization that reached the public, not just the science, so that was very satisfying.”
After reading, watching and listening to a few of his pieces on NPR (occasionally accompanied by the puppet in the photo), I noticed a majority of them were based on Astronomy, NASA and other topics. I was intrigued because he earned his Ph.D. in Sleep Psychology. So I asked: what's it like writing in a field without any previous expertise and how do you overcome the obstacle of both learning and communicating it?
He explained he believes writing in a field that is not in your subject of expertise is actually easier, because you’re less constrained to know all the details. Though some think only scientists can become effective communicators, Joe does not.
What Joe said resonated with me. I later pondered the countless times I lost sight of what I was saying because I was too caught up in the details. His next example made it even clearer for me: sometimes, you need to ask the obvious.
“If you're a sleep researcher and you ask what Stage Four sleep is, they’re going to ask, ‘what kind of sleep researcher are you?’ [It’s] awkward if you [already] know the answer, but you still have to ask bc it’s not your story — it’s their story.”
I never thought about it like that.
He tells starting science journalists that it is easier to write about things you do not know, since you are not as constrained by the things you needed to leave out to get your story across.
Many scientists, like myself, believe that science communication can be daunting. However, after speaking to Joe, I understand now that the hardest step is the first. Joe’s ambition to become a Mass Media fellow provided many opportunities for him. I did not realize until speaking to Joe that it is easier for some people to write about something outside of their expertise. Scientists need to be open to the idea of delving into fields that are not their own. By having confidence, passion, and ambition, they can become effective science communicators and help shape the future.
By Catherine Hudson
Edited by Simon Bakke
The Alda Center aims to give scientists the skills necessary to communicate their research and conclusions clearly, leading to improved understanding of their research by those who are not directly involved. The Alda Center uses The Alda Method®, a combination of improvisational activities aimed at creating an emotional response to clear the way for increased empathy and communication.
As someone who previously worked as both an undergraduate and graduate researcher and who is now interested in science communication and outreach, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to interview Lindenfeld. I enjoyed hearing her unique perspective as we discussed her career path, communication research, and her new job as the Interim Dean.
Q. What inspired you to pursue a career in communication research?
A. Largely because I had an interest in food cultural studies and environmental science, I took a deep interest in understanding how communication research could support better collaborative processes in solving environmental issues and how it could support inter- and transdisciplinary team collaboration. I found my way to working with a lot of STEM professionals, and that’s where my interest in science communication — which is really an interest in STEM communication — first started. I realized that we needed better communication to help link our research with societal action.
Starting with my interest in food cultural studies, I discovered that if you study food long enough, you find your research will lead you to the environment and the earth. And if you study the environment and the earth long enough, you find your way to people. The problems that exist with the planet are mostly ones that we’ve created and we have to engage people to address those problems. That’s how I progressed from food to the environment to science, people, and communication research.
Although the data is still being collected, we’ve received positive feedback from scientists about the benefits of the training that include greater confidence and an increased enthusiasm for scientific outreach. We’ve also done a study that explores the interest of scientists in bringing public engagement to their research. It asks scientists what they both want and need in order to better engage the public. I’m really proud and excited about this study and the new data should be coming out soon! I’m also interested to know how improved science communication can improve researcher/stakeholder collaborations.
Q. Has there been anything that has surprised you since you started work at the Alda Center?
A. One thing that has been really surprising to me is how much Alan Alda’s name not only opens doors, but also raises suspicion. Researchers question if there is credibility to the research that takes place at the Alda Center or if we are just riding on a celebrity’s name.
I’ve also been surprised by how new the world of science communication training research is. Science communication itself is not a new topic, but studying science communication is still a young field. More broadly, I would really like to see a collaborative effort continue to evolve that supports robust workforce development both inside and outside academia where we can collectively be learning from each other across different approaches to science communication training and research.
Q. What about communication research makes you love it?
A. I love being able to do work that actually matters! I love that we work in iterative cycles of research and implementation and that we’re open to learning, not just from our own mistakes, but also from the data. I love being able to say, “Here’s how we can do this better,” and then being able to do it!
