Making the Windy City a Little More Windy

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The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is a hodgepodge of talks, presentations and workshops from across the scientific spectrum. In recent years, the theme of science communication has featured prominently throughout the meeting. This year’s version, held last month in a frigid Chicago, continued that trend.

AAAS 2014

The meeting kicked off with the annual International Public Science Events Conference (IPSEC), attended by outreach and public science professionals from across the globe. With an overall theme of incorporating science into popular culture, IPSEC 2014 featured several sessions focused on strategies for going beyond standard outreach activities to reach non-traditional audiences. A wonderful example was presented by Mark SubbaRao from the Adler Planetarium, who worked to have astronomy images displayed in various public spaces around the greater Chicago region, including in subway trains, at O’Hare airport, and even in local penitentiaries (he is still awaiting feedback from the Blues Brothers). Examples of other novel outreach approaches abounded, from the collaborative Discover, Explore and Enjoy Physics and Engineering (DEEP) program at Texas A&M University to the hipster gathering that is Nerd Nite.

Once the AAAS meeting began in full, an entire session track dedicated to communication fit alongside scientific themes like Physics and Astronomy. One of the more notable sessions, sponsored by COMPASS, featured a wide range of stakeholders discussing different approaches to incorporate science communication into student training programs, continuing the discussion that was begun at the initial #GradSciComm meeting held last December. Officials from both the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and National Science Foundation outlined actions being taken by the federal government, such as novel funding opportunities and prescriptive programmatic recommendations, while university-based speakers Karen Klomparens (Michigan State University Graduate School) and Rachel Mitchell (University of Washington- ENGAGE) talked about their experiences with science communication training programs at their individual institutions.

A crowd favorite was a session, hosted by the Center for Communicating Science at SUNY-Stonybrook, focusing on the use of improvisation tools to facilitate communication. An overflow crowd of more than 100 attendees swarmed into the session room to take part in various exercises, such as silently working with a partner to carry an invisible sheet of glass around the room (without breaking it!), that demonstrated the critical non-verbal aspects of communication.

For science communicators (at least of a certain age), the unquestioned highlight of the meeting was Alan Alda giving his plenary lecture “Getting Beyond a Blind Date with Science” to a packed room of meeting attendees. Alda spoke of the need for scientists to engage with the general public, describing his (often-times frustrating) interactions with scientists while hosting Scientific American Frontiers, as well as his personal classroom experiences that served as inspiration for the creation of the Flame Challenge.

The theme of public interaction extended beyond the session rooms, with several different public science events taking place that gave meeting attendees a chance to put their communication skills to use through science-based interactions with people from the local community.

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Chicago families crowd the American Society for Plant Biology booth during Family Science Days at AAAS 2014

Children and parents crowded into Family Science Day to learn about meiosis using poker chips, use a 3D printer to make miniature self-models, and help generate indoor tornadoes. Other public facing communication events included a science café on dark matter, hosted at the Adler Planetarium, and a live filming of StoryCollider, a science podcast/storytelling platform.

As science communication becomes ever more integrated as part of the scientific process, these types of activities and sessions will feature regularly at scientific meetings and conferences. ASBMB will feature its own platter of events at the 2014 Experimental Biology meeting next month, including a science communication workshop and a public science cafe (check out our full lineup under the “Public Policy and Science Outreach” header: http://www.asbmb.org/Meetings_01/2014mtg/2014AnnlMtgProgInfo.aspx). So the next time you go to a meeting, try to see what you can do to communicate your science without using a poster board or PowerPoint presentation. You might be amazed at what is out there.

Tomorrow Never Knows

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It was fifty years ago this week that Beatlemania broke here in America. The confluence of factors that combined to propel the Beatles from unknowns to pop culture icons may seem light years away from having anything to do with science; yet developments within the scientific community show some surprisingly odd parallels.

Alberts MBOC

Image credit: Garland Science

The Beatles were great communicators, using their intrinsic musical talent and skill to make an intense connection with the public. However, even they required some refining in order to go from the repetitive (though undoubtedly catchy) “Love Me Do” to the intricate wonders of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Similarly, most scientists could benefit from refinement of their communication abilities, in order to become maximally effective at communicating with the public. In her column in the February issue of ASBMB Today, Meena Selvakumar talks about how Portal to the Public, a training program founded by the Pacific Science Center, works to prepare scientists to engage with audiences at informal science education institutions. Project staff lead traveling workshops that bring their communications expertise directly to local communities, working to make scientists into well-rounded communication experts.

As The Beatles expanded their songwriting craft, they came up with increasingly creative outlets for broadcasting their music, such as films, concept albums, even playing a concert on a London rooftop. Science outreach activities are becoming just as ingenious. As an example, the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington D.C. is currently showcasing two exhibits that highlight laboratory science in unique ways. The first, described by Sapeck Agrawal in her recent article (also in the February issue of ASBMB Today), is the Q?rius exhibit, which showcases microscopes and their power to illuminate science at the sub-micron level. The exhibit excels in particular at bringing the museum’s specimen collection to life, allowing visitors to pluck up samples and take a deeper look under a microscope.

Image courtesy: National Human Genome Research Institute and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Image courtesy: National Human Genome Research Institute and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Upstairs from the Q?rius exhibit is “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code”, which opened in 2013 to highlight the anniversary of the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. In the exhibit, visitors can learn about the pros and cons of genetic testing and investigate details about the human genome. There are even live scientists, draped in standard-issue lab coats, fielding questions from visitors, and theater pieces that dramatize the scientific events that lead to the decoding of the genomre.

