Can you name a scientist? If your response was no, you are not alone. Eighty one percent of Americans cannot name a living scientist, according to a 2017 poll that was conducted by Research America. As scientists, it is our responsibility to reach out to the public and talk to people about what we do, why it is important, and how it connects to their lives. We are not trained to make those connections and do public outreach, but luckily there are increasingly more opportunities to learn.
We are graduate students and members of Science in Action, a science communication and policy advocacy group at Colorado State University. Our goal is to encourage other scientists on campus to learn about and practice sharing their science. With financial support from the Union of Concerned Scientists, we were able to take advantage of unique opportunities to do just that.
Acting for science: using improv techniques to communicate
Scientists are trained to methodically approach problems and rigorously analyze solutions, but not taught how to communicate the findings. We may be doing vitally important work that benefits humanity, but what if we cannot communicate its importance to the public?
Actors, on the other hand, are expert storytellers. They use specific techniques to connect with their audience—techniques that scientists can and should learn to use.
To help aspiring scientists learn these tricks of the trade, we partnered with the Union of Concerned Scientists to host a science communication workshop. Sarah Zwick-Tapley, a local theater director and science communication consultant, introduced us to the “actor’s toolkit,” a set of physical and vocal techniques for audience engagement.
These tips were simple enough (land eye contact, change the tone, volume, and speed of your voice) but incorporating them all together while also describing the importance of your science? That is a challenge.
Another critical piece of the storytelling approach is using the “And, But, Therefore” sequence. We practiced this technique with an outlandish example. First, you start with what we know (“we know cancer is a deadly disease AND that it has many causes”). Next, you build suspense with what we have yet to discover (“BUT, we don’t know whether eating old books causes cancer”). Then, you finish with your contribution (“THEREFORE, I am eating Shakespeare’s entire body of work to see if I develop cancer”). Using this technique turns a simple list of facts into a powerful story.
The next step: put our new acting skills into action.
Why science matters for Colorado
Colorado is home to multiple national laboratories and major research universities.
Researchers at these organizations do important science and bring the best and brightest minds to the state. To help share these discoveries with our state legislators, we joined Project Bridge, from the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus, for a poster day at the capitol. Speaking with non-scientists can be a challenge, but we used our new acting tools to tell a story, both in our poster design and our presentation.
We also took this opportunity to meet one-on-one with our state representatives. Because they represent a college town, they recognize the value of research for our city, state, and country. We were encouraged to hear that they regularly rely on experts at CSU for advice on pending legislation. This is science policy in action.
Communicating for the future
As a scientist, you may recognize that communicating science is important, but are unsure how to learn these skills. Luckily, there are numerous organizations across the country that are dedicated to training scientists to communicate clearly and effectively. Many scientific organizations (the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Society for Cell Biology, among others) hold science communication and science policy trainings and provide small grants for local groups. COMPASS is an international organization that hosts trainings and provides one-on-one coaching for aspiring science communicators. Many universities have also started in-house communication trainings and programs (Stony Brook University is home to the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science).
These resources illustrate the fact that there are people and organizations dedicated to providing scientists with the tools they need to share their science with everyone.
Rod Lammers and Michael Somers are graduate students at Colorado State University. They are both officers in Science in Action, a science communication and policy group. Science in Action is a student-led organization at Colorado State University started in 2016 to engage campus scientists and provide opportunities for outreach to the public and policymakers. More information can be found on the organization’s website and Facebook page.
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