The ABCs of Science Communication

Science teachers are science communicators. We all know that. We strive to make difficult concepts easy to understand everyday. If one method of getting the message across doesn’t work, we find a different way to reach our students, our audience. We have the freedom, and indeed, the imperative, to do this and the challenge of making difficult concepts understandable; seeing the “I get it!” look on students’ faces is very rewarding.

I have been a university biology educator for 26 years. Sensing that my science enthusiasm could not be constrained merely to the courses I taught on campus, I jumped into the world of science blogging, onto YouTube, and ultimately onto all manner of social media. While some may call me a science writer or communicator, I prefer to retain the title of science educator because I see my time in the online world as an extension of my role as an educator, helping others learn about science while simultaneously stirring an interest in it. As a teacher, you, too may find yourself interested in the field of science communication as well.

#scicommABC

Science communication is a broad and many-faceted field. This #scicommABC list highlights some of the terminology used in science communication, the methods by which we reach our audiences, the people who explain science, and places you can engage even more.

ABSTRACT (n)—It’s the summary and first portion of a scientific paper. If you want to communicate science, you must be familiar with how science works, including how scientists share their findings. Need a refresher course? Check out this article, How to (seriously) Read a Scientific Paper.

BLOG, SCIENCE—There are several types of science blogs, according to this article in WIRED. Analyzers share new information that they have been working on. Explainers help clarify concepts and interpret the science. Linkers share information from one or more other sites. Reviewers analyze books, videos or research papers, and the short blogger shares quick bits of science via social media. Check out the book Science Blogging: The Essential Guide for more information if you want to take the leap to becoming a science blogger.

CLICHES—These spell trouble for every writer, but science communication has their own set of overused clichés. For instance, “the war on cancer”, “shedding light”, “the silver bullet”, “the missing link” (hello, biologists!), “we will have to rewrite the textbook” are just a few that we should banish to a black hole.

DENIERS—These are the folks actively working against science and are the most challenging subset that communicators and teachers try to reach. They are not convinced by current scientific thinking on vaccines, global change, GMOS, evolution and even the shape of planet Earth. How should one best communicate to deniers? Science says the best way is NOT to merely share facts. Intrigued? Learn more here.

EMPATHY – Alan Alda, actor and founder of the Alda Kavli Center for Science Communication, has a new book out called, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? An overarching theme in the book is to increase your empathy in order to help make us all (but especially scientists) better communicators. If we understand where the other person is coming from, we improve our ability to communicate with them.

FEEDBACK—As with learning any new skill, feedback from those in the know will be valuable. Seek out others with experience who can help you and don’t only read messages from the trolls. Science Communication Needs and Best Practices

GLOBAL REACH—With the Internet, your science communication message can reach all parts of the globe. Succeeding there is definitely about knowing your audience. Learn more at Four Steps to Going Global on Social Media.

HUMOR—Some of the best science communicators can make us laugh. When it comes to wit, I think of neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky. His communication style is delightful. If you haven’t read his books or watched his videos, give them a try. Another very funny guy is The Science Comedian. There are also sites that make scientific research seem more lighthearted, such as LOL My Thesis and Overly Honest Methods.

INFRINGEMENT, copyright—Many photos and articles on the Internet have been shared without proper attribution. Don’t perpetuate the cycle. Always provide proper attribution on photos, and give credit where credit is due. One of the best explanations of this is from insect photographer Alex Wild. Read it here.

JARGON—Every profession has it’s own language, and this is very true for science. Sometimes scientists in differing fields cannot understand the jargon of other fields, though they share a common knowledge of the traits of good science observation and experimentation. A communicator can cut through the jargon and explain complex terms more simply.

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE—Who do you want to reach with your science information? Knowing this will help structure appropriate language to target your audience. How you explain science to a teenager will be different than with a motivated, educated adult and you need to know which one you most want to reach. Learn more at Audience and Purpose at Scitable.

LIVESTREAMING—Google Hangouts on Air, Facebook Live, and Periscope are the newest ways to share demonstrations, interviews, or whatever science related activity you are currently doing. Additionally, sites like NASA are always sharing information on their livestream page. Have you had the chance to use these tools to share science? Learn more about creating a great livestream.

MOVIES—Have you seen Arrival, which highlights the science of linguistics? Did you watch Hidden Figures about the women computers at NASA? What about Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks? How about Thor, where Natalie Portman plays a fictional astrophysicist? Movies with science elements are great ways to begin a conversation about science—whether they get the science wrong or right.

NUMBERS (measure)—As with education, how do we know we are having an impact unless we have numbers? Once you start sharing science, keep track of your metrics. It will help you know whom you are reaching and understand how your audience interacts with your material.

OPEN SCIENCE—The open science movement is motivated by the belief that science resources, including research sharing and educational resources should be made freely available. Most scientific journals require a subscription to access scientific information but many scientists believe science should be free, hence the increase in open source science journals.

PODCASTS—These are like radio programs that can be downloaded to a device to listen when you have time. There are many great science-themed ones out there including Fast Forward, RadioLab, and Science for the People and MANY more. What are some of your favorites?