I also enjoy collaborating and the interdisciplinary team dynamic that we have that exhibits a constant learning process where people can question each other in responsible and civil ways. I work in a place where people can offer insight, feedback, and criticism without feeling like they have to hold back because they might criticize someone. There’s really a focus on moving the work forward, and I love that we have that positive dynamic.
Q. Could you tell me more about your new position as the Interim Dean at Stony Brook’s School of Journalism?
A. At the School of Journalism where I am now interim dean, I think there is a huge opportunity to help shape what the future of the School of Journalism will look like. There’s a changing landscape in both media industries and higher education right now. Journalism as a field has undergone such intense changes due to online platforms, media ownership, and a decline in newspapers, among other factors. I think this has undercut some of the most important pillars of journalism, such as the freedom of the press, which really troubles me. In addition, state universities and some private schools are hurting from cuts in state budgets, which translates to tuition increases needed to keep up with mandatory raises.
So I’m trying to collaborate with leaders on campus and within the School of Journalism to figure out how we can create a renewed commitment to journalism that is sustainable for the school’s future. I’m the kind of person who looks forward instead of back, and I try to solve problems and create new opportunities. I really want us to be able to have an active role in charting our future, and I want a strong journalism program to be maintained and emerge out of that.
Q. Lastly, what is one piece of advice you could give scientists who wish to improve their communication both inside and outside of academe?
A. You know the old saying that God gave you two ears and one mouth so we listen twice as much as we speak? I definitely think it’s important to listen, not just until the other person is finished talking so that you can talk more, but to take that other person in and try to understand them while treating them with a sense of dignity and respect. When communicating, it is important to try and understand who the other person/group is, what they care about, what’s at stake for them, and how you can connect with them.
Catherine Hudson Hudson recently earned her master’s degree in geology and geophysics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.
Dr. Laura Lindenfeld received her master’s degree in German Literature and Language and Scandinavian studies in Germany. She earned her Ph.D. in cultural studies from the University of California, Davis. She worked at the University of Maine for 16 years, and became a faculty member and a communication researcher in the Department of Communication and Journalism and at the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. Lindenfeld directed the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center for two years. She is now the Executive Director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and the Interim Dean for the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University.
In an ideal world, stories would always benefit both the listener and the storyteller. Unfortunately, storytelling has a dark side.
We live in a world where people have conflicts of interest and incentives to lie. In the US, the word “narrative” has acquired political baggage and in many contexts is synonymous with propaganda. For such reasons, some hard-nosed, fact-driven scientists eschew storytelling, seeing it as merely a means to an end for would-be manipulators.
The stylish and effervescent executive producer of Story Collider, Liz Neeley, couldn’t disagree more. Story Collider is a non-profit organization that provides an outlet for scientists to share true and personal stories about science through weekly podcasts and live shows. To Liz, the best way to get the public excited about science is to make science relatable. The scientists who tell their stories on Story Collider talk not only about their science but how science weaves into their own personal narratives.
I conducted a midday interview over Skype with Liz to discuss science, art, and the ethics of storytelling, where we confronted the border between persuasion and manipulation, and why exploring that border is so essential to both scientists and the people they’re trying to reach.
So, you were driven to save these delicate ecosystems by communicating the science of climate change to the public?
Liz: Yes, I did science and science communication at SeaWeb. Back then I thought science communication was really simple: If only people knew what we know, it would change behavior. I thought it was about getting facts to people... if only people had more facts, more data. I thought that would be enough to persuade people. In science communication, this is known as “the deficit model”—I learned the hard way that the deficit model doesn’t work.
The data is so clear in terms of the life history and the population structures of these organisms. You can’t exert harvest pressures... everyone would see that it’s not sustainable. That’s why I’m fascinated by power and influence.
We’re outgunned in science, because it’s easier to tell a more interesting story if you’re not tethered to the facts.
I started digging around about how people see the world. I went from how fish perceive the world to how humans perceive the world—how we see and process the world and make meaning.
For someone who started her career just wanting to talk about data, I hated the word narrative. I thought it was childish and manipulative, or just people putting on artistic airs, but then I kept reading the literature. I couldn’t get away from it.
