Learning how to communicate science

By Sara Warix ('18)

SACRAMENTO – When students think about science education, it normally occurs in a formal setting with lectures and tests. In contrast, the Science Café movement pulls education out of the classroom, makes it informal, and seeks to share science with the public. Science cafés also put a huge emphasis on making learning about science, non-intimidating, interactive, and fun.

To help us develop the skills necessary to start our own Science Café, Jessica Robinson (’16), Dr. Burmeister, and I recently were invited to attend a Science Communication Seminar in Sacramento. The workshop was co-sponsored by the Powerhouse Science Center the Worlds of Wonder Science Museum and was designed to teach us some strategies for effectively communicating complex science to the general public. The workshop was an all-day event and involved a wide range of students and professionals from local universities, government agencies, and non-profit organizations.

We learned that one of the most significant roadblocks to effective communication is making sure you are working at an appropriate level. The general public has a sixth-grade level understanding of science, so it is very important to use vocabulary that avoids unnecessary technical terms. We also learned that it is good to create a schema that your audience can use to “hang ideas” upon. Schemas are most effectively integrated into presentations by giving the audience an overview of the topics to be discussed and by using examples or processes or relationships they can relate to. By starting simply and gauging the knowledge of an audience, one can effectively tailor the complexity of a presentation to the needs of the crowd.

We also learned that another way to make science communication more effective is to include interactive activities wherever possible. For many people, memorable learning experiences include an engaging activity that was fun, inspired curiosity, social, and hands-on. Including a simple activity can make something that is abstract and technical easier to understand and memorable. Analogies can be also used to make science more relevant and relatable. A good analogy frames how someone views a particular aspect of science. One of the most important aspects of communicating science is to speak about a topic that you are passionate about. If you’re not engaged in a topic, it can quickly become dull to an audience. Passion captivates the audience and encourages people to want to learn and understand science.

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