QUESTIONS—Stephen Strogatz, one of the great mathematics communicators made me think about questions in his essay Writing about Math for the Perplexed and Traumatized “Explaining math well requires empathy. The explainer needs to recognize that there’s another person on the receiving end of the explanation. But in our culture of mathematics, an all-too-common approach is to state the assumptions, state the theorems, prove the theorems, and stop. Any questions? What makes this approach so ineffective is that it answers questions the student hasn’t thought to ask.”

So, we need to know where our audience is in their understanding, and start where we believe they are and answer THOSE questions. Good teachers and communicators do this very well.

RESEARCHERS—Let’s not assume ALL scientists are terrible communicators. Many are jaw-droppingly eloquent when relaying their work to the general public. One researcher’s work I recommend highly is Hope Jahren’s book Lab Girl. Others I recommend are those of doctor and researcher Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, Emperor of All Maladies or The Gene.

SOCIAL MEDIA—By now, none of this is new to anyone. Social media is an excellent way to share science in small or big bites. Images on Instagram and Pinterest, microblogging on twitter, longer story sharing on facebook, tumblr and Google Plus have extended the reach for those who aren’t formally trained science writers and journalists. You can learn more at Three Secrets to Social Media for Science Communication

TELEVISION—TV is still a popular venue for communicating science. From Mr. Wizard, Jacques Cousteau, National Geographic Specials on PBS to Bill Nye, Beakman’s Lab, Discovery Channel, MythBusters, and the old and new Cosmos Series, there is much to be learned from well produced science TV shows. Do you have a favorite?

UNDERREPRESENTATION—as with the field of science, the field of science communication suffers from underrepresentation of women and people of color, but not if you know where to look. Actively seek out those who break the old conventions and follow people like Ainissa Ramirez or Danielle Lee. Or, join their ranks and be the inspiration for future generations. Seeing someone like yourself doing science is a powerful motivator for young people.

VISUALS—The Internet is the perfect place to use visual elements to share science. Images tell a story, and some amazing infographics can be found everywhere. Check out Information is Beautiful for some striking examples of infographics.

WRITING—Producing or consuming great science writing is a way to stay engaged with science, either within or outside of your field of expertise. Books are one of my favorite ways to learn something new or merely to see how someone describes my field in a different way. Of course, one can also read newspapers (though few have science writing staff anymore), magazines and online articles as well.

XTRA SPECIAL CELEBRITY COMMUNICATORS include David Attenborough, Bill Nye, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. We love our “go to” communicators because they are inspiring and able to turn a good science phrase. However, did you know there are many scientists and other communicators out there whose voices should be heard? An initiative tagged #scicommswarm is a Google Doc that is collecting those voices to share with communicators and journalists.

YOUTUBE—Gone are the days where good visual science explanations were only done by BBC and PBS. Now we have SciShow, VSauce, Brainscoop, Periodic Videos, Bozeman Science, Physics Girl, Global Weirding, and so much more. Which ones do you use in the classroom?

ZIMMER—Z is a tough spot to fill, but luckily we have one of the most talented biology writers and communicators who rightly deserves a spot here. I do hope you are reading Carl Zimmer’s work (NYT, STATnews) any chance you get.

Joanne Manaster

It would have been impossible to cover every aspect of scicomm here. Do you have different ideas about what should have been shared about science communication in this cursory list? For instance, replacing SOCIAL MEDIA with STORYTELLING would be as appropriate. Speak up on twitter with #scicommABC. I’d love to hear your ideas!

Joanne Manaster is a science educator, the host of Read Science!, biology lecturer, and a STEM advocate. Find her on Twitter @sciencegoddess.


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6 Comments

  1. Rick
    Posted June 26, 2017 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for such an intriguing article.It has really opened our eyes as science educators to new avenues for learning

  2. Rick Krustchinsky
    Posted June 26, 2017 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for such a fine article. It was awe inspiring.

  3. John Sorrell
    Posted July 1, 2017 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    This was a great creative list of resources. For “L” I would have gone with “literature,” either of the scientific variety and how we can enhance our students understanding of it, or popular literature that can bring science to a wide audience.

  4. Patrick Horgan
    Posted July 1, 2017 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    You didn’t really cover my most frequent annoyance about science communication. It is in a situation where the science has yet to be discovered, we don’t know what we are talking about, but we have shorthand words to talk about that lack of understanding. A glorious example of this are the terms dark energy and dark mass. These mean that our observations don’t agree with Einstein’s equations but we don’t know why. We can postulate invisible mass and undetectable energy or imagine that our theory is wrong, but we don’t know if it is those, or another thing that isn’t even on our RADAR. Scientists in the field understand this shorthand, but often in Science for the Masses the terms are spoken of as if they were actual known things to an audience that won’t know not to take the writer or vlogger at face value.
    So the takeaway is that we have to be careful when communicating that when we share science, we aren’t misleading. It’s part of the Scientific Method that you don’t state as fact things that aren’t known to be fact. Thanks:)

  5. Wendy
    Posted July 7, 2017 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Great articl!. I teach middle school science and every science educator should at least skim this article. Science needs to be in everyday discussion with your neighbors, your kids, colleagues, etc. A “hey did you see…” can start a conversation. Being a total geek about phenomenon and sharing the joy of learning something or finally understanding something is catching.

  6. Adam Black
    Posted October 21, 2017 at 1:57 am | Permalink

    Interesting read thanks!

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