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Live from the Field: AAAS 2018 Communicating Science Seminar

Posted by
Kevin Crowley
March 23, 2018

The Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) has scheduled the 2019 NSF Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program Principal Investigators’ meeting to directly precede the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in DC next year. The PI meeting will take place February 11-13 and AAAS commences their meeting with what will be the seventh annual Communicating Science Seminar on February 14. As part of beginning a dialogue between the two overlapping communities, CAISE dispatched Co-PI and learning researcher Kevin Crowley to report on the gathering of researchers and science communication professionals at the 2018 AAAS meeting in Austin, Texas.

Here in Austin, more than 400 people gathered for an all-day seminar focused on science communication. The session was pitched at beginner or intermediate level science communicators. A series of PowerPoint presentations focused on engaging audiences who might not like or be interested in STEM, shaping messages about scientific data, and creating conditions for science communication to thrive. The organizers built in lots of time for the audience to ask questions and offer comments and there was an active twitter feed as well. To view videos of the panel sessions, visit the AAAS website PES page.

I’m an informal learning guy, so I’ve studied how all sorts of people learn STEM in all sorts of out-of-school settings. I dropped into this session looking for connections between the fields of science communication (SciComm) and informal STEM education (ISE). What could ISE field learn from SciComm? Should we be talking more? What would happen if we worked together?

If you’re an ISE person, the first thing you notice about a SciComm meeting is who is in the room: mostly university types, including faculty, grad students, postdocs, and outreach staff. One of the central themes of the day was that public engagement and science communication should become a fundamental part of a scientist’s mission. Nalini Nadkarni gave a talk focused on the skills needed by effective science communicators. Nadkarni envisions an army of scientist-communicators who know how to form personal connections with the public and engage in deep, one-to-one contact. She did the math, showing a slide that divided the U.S. population by the number of working scientists: The entire nation would be engaged if each scientist reached out to just 52 different people! Nadkarni founded STEM Ambassadors, an NSF-funded program that provides training for researchers in how to make these kinds of connections with audiences who may not already be interested in, or receptive to, science. She pointed out that if you are going to go out into the community talking about science, it helps if you know what will make your work relevant to the community. Mónica Feliú-Mójer described how culturally-relevant science communication training and support programs in Puerto Rico were helping to tailor science outreach so that it addresses the interests of youth, and activates them to get involved with STEM.

I was struck by the messages that most of the presenters wanted to communicate -  mostly about current science and often about their own research. If scientists take up Nadkarni's evangelical challenge, they will be getting involved in personally crafting messages that resonate with their audiences, i.e. adopting an “artisanal” model.  A full one-third of the seminar consisted of advice for DIY communicators on how to create relatable and interesting science stories. Karen Akerlof and Michael Webber both emphasized the importance of narrative. Akerlof pointed out that good stories are set in specific times and places, are constructed from a series of chronological events, are linked by cause and effects, illustrate moral points, and are populated with relatable archetypes (heroes and villains, e.g.). Science itself is about data and theory. It’s often hard to tell science stories as narratives and, when told badly, there is a risk of losing the message amidst the noise of politics or personal belief. Webber found that in his experience, people (especially policy makers) often respond better to personal stories and anecdotes than long expositions of data. The lesson is to think about your data as a character in your story, not the whole point of your story. Joe Hanson, a science writer, and YouTube star put a button on it: “Your data is like your pet. You love it. Most people don’t care about it and don’t want to hear about it.”

Ten years ago, if you dropped in on a session like this AAAS, you might have heard a lot more talk about how we need to motivate scientists to get involved in communication. The field has evolved. If the hundreds of people in the room were any indication, lots of scientists are in. Particularly the early career ones. The problem now is how universities and the science establishment can support them as they do science communication on top of their day jobs as researchers. One solution is to create common outreach and communication infrastructures, so that scientists don’t have to do it all on their own. Susan Renoe introduced attendees to the University of Missouri’s Connector, a group of full-time science communication professionals that scientists can call on for training, help in initiating community partnerships, evaluation tools, and more. She also described her work with the National Alliance for Broader Impacts—an organization for science communication professionals who develop similar infrastructure to support, in NSF parlance, the broader impacts of scientific research.

One of my big takeaways from the seminar is that, while infrastructure can lighten the load for the individual scientist, that’s not enough. If communication is a nice but not necessary pursuit if it can threaten tenure and promotion, and if it is seen as taking away time that could be spent on producing another article or getting another grant, it will fail to thrive. Patty Debenham and Jessica Helman called for broad changes in the culture of science and the academy. Drawing on her experience running a climate science center at the University of Minnesota, Helman provided six suggestions for making science relevant to the public and nudging academia towards “fulfilling its duty to the common good”:

  1. Take responsibility for solutions, not just diagnosing problems.

  2. Put people in the center. Science is not about the physical world, it’s about people and their values.

  3. Embrace, rather than fear, public scrutiny. Engage public throughout the research process, not just to tell them stories about what you found.

  4. Move faster. Stakeholders want solutions in time to make decisions.

  5. Provide training, and don’t forget training for senior academics who, even if they won’t get involved in communication themselves, are the gatekeepers and cultural guardians of the field.

  6. Build boundary organizations within the academy. Make it easier for best and brightest researchers to get outside the university and involved with the community.

UCLA’s Jean Ryoo advocated for this kind of culture change through long-term partnerships between science, informal education, and community. Her presentation focused on ways that learners develop an early interest in STEM. Her work addresses equity, and she argued that STEM education has often served dominant power structures rather than the best interests of youth. In response, she explores engagement that empowers learners and helps them see how STEM connects to everyday lives. She also wants to broaden the definition of what it means to do STEM. She spoke about making and tinkering, providing examples of youth following their interests, building community, and exploring the use of tools and materials to engineer new technology (e.g., a prototype jackets that zips itself up when it detects cold). Key points from her work include: scientists need to learn about communities they are trying to reach; be open to reframing what you mean by “science”; go beyond deficit views to recognize that communities already know a lot about what is relevant to them; create lots of ways for people to engage; and be transparent with the community about why we are engaging in the work we do.

Looking back on the session, I had these reflections on some potential opportunities for ISE and SciComm going forward:

  • ISE could learn a lot from SciComm’s informed discussions about how to engage audiences around issues of current, and potentially controversial, science.  

  • Supporting working scientists who get involved in communication is a central concern of SciComm. But the artisanal, do it yourself, model might have some limits. After all, being a scientist is a full-time job. So is being STEM educator or a STEM outreach professional. Should we expect anyone to do all three easily? More focus on partnerships, ecosystems, sustainable arrangements, which ISE has a long history with, might be a catalyst for SciComm innovation.

  • As professional communities, we might be ready to ask new questions – SciComm has worried about how to motivate scientists to get out of the lab, or about shaping messages and providing support. But is it now the time to start asking why we are doing this and what quality looks like? While we have lots of examples of programming, how much do we know about the underlying design principles? Thus, a key missing piece in the presentations and discussions concerns the best ways to go about designing and testing new experiences. In ISE, one hears a lot of talk about a culture of formative evaluation, design-based research, or, more recently, designed-based implementation research and improvement science. All of these approaches share the common assumption that data guides the development of practice and that the outcome of research is design or implementation principles that are grounded in evidence and theory.

Stay tuned to the CAISE newsletter and website for news about synergistic activities between ISE and SciComm.