Alexander’s eureka moment, however, came later: “It hit me that if, in this day and age, her girlfriend has more credibility than I do, then it’s my fault, it’s our fault as scientists collectively, that we never explained it to her.”
Having just spent two hours explaining vaccines to this woman, she was aware that talking science to adults is tricky. “It requires certain skills and practice that most scientists, let alone graduate students, do not necessarily have,” said Alexander, who has more than 40 years of experience as a molecular biologist. She decided that she would teach those skills to the next generation of scientists.
“That’s what is unique about Hannah’s vision,” said King. “She sat down and actually said let’s break this down into nuts and bolts and actually teach the skill set that is necessary to effectively communicate research to the adult public.”
The outcome of Alexander’s vision is Science Outreach: Public Understanding of Science, a graduate-level course designed in collaboration with her now-deceased colleague Sandra Abell. The semester-long course is divided into three parts: The first two occur in the classroom and focus on choosing topics and crafting presentations, and the third includes presentations around the community.
Students construct presentations that emphasize the role of science in everyday life. For example, the presentation “Why is it getting harder to see as I get older?” covers how laser surgery is the result of years of basic research on the physics of lenses and light waves, neuroscience, the anatomy of the eye and so on. Presentations purposefully avoid political, cultural or religious agendas and focus instead on the scientific process.
Deliberately, students choose a topic other than their research. The reason is to put students in the public’s shoes: “They’re learning about a topic for the first time. It forces them to question jargon and use words they might not have thought to use to describe the topic,” Alexander said. Each student is paired with a faculty mentor who is familiar with the topic and willingly provides guidance on the science, talk and presentation.
Students deliver their presentations in class for feedback on their efficacy, interest and impact. These critique sessions are friendly but fierce, providing praise and pointing out weaknesses in clarity, organization and delivery.