Sharing science: teaching and learning about communication

Many years ago, I became a college professor. My job was to help introductory students learn about the basic principles of biology–the stuff you need to know to build on in higher-level classes, or apply toward asking and answering new scientific questions. To be honest, I had to relearn some basic biology myself. It had been many years since I’d thought about the key steps of photosynthesis, or important equations used in studying animal populations. And, I was frustrated with something most science teachers struggle with: how to balance all that detail–some of which even I had forgotten–with the clarity and inspiration of the big picture. How can we capture and retain the curiosity and wonder that leads people to study science while helping them prepare for how they will use their science education later in life?

I watched a lot of science shows on TV while growing up. We had fewer channels back then, and my local Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) filled many of my days with science and nature programming, such as “NOVA” and “Nature.” These shows engaged my senses, my imagination, and my curiosity. I had taken for granted the apparent ease with which these shows combined information with images, personalities, and narrative to tell an interesting story. But as a new educator, I sometimes struggled with my own presentations while teaching science and remembered the power of these TV shows to tell a story in compelling ways. One year early in my teaching career, I decided to try to liven up a unit about the basics of genetics for a class of students who weren’t science majors. I discovered an episode of a TV series I had seen only sporadically while entrenched in my own college education and formal science training: “Scientific American Frontiers.” Each show contained several interrelated vignettes about a particular science topic, featuring interviews and vicarious hands-on participation by a seemingly unlikely host: actor Alan Alda, famous to most people then for the comedic role he played on the long-running TV series “M*A*S*H.”  I shared with my students some of the interviews he conducted with scientists engaged in genetics research. I hoped that by seeing other actual scientists and hearing about these topics filtered through the folksy, sometimes confused charm of a TV personality, the students might feel more inspired by the stories of new research to gain fresh motivation for tackling challenging information in class.

The involvement of Alan Alda with this show has fascinated me for years, and I’ve continued to follow his career since then. I recall having seen maybe a couple of brief interviews or articles during the time the show aired (1990–2005), in which Alda discussed his own peripheral interest in science and what his goals were on the show. (Here’s a link for one video interview in 2009.) Patiently teasing out explanations from working scientists–moving past the jargon and the data to humanize the story–was for him the key to make science come to life, and it made for a successful series of television science.

In recent years, Alda has embarked on a new project: applying his training in acting and his experience on “Frontiers” to help develop strategies for better communication by scientists. How might working scientists, physicians, and others with highly technical trades learn skills to be better communicators with their clients, public officials, and the public–all without an interviewer pulling them along? The current manifestation of this effort is the Alda-Kavli Learning Center and the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. Through workshops, classes, and online resources, the staff are on a mission to help scientists more clearly describe their work so others will understand it, support it, and be inspired by a new generation of knowledge. Another ongoing effort from this group is The Flame Challenge, which asks scientists each year to join a competition where they must describe a selected science concept in just a few hundred words–and the judges are classes of 11-year-olds. (I entered this year’s challenge: “What is Energy?” Alas, I didn’t win.) Due at least in part to Alda’s high-profile public persona and these types of projects, as well as highly visible “science ambassadors” such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, the idea of science communication (or “SciComm”) has become a hot topic in recent years, with a growing interest among scientists, communications experts, journalists, students, and others seeking to demystify scientific work and bring science to the public in accessible ways.

Alda published a book this summer: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? (My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating). In it, he talks about his own experiences with fuzzy communication with doctors and other specialists in his life and his work with “Frontiers,” among other examples. His recent efforts have focused on helping introduce scientists to acting techniques such as listening, improv, empathy, and emotion to increase their clarity and humanize the work they do as scientists. The idea is catching on: some universities and individuals now offer communication workshops or courses for scientists, physicians, and students. And online, social media users, bloggers (such as me!), YouTubers, and podcast hosts have been creating new work and discussing how best to ride the “#scicomm” wave and maybe make some waves of their own.

Curiosity rover

The Mars rover “Curiosity”–the perfect name for a robot helping us make new discoveries far from home and inspiring human curiosity here on Earth. Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS 

Meanwhile, I’m still an educator, and I still work on improving how I guide college students through the science and the science stories. I’m also teaching students some skills of their own to describe science in different ways to different audiences. And time marches on, so the next generation of scientists doesn’t have a single TV channel devoted to educational programming like children did a generation or two ago. How are kids getting the spark of curiosity about science (or art, or music, or other worthy topics, for that matter)? SciCommers want to reach kids, too, in 21st-century ways: YouTube channels, after-school programs, outreach events, books, interactive websites, museums…the sky seems to be the limit! Building curiosity about the people and stories of science–both to engage a new generation of scientists, but also to inform everyone so they can make decisions about their health, the safety of their communities, and scientific policy–has never been a bigger challenge, or a bigger opportunity. So don’t touch that dial…stay tuned. There’s more to come!



5 thoughts on “Sharing science: teaching and learning about communication

  1. Pingback: Discovering Dr. Sacks in his final essays | Mulled Science

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  5. Pingback: SciComm Takes Center Stage | Mulled Science

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