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Tools for Translating Science
12/27/2010 | Carrie Armbrecht, University of Maine (Ocean Systems)
Tags: graduate students

This post was collaboratively authored by Artur Palacz, Carrie Armbrecht and Ashley Young. They are oceanography graduate students in the School of Marine Science at the University of Maine.

Albert Einstein once said, “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” As graduate students, we receive ample training in how to do research. Yet effectively sharing our results and the passion of science with others is the most exciting and challenging thing. In absence of formal instruction, we sought to bring in an expert to guide us in communicating our science not only to colleagues but to students in the classroom and the general public.

On October 29, Jeffrey St. John, director of the University of Maine Center for Excellence in Teaching & Assessment, gave a COSEE-OS sponsored talk to the School of Marine Sciences graduate students about Talking Science: Communicating Effectively with Students and the Public. Most of us have heard some generic do’s and don’ts about communicating science effectively, but judging from the large crowd that attended, we yearn for more ways to answer the question, “so, what do you do?” (or, maybe it was just the free pizza that was offered). Either way, we were treated to a passionate talk that left us inspired to get out there and start talking about our projects! Here are a few of our thoughts on what we got out of the talk and how we can apply it to our own work.

Carrie: The suggestion I liked is the reminder that there are aspects of our work beyond the results, which most audiences will find exciting. The story of how we got into our research and accounts of the current intellectual debates in the field will help bring our research alive. The next time someone asks me what I am studying, it will be fun to start by explaining a challenge in my field that really captivates me: I study climate change, which can be hard to communicate about because of its complex science. Adding to this challenge is the public’s diverse range of views (alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, and dismissive) on the subject. I’m intrigued by the challenge of effectively communicating with an audience whose beliefs on climate change can be so mixed.

Artur: I remember that seeing examples and simple analogies used to work magic for me when learning about so many abstract concepts in science. Jeff reminded me that I need to use the same approach when I teach. The next time I give a lecture about tides I will ask the students to imagine they are sitting on an edge of a gigantic circular bath tub spinning the water and watching the wave slosh around the tub, just as high and low tides do inside an ocean basin!

Ashley: What I found eye-opening about the talk was something that I have never heard another speaker, professor, or educator specifically state before – that learning and applying the terminology in a field IS learning about the field. If we don’t have the words to describe an idea or topic, we can’t possibly fully understand it. When talking about our research, we shouldn’t tell people the vocabulary in our field isn’t important to understand. If we explain terms in a way that is both appealing yet accurate, we are not only conveying the vocabulary needed to understand new ideas but in fact are teaching about our field. Thinking about my own research project measuring the mechanical properties of diatom chains, I came up with a list of terms from common words to those most people probably have never heard of.

Ocean. Photosynthesis. Algae. Diatoms. Electron microscopy. Centric. Girdle band. Marginal ridge. Lithodesmium undulatum. Flexural stiffness. Young’s modulus. Bending moment.

Learning about my project is akin to learning about what these words mean. Where does your knowledge stop?

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