So while scientists are likely not vying to be bigger than Jesus, could embracing this musically-inspired approach to science communication possibly help inspire a similar bout of hysteria about science (Sciencemania anyone)? As The Fab Four might have put it had they been scientists: “The knowledge you take is equal to the knowledge you make.”

Use Your Words

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By Shaila Kotadia (@shpostrapheaila)

Imagine stepping onto the turf at CenturyLink Field, home of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, engulfed by the loudest crowd in the history of sports, and trying to get them to cheer for their arch-rival, the San Francisco 49ers. That was essentially the situation in which science personality Bill Nye found himself earlier this week, when he ventured into the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY for a debate on evolution with Museum president Ken Ham. Beyond the ramifications for evolutionary biology, the debate presented a fascinating example of an effort to communicate science to a non-expert audience.

Many within the scientific community criticized Nye for even participating in the first place, pointing out that he is not an expert on evolution, and that by agreeing to debate Ham he was justifying the position of creationists. Nye, however, relished the debate as an opportunity to communicate about science, pointing out that he hoped to “draw attention to the importance of science education here in the United States.” His performance serves as an insightful guide for how those interested in science communication can perform under the most difficult of circumstances.

Given that the event featured back-and-forth statements without interjections, it was difficult for each participant to react to opposing viewpoints. However, Nye gave a master class in how to keep cool in the face of hostility: rather than reacting negatively, he listened to what the other side had to say and responded in a level-headed manner with confidence and facts that reinforced his position. Nye also made good use of his delivery, throwing in colloquialisms and jokes, and using intonations that engaged the audience. This kept the tone of the debate relaxed and friendly, removing the aggression that sometimes overshadows intellectual components.

Furthermore, Nye was able to use examples from his own life to make his presentation more relatable. Both scientists and non-scientists have loved ones who have been diagnosed with cancer or heart disease or diabetes; making a personal connection is an effective approach to softening the nature of the audience, helping to persuade them to be more objective and eliminating unrecognized biases.

In the end, Nye both won and lost the debate. While his points were made with fervor, he tried to fit a lot of science into minimal time, likely making it difficult for the average viewer to really digest all of the facts. When explaining complex scientific concepts, it is best to keep it simple and to the point, and then fill in details as questions arise. Nye also faced a difficult opponent who refuted his arguments with a “if you can’t see it, then you can’t believe it” attitude and constantly referred back to the Bible when asked questions about unsolved scientific problems. Given such stubbornness, scientists need to recognize when there is difficulty reasoning with the other side, and do their best to lay out their story clearly and concisely.

But from an outreach perspective, Bill Nye was a clear winner. Whether or not creationists were converted to evolutionists or vice-versa is immaterial. Scientists are often told that they must communicate their science to the public. Refusing to engage with different audiences leads to confusion, mis-information and distrust, all of which make our jobs as scientists even more difficult. Take the opportunity to learn from Bill Nye about how you can use your words to help others understand the beauty of science.  If more scientists stood up to promote and defend science, then this debate might not have even been necessary in the first place.

National Academies host sci-com workshops

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Science outreach relies on effective communication. On that point, there is widespread agreement. Unfortunately, there is otherwise little consensus on how to best make scientists effective communicators: What is the best model for science communication training? How is “effective” defined? Are scientists even that bad at communicating?

To try and bring some focus this debate, the National Academies of Science in Washington D.C. recently brought science communication experts and thought leaders together for two separate workshops focused on science communication training.

As part of their Public Interfaces of Life Sciences roundtable, the National Academies of Science hosted a workshop titled “Sustainable Infrastructures for Life Science Communication.” Speakers, panelists and audience members discussed existing platforms and programs for science communication that serve as part of the broader scientific infrastructure. Some of the highlighted speakers included Nalini Nadkarni and May R. Berenbaum, both previous winners of the AAAS Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology, as well as Sonny Ramaswamy from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture program. The discussion also featured insight from social scientist researchers, who presented research showing the professional impacts of science communication efforts. Sadly, a snowstorm caused the second day of the workshop to be cancelled, denying participants the chance to gain insight from funding organizations.

IMG_0238Taking a different approach, a second workshop, titled #GradSciComm, focused on identifying and (hopefully) rectifying deficiencies in existing training efforts. Hosted by COMPASS, the workshop grew out of a desire to address the unmet need for science communication training for graduate students, recognizing how this deficiency impacted professional development and career options for STEM trainees. Participants worked to map out potential pathways to help identify science communication core competencies and integrate them into STEM graduate student training, coming up with approaches to overcome significant obstacles like lack of institutional support and poorly defined evaluation metrics.

So after three full days of discussion and deliberation (with one more to come), what were the take-aways? One major outcome from the workshops was the chance for key stakeholders to finally put their heads together and collaborate on collective efforts, rather than continuing to toil in isolation. The discussions and debates that took place will springboard efforts to bring awareness to individual programs, helping to establish a national network that will help to legitimize and standardize science communication training through both bottom-up, grass-roots and institutionalized, top-down approaches.

Participants were also able to tease out several common themes related to the specifics of communicating that came up repeatedly during the workshops. These included: messaging, framing, delivery and context/understanding of the audience. More work is needed to distill these themes into specific criteria that can be used when designing, operating and evaluating current and future training programs.

Finally, the mere existence of these types of workshops demonstrates the growing attention that is being paid to the issue of science communication. The more opportunities that scientists have for practicing and training, the more willing they will be to participate in outreach activities in their local communities. ASBMB is part of that effort: in 2014, we will be launching a comprehensive science communication training program that will help imbue our members with the skills necessary to become expert communicators. We will also be hosting a science communication-themed workshop at EB2014. Stay tuned!

 

MORE INFORMATION

Sustainable Infrastructures for Life Science Communication workshop:

COMPASS #GradSciComm: