Science Communication Training: Meeting the Growing Demand

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John Durant, MIT Museum director, shares his views on science communication at Metcalf’s SciComm Exchange at the University of Rhode Island in December, 2016.

Metcalf Institute has been actively working to meet the growing demand for science communication training over the past several years. This fall has been especially busy with three programs dedicated to making scientists more effective communicators. In October, researchers studying microscopic life beneath the ocean seafloor participated in a Metcalf science communication workshop at the annual meeting of the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI) in Marina, California, thanks to a grant from C-DEBI. Participants learned how to engage audiences, develop compelling messages about their research, and use video for scientific storytelling.

“The workshop gave me a sense of purpose about my efforts toward science communication, helping me think about how best to reach audiences, what I want them to know, and fun, innovative ways I can use to communicate the intricacies of research,” said a participant in an anonymous exit survey.

In November, Metcalf held a series of science communication sessions at the 2016 Materials Research Society Fall Meeting in Boston. One professional development session provided participants with a suite of strategies for becoming more effective ambassadors for their research. Another session provided tips on creating compelling posters that attract the attention of passersby at scientific conferences, including advice on poster layout, storytelling, and typography.

As part of Metcalf’s ongoing collaboration with the Rhode Island NSF Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, an internationally recognized expert in science communication was the featured speaker at Metcalf’s SciComm Exchange, December 2, at the University of Rhode Island. John Durant, director of the MIT Museum and adjunct professor in MIT’s Science Technology, and Society Program, shared his views on science communication research and practice with a full house of graduate students, faculty, research, and communication staff from Rhode Island. Durant highlighted the value of using science communication to engage audiences in conversation as dialogue rather than monologue.

Durant explained that the older “deficit model” of science communication practice doesn’t work because it assumes that “if we could just get the public to know more, everything would be okay.” A more effective model of communication, Durant noted, is to engage the public in a more interactive way leading to mutual understanding.

During the question and answer portion of the program, Durant encouraged participants to find “everyday language” to describe what they do and avoid complex terms that create unnecessary barriers.

“The first requirement of anyone who wants to be a good communicator is caring that the people can understand what you’re saying [outside the context of a lab or classroom],” said Durant. He also advised the group to be open about the limitations of their expertise. “Acknowledging what we don’t know is really important in science communication,” he said.

According to the program exit survey, SciComm Exchange participants left with a greater interest in practicing science communication and a desire to expand related skills.

“I thought this was an excellent way to improve my science communication skills by getting other people’s perspectives on what has worked for them in communicating with members of the public,” said Stefan Bengtson, a graduate student in the URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences Environmental Science and Management program. “Most of science [research] is publicly funded, so getting people to understand where their tax dollars are going is often a very useful way to get people to buy in to what I’m doing.”