Ultimately, the best available science tells us that stories are more interesting and engaging than straight exposition. People understand them better, and they’re more persuasive. So, when I was recruited to join Story Collider, I saw it as a chance to do something rare in the world—to unite the full force of my intellect—my art and artistic sensibilities.
It’s powerful to work in this transdisciplinary way, where we take the art just as seriously as the science. How do we change people’s views about science specifically? This isn’t like making those people love science the way scientists do... rather, I believe science belongs to everyone and I want people to feel as much investment and ownership of it as possible. Story Collider is an opportunity to humanize scientists—their hopes, dreams, failures, disasters, the process of science, and getting away from the idea that science is a body of facts that need to be handed over. We want to invite non-scientists to explore the world the way we do.
How do you see the relationship between art and science?
I value personally two things—truth and beauty. And I think art and science help us see different dimensions of those things. Art and science require different things of us, but we sometimes forget that they also require much of the same things: caution, expertise, interpretation, and slow, painstaking discipline. Both art and science are premised on truths in the world, and I think that intellectualism, humility, and playfulness unite both.
Story Collider brings science and storytelling together, but not everyone, including some scientists, are okay with that. What are the main objections you hear to combining science and storytelling?
Liz: Some categories of objection to narrative in science are important to consider. Too much focus on character can inadvertently lead to a solo narrative, but science is collaborative and interdisciplinary. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants. But stories by their nature are anecdotal; they are specific. And science is about the collective, the plural, the data. Those are reasons to be cautious. But what I often see is that in our attempt to hone our objectivity and our ability to be dispassionate about the merits of the evidence alone, it gets warped into a worldview that logic is good and emotion is bad. I have seen scientists shaking with clenched fists, saying they are not emotional about their science.
When scientists talk about storytelling, we think about “handwaving” and “just so” stories—stories that don’t hold up against the data. Stories might misrepresent the world, but storytelling is a powerful tool that can be used to build a house or to tear it down.
What are the ethics of storytelling, specifically in the context of science communication?
Liz: Stories used with the intent of communicating science should respect the agency of audiences. I find comfort and a clear line between persuasion and manipulation. The latter is never okay. The difference between persuasion and manipulation depends on the storyteller’s stance to an audience. Does the storyteller want the audience to do what she wants them to do no matter what, or does she respect the agency of the listeners? The goal should be to get people to engage in perspective-taking. The audience might not agree with you in the end and the storyteller must respect that. That’s the difference between manipulation and persuasion.
“Spin” or “spinning” something can be manipulative, but it’s also a form of framing. It’s a sense-making device, connecting information to things we already care about. Framing is how we take new information and connect it to ideas and values that we already have. It’s easy to think of metaphors. If I say this story is like David and Goliath—that’s a reference that relates it to a value system. We all have value sets.
Do you have any advice to help listeners discern truth from fiction?
Liz: In storytelling, we talk about verisimilitude—it’s about honesty and authenticity, so they say. I see it in dialogue: do the characters in this story sound true? If I’m talking about a 16 year old, is that how a 16 year old talks? It’s a combination of everything that the storyteller is bringing to the stage, is it plausible, does it make sense?
Does it matter if a story is true? Of course. Does it matter if everything is factually precise? Maybe less so. It’s the difference between accuracy and precision. We strive for accuracy in science communication, but the degree of precision will be different depending on the audience. There are also details that are context-dependent. If you’re telling a story about getting lost as a little kid, does it matter if it was February 2 or 3? Internal consistency is what’s important.
There is a whole field of psychology called narrative identity. How do we string our lives together? What did we do in the past, and does it predict what we might do in the future? At Story Collider, we want the stories to be true. We ask people to go through a process and examine those past memories in order to get at those truths. We believe that these are their own lives, what they make of it—it is a meaning-making device. It’s not a transcript or a record. It plays a different function.
What do you want non-scientists to know about either about scientists or the nature of science?
Liz: I hope that through Story Collider that people who haven’t thought about science since they left school, or who only know about it through movies, understand that this is a powerful, beautiful way of looking at the world. It doesn’t require any unique genius. All kinds of people with a variety of skills, strengths, and backgrounds do science. Just like any other profession we have good days and bad days, but we are striving for something greater than ourselves. I hope they see the passion, love, and dedication of those of us who devote our lives to science.
