This is first of multiple blog posts I hope to do regarding the discussions at Science Online 13. There are more detailed methods I want to get into but I am using this as a primer for the discussion.
A lot of the sessions at Science Online revolved around the theme of how to communicate science effectively, when to use personal narrative, how to get citizens involved in science and how to get people passionate about science like you are passionate about science. I was interested in all of these because I am a high school science teacher and making difficult scientific concepts understandable is my job.
As I listened to the scientists talk at the various sessions I learned quite a bit about the struggles they were going through. First I want to say, I hear you. There is nothing worse than having to listen to something you love so much get diluted and simplified. It is probably like a five star chef having his meal reduced to a bland entree where all the subtle flavors and ingredients are removed. But sometimes we need to realize the people we are talking to, the people who are eating that meal, have not acquired the taste for it and want the meal they enjoy as opposed to the meal they need to learn to enjoy.
At one point I was doing research on Komodo dragon behavior at the National Zoo. I loved speaking in the complex jargon of reptile behavior because I was speaking with others that understood it and we could better convey our thoughts. This is a necessity in scientist to scientist communication, nothing can be left open for interpretation. However when my mom asked me about the research and what I was doing I had to radically change the style and tone to effectively communicate with her. This is a phenomenon called “code switching” and it is most prevalent in interracial or intercultural communication. It is now something scientists need to learn to do.
None of my friends are really that into reptiles, and none of them really care about how many tongue flicks or claw rakes we recorded that day. Believe me, I wanted them to, I desperately wanted them to ask me and genuinely care about my answer. I mean this was a study to see if Komodo dragons exhibited play behavior, something that is on the more interesting spectrum of the reptile research scale. I experienced this daily while conducting the study with two other scientists at the National Zoo.
There is an unexplainable phenomenon in the zoo world, people will pass by an exhibit with an incredibly unique animal in it with barely a glance, but put a human in there, even with just a squeegee cleaning glass and the next thing you know there is a crowd watching intently to see what the human will do next. Now imagine this, in front of the dragon cage at the reptile house at the National Zoo you have two scientists in chairs roped off so people can’t get too close, then a third is in the cage interacting with a dragon. This is the five alarm fire of the zoo world. People desperately trying to see what is going on, literally rubbernecking a scientific experiment. Invariably someone would always ask, “So what are you guys doing?” and I would go into the detailed explanation of the experiment , because they were there and they asked and I presumed they really wanted to know. Plus I loved Komodo dragons and wanted everyone to love them like I did. It was here I discovered the different degrees of “wanting to know”. But I found that the majority of the time I was diluting this impressive animal to an understandable set of basic behaviors because the complexity was lost on the general public and they didn’t care about the specific jargon I was using, they wanted the simple grilled cheese version of the answer, not the five course meal with various sauces and reductions.
Believe me, this sucks. I often couldn’t figure out why everyone didn’t love Komodo dragons as much as I loved them. But 11 years ago I made a conscious decision to change that. I left research to become a high school science teacher because for me it was about getting the awareness out to young people and to champion for an underappreciated group of animals.
So after a decade in a classroom and many, many, many mistakes I feel I have found a decent balance as a science communicator. I admit I have an unfair advantage, I have real time metrics in front of me on a daily basis. I get to utilize various forms of explanations and see how they are received by my audience. I get to see what works and what doesn’t and then refine them two or three more times that day until I have them perfected. Not only that but my audience often replies back with brutal and blunt honesty, high school students will let you know if you are coming across in a condescending manner. A lot of people, and myself included , are unaware that their methods of explanation often have a condescending tone to them. It is not purposeful, but sometimes unavoidable when the person is in the position of explainer. It takes a while to pick up on your own cues and attempt to avoid them.
If you really wanted to get offended, try discussing something you passionately love and put a lot of work into what you think is a great lesson only to be met with yawns, blank stares, glances at the clock, and snoring. It takes a lot of strength to not take it personal, even when it is.
I also get quantitative and qualitative data in the form of papers, tests, quizzes, labs, etc. that tell me just how effective I was at communicating the subject matter. I can look through years of teaching and find my weak subject areas and focus on improving them.
So where does this all fit? Well the one thing a teacher has to know before they begin a lesson is “what is my end goal? What do I want to achieve with my communication? Do I want to explain? Do I want to educate? Do I want to inform? Do I want to infect? Do I want to extrapolate?” All these come with much different methods of communicating.
In science education I can’t avoid the jargon, but I need to know when to drop it into play. If I throw complex words right out from the get go and say “memorize the words” then I lost them, but if I come up with a great analogy or metaphor that the students can relate to and then slide the word in there I have them hooked. I need to sell them on cell division before I introduce mitosis. I need to make them feel like they were asking me if there was a specific word for what I was describing instead of telling them the word and describing what it means.
A subtle trick I use to hook my students is to discuss the material a few different ways and on one of the attempts pretend I am searching for the right word and let them fill in the blank for me. This makes them feel like they are contributing to the explanation process and lets me know they are getting it. I know this is not helpful in science writing, but it is helpful when discussing science with non science people.
My end goal with my students is to get them interested in science. At this point as juniors in high school it is not important to me that they understand every detail of biology, but that they have an interest in understanding it. Because if they have an interest, they will be open to learning the more complex material that will help them better understand what they are interested in. I have seen this with freshman students taking conceptual physics that are literally begging their teacher to learn trigonometry so they can better understand this cool stuff they are witnessing. Yes, begging to learn trigonometry. Why? Because they were hooked by the simple grilled cheese sandwich and wanted to see if they could make it tastier not realizing they were developing a complex meal.
This is why the first thing I do in Chemistry is drop a gummy bear into molten potassium chlorate. Hook the students with a dazzling example and make them want to learn more.
I truly believe that the role of the scientist is changing. With the advent of blogging, twitter, and social media scientists are becoming accessible to the general public, and we want to be accessible because we love our science and want people to love it as much as we do. But we need to realize if they did love it as much as us we would be talking to a fellow scientist, not a layperson.
This is why I felt the need to go up to Carl Zimmer at the conference and thank him. Often times when I couldn’t figure out how to effectively do my job, he would do it for me. I have never seen a group of inner city high school science students stay so focused on the life cycle of a blood fluke than when he was talking about them on RadioLab. Whether the information was 100% correct was irrelevant because it led to a discussion that led to questions, that led to researching, that led to understanding. Now they know more about parasites than most people. If I said to them “We are gong to learn about the following parasites…..” and went on to explain each one I would have lost them. But using Carl and Radiolab I had them asking to learn more. And this, this is what science communication is all about. Generating enough interest to lead to understanding.