A city model for producing effective science communicators

Lab Note #13
Apr 28, 2015

Science communication is critical for outreach and engagement.

Many research institutions include outreach and engagement as part of their mission. In addition, the National Science Foundation requires all proposals to include statements of 'Broader Impacts'. "The statement on broader impacts should describe the potential of the proposed activity to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes" http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/policydocs/pappguide/nsf13... "NSF values the advancement of scientific knowledge and activities that contribute to the achievement of societally relevant outcomes."

Graduate students are typically not trained to communicate their technical research to broad audiences. Scientific research is full of jargon which is necessary for communicating to other scientists but too technical for lay audiences. Recognizing jargon in your field is key to effectively communicating. The word "pathology" is even too specific for most of the public to recognize, thus, I have learned to describe my interests as 'studying forests diseases' instead. In general, if you can't avoid using jargon, I recommend defining it early on in the conversation.

Science communicators often advocate for creating and practicing 'your elevator pitch'— a challenge to communicate the scope of your research to someone outside your field within the time it takes to ride an elevator a few floors. Crowdfunding compels you to practice your elevator pitch hundreds of times.

Below is a list of activities and opportunities that can provide science communication training or practice. Most of the examples I provide are from Oregon State University (OSU) because I recently completed my MS there and participated in, or helped organize, many of them.

JMH's List of Activities for Developing Science Communicators in Every College Town.

1) University coursework—OSU has had a couple graduate courses designed to help students improve at communicating (Z599: Making your Science Matter & TOX 507: Communicating Science and Risk).

2) Open to the public science symposiums—The Western Forestry Graduate Research Symposium at OSU is a two day series of presentations open to the public. In 2014, the theme was: 'Branching Out: Communicating Forest Research Beyond Academics'. This year the theme is: 'From the Ground Up: Making your Research Matter' and the conference is this upcoming Thursday and Friday (April 30, May 1). Another example is the unconference: Beaver Barcamp, which is a fun and interactive conference open to the public.

3) Casual conferences— The OSU Biology Graduate Student Symposium is a symposium that is basically only attended by graduate students. These sort of symposiums are great for improving public speaking confidence.

4) Inspiration Dissemination—OSU has a unique radio program that features graduate students to share their research over the air. Inspiration Dissemination is an example of a program that can be established at any university or any radio station.

5) Three minute thesis talks—OSU and many other universities offer a contest for graduate students to compete at giving the best 3-minute public presentation that summarizes their research projects. For more information check out OSU's Scholars' Insights

6) TEDx programs—This year several PNW schools have hosted a TEDx event that invites locals to share ideas with the public similarly to TED talks. This is a great opportunity for faculty and students to practice communicating to a broad audience.

7) Farmers Market Tabling—Farmers markets provide great opportunity for engaging the public. I think it would be great to see more student groups tabling with a sign that said "Come talk to us about plant disease" or something similar.

8) Workshops—Workshops should be a given. Apparently OSU's media services offers a workshop for faculty about communicating with the media (I couldn't find a link). Another example is an upcoming event at University of Oregon featuring Alan Alda.

9) Science Communicator Groups—OSU has a group of science communicators that meet monthly for discussions and presentations about scicomm. I spoke at the last meeting about crowd funding. Here is a link to their blog: http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/sciencecommunicators/

10) Science centered community events— Corvallis has an annual (or used to) event called Da Vinci Days that features OSU scientists to give public talks. Also, I think it would be neat to organize an event in conjunction with the farmers market that invited all of the graduate student groups to table and have interactive activities for children and families.

11) Science PUBS!—Science pubs offer a great casual setting for presenting to the public. Currently OMSI and Terra Magazine team up to organize monthly talks in Corvallis. I think there needs to be a Graduate Student Science Pub that features presentations from graduate students.

If you live in a city that doesn't have some of the opportunities listed above, I encourage you to organize them!

Have more ideas? Please comment below!

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