Written by Jessica Tir (@jessicatir), edited by Simon Bakke
Twitter is an incredibly powerful tool for networking with other researchers and connecting your work with new audiences. But while it seems lower-stakes than more formal modes of communication such as articles and public talks, it requires thoughtful use to get the most out of it.
Why should you bother putting in the effort? Actively working to improve your Twitter communication can help you find unexpected collaborators, get your research noticed, and push your work beyond the bubble of academia. Admittedly, I’m still working on building my social media presence — navigating the art of microblogging can be a challenge. I’ve been researching how to make the most out of my Twitter profile, and here are some important takeaways:
Matthew Hurteau, a professor teaching science policy at the University of New Mexico, asked his students for their perspective on how effective scientists are at using Twitter. Their opinions generated a lot of conversation and controversy in the science communication Twitter community. One concept that really stuck with me was that many thought it’s pointless to share new publications without including a one-line summary or call to action.
My suggestion: If you want your work to reach non-scientists, avoid jargon in your tweet. Consider linking to a blog post or article instead of a journal publication to make your research easier to digest for those who don’t have a background in your area. However, f you’re sharing a technical piece, you may want to use a tagline that will make researchers in your field want to click. Be mindful of how narrow you want to make your target audience.
4. Engage within and beyond your subfield
In ecology, a community of many different species that interact with each other — but not with species outside the community — is called “modular.” There may be plenty of interactions happening within this community, but very few interactions between communities.
This situation is a great metaphor for how scientific information might spread on Twitter. A communicator may generate a lot of conversation and tweet effectively, but their interactions could become modular, staying clumped within their subfield and not reaching new audiences. Instead of waiting for these interactions to come to you, actively seek them out! Follow people who study things that you don’t.
Most importantly… Twitter is a social network – so be social!
By Meghan Parsley
Edited by Simon Bakke
Learning that goes both ways
Letters to a Pre-Scientist is a program whose goal is to make these connections a reality. Their mission is to “demystify science careers by creating personal connections between students from high-poverty schools and real scientists”. To do this, they pair scientists and students as pen pals, and over the course of a school year, grade 6-8 students exchange letters with a scientist that specializes in a subject area they find interesting. Middle school students get a chance to hone their reading and writing skills and get exposure to STEM career paths. And scientists get to practice science communication to younger audiences in a one-on-one setting.
Last year, I was lucky enough to be one of those scientists talking with a middle school student. We were matched as pen pals and exchanged letters throughout the year. In our letters we talked about the student’s interests, career aspirations, and my own work as a scientist. Believe me, she asked a lot of great questions. Some of our correspondence also included photos, drawings and STEM activities for her to explore science further.
There are three key beliefs and strategies of the Letters to a Pre-Scientist program that encourage successful experiences:
However, joining their mailing list will keep you up to date on other outreach opportunities and ensure you don’t miss the window to sign up for next year’s program. With the help of participating scientists and teachers, we can demystify STEM careers to younger students and encourage all students' futures in science.
Meghan Parsley is a Ph.D. student in Environment and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. @MBParsley
Will’s talk, “How to sound smart in your TedX talk,” has been viewed 7.3 million times since it was first posted on Youtube three years ago. This says something powerful about the importance of how to deliver a message. According to Joyce Russell in her article “Career Coach: The wrong tone can spoil the message”, a quality delivery often comes down to one single aspect of communication: tone. “Our tone conveys our attitude,” says Joyce, who has spent more than 25 years coaching executives on everything from public speaking to interpersonal communication. “Sometimes our tone has a greater impact on our audience than our actual message.”
That’s why, in science communication, getting your message across is less about the content of the message itself, but rather how it’s delivered.
Let’s face it. Getting people excited about science is not easy. The task becomes even more difficult when science is communicated blandly and without consideration for how it's presented — which is, unfortunately, all too often the case. When this happens, science loses its appeal, and with its appeal, the opportunity to connect with a larger audience. It's doomed to remain trapped in the confines of academia.
