20 December 2010
A constant drumbeat to effectively communicate science to the public
Posted by mohi
One of the constant drumbeats I heard during this year’s AGU Fall Meeting is that scientists need to do a better job communicating to the public.
The message came from multiple sources: the AGU Council meeting last Sunday, Monday’s Union lecture presented by Obama’s science advisor John Holdren (members can read a summary in this week’s Eos issue), Michael Oppenheimer’s Stephen Schneider lecture, the many of the natural hazards presentations including Julia Slingo’s Union lecture, book authors, public speakers, senate staffers.
The advice was near-universal: Scientists have an obligation to communicate science clearly and effectively to the public.
No, it’s not easy. Yes, there are potential pitfalls. But the public needs to have a better understanding of science.
This echoes one of the major thrusts of the new AGU strategic plan–continued outreach. You can help shape AGU’s outreach goals by filling out a survey on how AGU should communicate science to the public.
And you can ask yourself: How would I explain my science to my neighbors or my grandparents or my kid’s classmates so that their eyes don’t glass over, so that they become excited about future possibilities? Any tips? Success stories?
–Barbara T. Richman, Editor in Chief, Eos
How can you make observing the Sun educational, interactive, fun and entertaining?
We at the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) have taken an out-of-the-box approach in our social media approach.
SDO (known in Social Media circles as Little SDO) was launched in February 2010 is now sending back 1.5 TB of data each day; the most amazing solar images/videos and Little SDO has given us already a better understanding of the Sun and Space Weather.
Little SDO (on Twitter and Facebook) is a spacecraft with personality. “Nothing new!” you might say. Mars Phoenix was the first rover with a personality. But at the same time Little SDO was already updating the social media world about the SDO mission and became the 2nd NASA mission with a personality. Little SDO not only enjoys observing the Sun, but pretty much everything that flies (from NASA LRO, Hubble, to the aircrafts down here on Earth). And he also explains about other space missions and how the Sun / Space Weather can impact them.
But that’s not all… while Little SDO is in its geosync orbit taking better than HD resolution images of the Sun, his BFF (Best Friend Forever) Camilla Corona SDO is down here on Earth helping with Education and Public Outreach. Granted, Camilla is a rubber chicken but she has as much personality as Little SDO. She communicates with Little SDO through social media and in the progress educates our friends and followers about the Sun, Space Weather and other space missions. In fact, it is her goal to visit Little SDO in Space and so she trains almost like a real astronaut. Camilla goes and visits NASA centers, meets NASA employees, teams and departments and introduces their functions. Camilla Corona SDO is a big supporter of STEM and empowers girls to get into science. That’s why you can find her at many space/science events too. And as part of her training she gets to meet Astronauts and asks them questions.
So what is our success story? Little SDO and Camilla Corona have a story line, they are interactive with each other and all of their friends. They have personalities, they educate, ask questions and respond to questions. In the process they educate not only about NASA SDO, but other space exploration mission, introduce people and jobs, and make it fun to follow.
See for yourself:
Making it relatable to every day life will help someone understand why a topic or finding is important to everyone. Attaching it in some way to the things we do or use each day will help make science more attainable and demystify it.
A minor success story:
I recently spoke to 80 second graders at a local elementary school. I was intimidated by the challenge of communicating to such young kids since most of my experience has been with middle- and high-school students. So I decided to focus on an activity that would engage them – each group of 40 students lined up and create a timeline of Earth history, with each child representing about 115 million years of Earth history. I handed out pictures of major events to kids who were standing at the right ‘time’. The last student was holding the extinction of the dinosaurs, the rise and fall of mastodons, as well as the evolution of humans and all of human civilization. Seeing this last student holding pictures of so many things the kids thought of as being “really old”, and then seeing the other 39 students in their timeline really drove home to them how old the Earth is. Concrete visualizations and activities work with students of all ages.
Talking to K-12 students can be intimidating, but it can be very rewarding and have a big impact too. One of the girls in the class, upon hearing that a paleontologist was visiting their school, and that she would be there on Friday, said to her teacher: “She?! She’s a GIRL!?!”.
Whenever I try to explain something scientific to my friends/family/etc who are not science or geology-inclined, I try to gauge how much they understand as I talk: I usually start with the simplest explanation and break it down into elementary parts, and this seems to work to get the point across. If they have more background about the subject, then I include more detail, but just enough to keep them engaged, but not overwhelmed with little details (I’m passionate and excited about all the details, which is why I’m a geologist, but I recognize that not everyone else is interested in all of this too). I also try to explain it in such a way that gets them to think and want to ask questions.
I guess this method works for me. I’m still a young scientist though, and getting used to my teaching/explaining style. I’ve seen that this works so far with one-on-one. Don’t really have enough experience yet to know how we can better educate the public as a whole.