How does the public perceive scientists? If Tweets with the following hashtags are any indication, public perceptions may not match our reality.
Our communication as scientists/chemists/educators with the general public can help to challenge these misperceptions in a positive way. The article “Encouraging the Art of Communicating Science to Non-experts with Don’t Be Such a Scientist” (available to JCE subscribers) in the May 2018 issue of the Journal of Chemical Education discusses St. Angelo’s integration of science communication in a college’s senior-level seminar.
The seminar combined chemistry content about nanomaterials with its focus on communicating with the public. Along with learning about nanomaterials and their applications, they analyzed real life examples of communicating nanoscience, such as advertisements, company Web sites, and television episodes. For their final project, students delivered an “expert level presentation” on their nanomaterial topic, but also created an outreach presentation on it geared toward communicating with non-scientists. The resulting outreach presentations included videos, a mini-lecture with movie clips, and a dramatic reading.
St. Angelo used the book Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style by Randy Olson as part of the seminar. Olson was a marine biologist, who then moved into filmmaking career, along with training in an acting program. He argues that approaches typically used by scientists to communicate with other scientists are less effective with the general public. He recommends reaching beyond the typical “head” approach by “connecting through the ‘heart’ with emotion or through the ‘gut’ with humor or through ‘lower organs’ with sex appeal” to help engage and appeal to a wider audience. Student presentations used one or more areas—the beauty of nano for heart, humor for gut, and flirtation for the lower organs, while still addressing the science content for the head.
Within the recommendation for using different areas, I dislike a portion of the quote from Olson shared in the article, “The object is to move the process down out of our head, into your heart with sincerity, into your gut with humor, and, ideally, if you are sexy enough, into your lower organs with sex appeal” [my emphasis added]. St. Angelo does temper this when she comments, “Accessing sex appeal may not be desirable, appropriate, or comfortable for every topic, audience, or presenter.” This is particularly true for high school and younger audiences. I also feel that attempts at humor can often feel forced or contrived and fall flat with an audience.
Although the author used the book at the college level, she suggests other situations where it could be useful. Chemistry clubs or other science outreach groups were two audiences that might be connected with the high school level. She suggests a unit on communication to the general public ranging from a week to an entire semester, which is what is described in the article. It could even be for a shorter commitment. In a high school classroom, one could touch on the subject through a current event related to chemistry, by analyzing an article/Tweet/image/video in terms of its chemistry content along with the way it is communicated.
Although I do not plan to read the book, my personal take-away is neatly encompassed by the base of the abstract figure. The Nano-Girl character stands on what can be viewed as a slider bar that one can manipulate further to the substance side or the style side, or to achieve a reasonable balance. It’s a good, simple reminder that my science-related communication does involve both and that I need to be aware of how I have chosen to balance the two.
Figure 1 – Reprinted with permission from Encouraging the Art of Communicating Science to Non-experts with Don’t Be Such a Scientist, St. Angelo. Journal of Chemical Education, 95 (5), pp 804 - 809. Copyright 2018 American Chemical Society.
The article presents one resource for talking to chemistry students about communicating science to the general public. Whether you use this resource or not, in a nutshell: “Learning the skills to communicate science to all ages and backgrounds through various media is necessary to continue engaging the public in science-based concepts that are integral to everyday life and to correct misconceptions about modern day scientists and their work.”
More from the May 2018 Issue
Mary Saecker’s post JCE 95.05 May 2018 Issue Highlights brings the monthly round up of the latest collection of articles from JCE. It’s a great overview to help you hone in on what you’d like to read first.
What have you used from JCE lately? Please share! Start by submitting a contribution form, explaining you’d like to contribute to the Especially JCE column. Then, put your thoughts together in a blog post. Questions? Contact us using the ChemEd X contact form