1 March 2010

Telling (science) stories

Posted by Michael McFadden

Every day last week at the Ocean Sciences meeting there were talks about education and outreach. And people came, both scientists and science educators. Why? There is a need and desire by scientists to talk about what they do, not just to their colleagues, but to others.

Scientists are using websites, writing blogs, taking photos, shooting video, talking via podcasts—all to bring the ocean (and the tons of data collected) to students, teachers, fishermen, ocean enthusiasts. We are learning that when we talk as we do with our colleagues, we bore people.

We must become storytellers. What does that mean? Instead of relying on giving out information, we have to use emotions, humor, visuals, anything and all to draw people in, hold their attention, and make them learn. Scientists often miss the cool bits that will hook people—a creature no one has seen before, a glider operated by someone thousands of miles away in a spot humans can’t go, drilling through a thousand meters of Antarctic ice to get your instrument where you want it.

Last Wednesday evening, Randy Olson, a research biologist who has evolved into a filmmaker, ran a workshop where we viewed and gently (mostly) critiqued a series of videos made by scientists at the meeting. They were good, especially those which were made by first-time filmmakers. We should all read his recent book Don’t Be Such A Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. Olson lays out in an easy-to-read style what he has learned as he has transformed himself from an academic scientist to a storyteller who uses film as his medium.

The next decade will bring the vastness of the ocean into our homes as NASA has done with Space.  The ocean is essential to life on earth and holds clues to how life began and how it has evolved. The scientists and science educators of the Ocean Observatories along with the Centers for Ocean Science Education Excellence (COSEE) will have to become the storytellers of the oceans.

— Inés Cifuentes, AGU Education Manager