Other influential public speakers also agree with Joyce. Dale Carnegie, in his book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” — perhaps the most widely read book on social communication skills — notes how tone is essential in conveying emotions, and emotions are key to successfully winning people over with a memorable message. “If you want others to be enthusiastic, act enthusiastic,” he writes. And that's especially relevant when it comes to science.
Enthusiasm translates into passion, and passion is addictive — it’s contagious. Research has shown that “mood contagion” is often the reason why we believe an idea or why we choose to follow a particular leader. It might also be the reason we become interested in something in the first place. For science, it might just be the missing link between engaging with academically- savvy “sciencephiles” and successfully attracting a more passively-interested public.
My advice to scientists and science communicators? Next time you’re presenting in front of a crowd, be sure to show your passion. Adjust your tone so that people know how excited you are about science. Remember what makes you excited about it. Make what can appear to be a “boring” talk into a life-changing experience. Repeat the phrase: “isn’t this amazing?!” because chances are that, with enough vivacity injected into scientific findings, people will agree with you.
Bernardo on Twitter: @BernardoTraver2
Bernardo on LinkedIn
Written by Aven Frey. Republished from Sightline Institute with permission.
Esteemed climate communicator Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is back on the lecture circuit with a new talk, which I was lucky enough to catch at the University of Washington in mid-May. Dr. Hayhoe’s life and credentials make her uniquely suited to bridge divides and speak from the heart about climate science: She’s a Canadian expat in Texas, an atmospheric scientist and political scientist at Texas Tech, and an Evangelical Christian. She’s produced a trove of stellar science and messaging resources. We’ve shared her climate communication tips before, and her message hasn’t changed: Climate change is real. It’s us. It’s bad. And there are all kinds of solutions.
But conversations about climate aren’t always so simple.
Increasing numbers of Americans, liberal and conservative, say they are worried about climate change, but too many (including plenty of the people in charge, elected or otherwise) are in different stages of complacency or compartmentalization—or denial. Dr. Hayhoe says the best thing we can do is talk about climate change more with people we know—and in personal terms. She reminds us to start with values, not facts. Piling on more facts and data doesn’t work and can even backfire. Why?
“Because when it comes to climate change,” she wrote recently in Science, ”science-y sounding objections are a mere smokescreen to hide the real reasons, which have much more to do with identity and ideology than data and facts.”
When people feel that the policy solutions challenge their fundamental beliefs (government regulations, taxes, or restrictions on consumption), it’s easier to find a way to reject the science. In fact, the best predictor of whether a person acknowledges the reality of human-caused global warming is their political identity, not their scientific knowledge.
Partisanship compounds other barriers. For some, there’s a sense that “only a certain kind of person” cares about climate change. Numbers are growing, but many Americans aren’t aware of the scientific consensus about man-made climate change (a powerful “gateway belief” that could move the needle on other climate attitudes.) For others, feeling there’s nothing we can do about it can lead to apathy or paralysis. This
number is growing too, but most Americans don’t think climate impacts will affect them personally.
So, where to begin? According to Dr. Hayhoe, one of the most powerful things we as individuals can do to fight climate change is simple--talk to people about climate change. The truth is that most Americans rarely discuss global warming themselves and a majority say they hear little about it in the media.
Dr. Hayhoe challenges all of us to have more climate conversations. Here’s her three-part formula for relevant, constructive, and hopeful climate talk.
First, says Dr. Hayhoe, find common ground. In other words, start by finding values, concerns, and experiences you share (not with a barrage of facts and figures).
“As uncomfortable as this is for a scientist in today’s world,” Dr. Hayhoe writes, “the most effective thing I’ve done is to let people know that I am a Christian. Why? Because it’s essential to connect the impacts of a changing climate directly to what’s already meaningful in one’s life, and for many people, faith is central to who they are.”
Religious or not, she reminds us that “nearly every human on the planet already has the values they need to care about climate change.” She suggests finding genuine ways to connect with others—bonding over a shared love of gardening or health concerns or a shared interest in national security. Building trust helps breaks down walls built up by partisanship.
