U. of Washington Course: Science Students Learning ‘to Tell Stories’

Seattle Times reports on science students in ‘Communicating Science’ class: How to avoid other peoples’ eyes from ‘rolling to the back of their head.’

It’s not “hard news” by anyone’s definition, but a recent story by veteran science writer Sandi Doughton in the Seattle Times should be must-reading for climate scientists and climate communicators.

The headline for that March 23, 2013, article: “Science students learn to tell stories.”

Doughton reported on a “Communicating Science to the Public Effectively” course, founded by University of Washington graduate students.

A goal of the course? “Teach young scientists how to share their passions for cosmology, chemistry, or evolutionary biology without putting people to sleep.”

Public outreach ‘integral’ to scientists’s jobs

Doughton characterized the course — “one of several springing up across the country” — as being “fueled by a new generation of researchers who see public outreach as integral to their jobs.” She listed climate change, energy policy, resource conservation, and medical ethics as examples of today’s science-based “pressing issues.”

She quoted an on-campus science communicator as saying “There’s a strong sense that we are not adequately preparing graduate students to face the professional world they are going to be joining …. Scientific leadership and solid communications skills are intrinsically linked.”

At the same time, Doughton wrote that such courses “remain rare,” and she reported that one masters student in the UW course “signed up out of frustration.”

“I got tired of people’s eyes rolling to the back of their head when I tried to explain what I did,” the aquatic and fisheries science masters student told her. Doughton wrote that a student studying the physics of stellar evolution found people excited to hear he is an astronomer… but those same people “can quickly get lost in details about wavelengths, luminescence, and computer modeling.”

Caution: Avoid Public as ‘Empty Vessel’ Attitude

Doughton’s article also reports a science writing teacher, Deborah Illman, offering a word of caution to scientists: “A mistake many scientists make is to view the public as empty vessels, waiting to be filled with the knowledge that will inspire them to line up behind the same agendas as scientists,” Doughton wrote in paraphrasing Illman. And that’s the case even if it’s only to support funding for scientific research.

In reality, “people make decisions based on many factors, including emotions and values. Scientists who approach public outreach with a strident agenda can turn people off,” Doughton wrote.

She also reported a student instructor’s commitment that the UW course “focuses more on conveying the students’ excitement about science than pushing a point of view.”

Now… if only there were more courses for science students taking a similar approach.

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3 Responses to U. of Washington Course: Science Students Learning ‘to Tell Stories’

  1. Liz Neeley says:

    I am the unnamed on-campus science communicator. (Hi!)

    Couldn’t agree more with the conclusion that we need more courses and opportunities like this for grad students. This is the impetus for an NSF-funded project to explore how to systemically increase communication competency among STEM graduate students. We’re building a database of existing courses and trainings, and I’d love to hear about your experiences – I’m @LizNeeley on Twitter and LizNeeley@COMPASSonline.org

    We’ll be blogging about the project next week, so more soon to come.

  2. Charles Mac Arthur says:

    I am 85 this coming month, born before the Great Depression. In the mid-1930′s my two brother an I as kids got to sleep out on the screened porch of our home in rural Dansville, New York.
    Every night the sky was clear and full-of-the- moonless we saw a band of light across the sky, the Milky Way. Commonly.
    Now over 70 years later the Milky Way is very rare, faint and hardly ever appearing.
    Something has happened to muffle the sky.
    I am having a “political”campaign button made, the “blue marble” image of the earth, over which will be cast the skull and crossbones we used to see on bottles warning of poison, and on the forehead of the skull, if you will pardon my non-scientific presumption, thr letters “co2″