Find personal, relevant ways to show why climate matters. Dr. Hayhoe suggests connecting heart to head: talk about how climate change matters to the people and places we care about. Help people see how the science relates to your shared everyday experiences. It’s not about polar bears and ice caps—it’s about us, right here at home. Talk about local climate impacts and what they’ve meant for real people.
For example, Dr. Hayhoe knows her Texan neighbors are acutely aware of the devastating impacts of drought on their state, and since climate change is making droughts more severe, she links the science to their existing concerns. You could talk about health problems exacerbated by heat or pollution. Or maybe you both like the same Northwest brews—climate change affects beer, too!
Demonstrate how real-life climate solutions are working. If we only talk about the daunting challenge of climate change or the difficult impacts without offering hopeful solutions, Dr. Hayhoe warns, then people’s natural defense mechanism is to disassociate from the reality of the problem. To change minds and bring people aboard, we can’t forget this third step: inspiring with practical, viable, and attractive solutions. People get excited about technology and efficiency. In fact, seven out of 10 Americans support prioritizing renewable energy like wind and solar, over oil, coal, and natural gas, according to an April 2018 Gallup poll. But most of us don’t necessarily know about solutions working for people and communities in our neighborhood or our state. When you’re talking about solutions, your conversation isn’t about science anymore, but about working together to solve this problem in ways that resonate with the shared values you’ve established.
For example, Dr. Hayhoe capitalizes on Texas state pride, and gets people’s attention by pointing out that the state is already a leader in wind energy production (and if you don’t believe they take pride in this, check out the title of the linked article), and boasting that three of the nation’s top ten cities for solar power potential are in Texas. Dr. Hayhoe knows people in her neighborhood not only admire her efficient plug-in electric car once they know how much money she saves on gas, but love the idea of taking advantage of Texas’ vast wealth of renewable energy potential to save Texas families money on energy bills and taxes, and to create local jobs, and help to ease the devastating droughts made longer and more severe by a changing climate.
These three steps make for easier, more powerful climate conversations. And Dr. Hayhoe challenges us all to go out and have those conversations! When you’re ready to try it out for yourself, here’s our cheat sheet:
Mixing Unconference Model elements into SCIENCE TALK '19
Science Talk wants to be responsive to the needs and interests of our conference attendees. So, this year, we are trying out a new conference organization idea. We hope that the change will address the programming concerns that we and the attendees have voiced and allow everyone to go home feeling satisfied and inspired.
For the past two years, responses to attendee surveys for the very large part have been positive, suggesting people who come to the conference enjoy the programming. However, not all presenters or program sessions have hit the mark as far as content and style. There are a few reasons for this.
First, programming at the annual SCIENCE TALK conference has (so far) been determined by a small group of experienced and connected organizers. This has been fine historically, but it means the programming itself is also limited by the organizers’ network of connections and their ideas. Moving into the future the conference will need new people and new ideas to remain vibrant and valuable.
Which leads to point number two: Science communications is a broad banner that includes many specializations, AND many people at various points in their careers. How does one small conference accommodate everyone?
The answer is by building a community.
Therefore, this year we are changing things up and need our community’s help to create an inclusive event where everyone can be involved and feel enabled for success.
Our new model is a conference-unconference hybrid. It is similar to a traditional conference in that the Programming Committee will continue to organize the overall conference schedule, coordinate details, and invite Keynote speakers. However, like an unconference, the specific programming (the who and the what) is initially up to the people who will come to the conference. This puts the attendee at the center of the conference - you decide what sessions best serve your needs, and together we will create a dynamic program.
Here’s how it will work:
Who is involved:
We are making this change in the hopes that by opening up the program to proposals from the community new ideas (the best ideas) and people will surface, and keep the conference fresh and exciting to as many as possible. We hope this allows our community to develop and grow in a vibrant and inclusive way that benefits the entire science communications field.
There will be questions. As they come in, we will answer them as best we can and create an FAQ as a resource to everyone.
A research-biologist-turned-science-communicator forays into explaining complex ideas with an unfamiliar medium: video
Each idea, no matter how well-crafted, is best received when tailored to a narrow, specific audience. All the complicated jargon is great—for those that understand it... But, everyone else WILL glaze over and think about a chocolatey snack, the song stuck in their head, or their to-do list.
I tackled the topic “What is Climate?” for an audience of 11-year-old students for the annual Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science Flame Challenge. Hundreds of scientists participate by submitting their written, video, or graphical answer to the question. Schools across the world receive entries and judge them for what they think are the best answers. Finalists visit New York City to be part of the World Science Festival and meet the M.A.S.H. actor and supporter of science communication--Alan Alda.
Having entered the written challenge in the past (What is Sound and What is Energy) I wanted to try something new: a video. Click here to watch along as I talk about my process.
Where to start?
What would an 11-year-old want to see? What can they relate to? What do they already know? And most importantly, what will hold their interest?
Luckily for me, the topic “what is climate?” was announced right before I was about to embark on a journey to the arctic north of Sweden. I knew I wanted to use visuals the kids will likely not have seen before—Arctic snow. But how could I anchor that to climate in a way they can understand?
My friend, who completed her doctoral work studying Arctic and Antarctic ecology, taught me lots about my upcoming travel destination. What stuck with me was that Arctic trees are smaller, better suited for the harsh conditions. I thought how different Arctic trees are from the California Giant Sequoias…and thus I had a storyline. My anchor was literally rooted in the ground!
I wanted to capture the stark differences between the Californian and Swedish climates. I figured the imagery would suit kids as well as adults. However, vaguely talking about climate with cool video was not enough.
After an overhaul, I sent out a new version. This time my feedback was more in-depth. People were a little lost with what I was saying about weather being part of climate. Some also suggested I condense the content, not repeat certain parts as much, and add music.
So, I went back to the editing software, Lightworks, a free program anyone can use to create videos.
Venn diagrams are a great tool for kids to compare topics. I drew more seasons and circles to delineate my more complex topics.
I wanted to include more than just drawings; I have many captivating items around my house, why not use them! “Spring” features a mixture glass flowers, a real flower encased in plastic, and artistic butterfly magnets. “Winter” has a snow man I made when I was 9—thanks ma for randomly sending me that throwback photo earlier in the year!
Once I had the concept down, I first included the trees from earlier in the video, then expanded to the new seasons and their different weather conditions. This introduced the topic that I would use later in the video to show the culmination of years. Again, I was pulling on classroom teaching techniques of introducing an idea before explaining it so when the topic is more fully explained, the viewer already has some familiarity with it.
Fun Fact: Each year in the climate change section of the video was a year I moved from one city to another—ending with the year I was born. This also matches the statement that climate could have changed in my lifetime. The idea stemmed from trying to start with years the kids could remember in their lifetimes (2018, 2015, & 2014 – a.k.a. ages 11, 8, & 7), and then space the years further apart, including the year they were likely born (2006).
Finally, I cannot emphasize what a difference the music made! Music can be downloaded and used for free from YouTube, or FreeMusicArchive.org. To help the music changes match my video, I used Adobe Audition, though free sound editing software like Audacity work, too.
While creating the video, I knew I wanted people to watch it more than once. I wanted them to learn things the second time they may have missed. I wanted them to focus on the imagery one time, my words another time, and the drawings in yet another viewing.
I figured, if I could keep viewers entertained, I could teach them something new. It’s gotten the attention of children and adults alike. I tried to keep my energy high and slip in facts without viewers having to think about it. In the first version, my main message was “weather and climate are different”. But I also needed to keep the attention of the more advanced 11-year olds. For those who wanted to dig deeper, I hinted at even more factors of climate—like listing the atmospheric gases that play a role in climate change. I went back over some of my key points and left with a little humor, walking my pet tree.
Hopefully I taught the kids something new. I know I learned about climate myself from making the video. I also learned about how to create videos in general; it was my first attempt at a project like this. Checking my main audience was key…as well as fact-checking!
Now, it is up to the students to decide. I encourage you to watch videos about science communication on the Alan Alda Science Communication website to learn about targeting an audience, not using jargon, and keeping the beginning and ending exciting.
The Chronicle of Higher Education, a publication focused on college and university faculty members and administrators, just featured Science Talk! The Chronicle reaches over 215,000 readers and has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Read the article here, called "As Scientists Speak Out About Science, Women and Young Scholars Lead the Way".
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