A University of Missouri science-outreach course gives graduate students the skills to present science to the public
For many scientists, outreach means working with the K–12 community or museums. Outreach to the adult public is often neglected, even though we may find ourselves in personal and professional situations where we need to speak to the adult public.
“Adults are generally overlooked in terms of science outreach,” said Gavin King, assistant professor of physics at the University of Missouri. “If you didn’t engage in science as a kid or you’ve gone through life as a nonscientist, then you tend to be ignored by the scientific community as a whole.”
Well, not at the University of Missouri, where a model graduate-level course is giving students the skills, experience and confidence to communicate effectively with the adult public.
|Jennifer Hamel, a doctoral student in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri, explains her research on parent-offspring communication in insects at the Ordway-Swisher Biological Station in Gainsville, Fla. She is using the lessons she learned about presenting research to adult audiences in the Science & Me initiative to explain her own research at different outreach events. Photo courtesy of John P. Hayes.
The course is the brainchild of Hannah Alexander, an adjunct associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri.
Alexander credits the impetus for the course to a conversation she had with a woman who proclaimed that she would refuse to immunize her daughter.
“When I asked her why, the woman said ‘my girlfriend says I don’t need to,’” Alexander recounted. “I recall thinking: There is 150 years of science, and there is her girlfriend, and her girlfriend has more weight than science.”
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.
|Hannah Alexander is an adjunct associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri. For more on Alexander's work see www.scienceandme.org.
Science & Me
At the heart of the course are the presentations for real audiences. The presentations are billed under the banner “Science & Me,” a title that, Alexander said, captures the course’s goal: “to highlight the pivotal and irreplaceable part that science plays in our lives on a daily basis.”
The presentations occur in a variety of public venues, including independent-living facilities and a public library. Surprisingly, identifying venues is not a challenge, according to Alexander. “Groups are elated to have us, particularly the assisted-living facilities.”
The titles of past presentations illustrate the variety and range of topics: “The aging brain: what to remember about memory loss,” “The physics of flushing – how science is improving the most commonly used seat in our house,” “The science behind the sounds of music,” “My family’s genes: Do I have to be a chip off the old block?” and “Critters in my back yard: Why do deer keep eating my flowers?”
Class time after each public presentation is dedicated to debriefing. Students share their experiences, the reception they received, and the range and types of questions asked. “It’s an iterative process,” said Alexander. “Each student gives their presentation several times and refines it for clarity, interest and impact.”
To date, 27 graduate students from nine departments have gone through the course and given 103 presentations. This year the program has been expanded and is being offered at Westminster College in neighboring Fulton, Mo.
Jennifer Hamel is a fifth-year doctoral student in biological sciences at MU. She was among the first cohort of students to take the course with Alexander. The opportunity to give lectures to older audiences drew her to the course, she said.
“I was intrigued. I had done some outreach with children in the past but never with older adults. They are a really different audience and have to be approached in a very different way,” said Hamel.
Hamel’s doctoral research is on parent-offspring communication in insects, but for the course she prepared a presentation on amphibian conservation. Presenting on a topic unrelated to her research was, she said, a great learning experience. “I had to read and think about a field of research that is not so far from my own, but it’s not what I’ve been doing for the past five years. I had to read about it, think about it and then think about how to tell that story with no jargon and no preexisting knowledge.”
The experience also pushed her to be prepared. “When you get a Ph.D. in biology, a member of the community or your family expects you to be an expert in biology and to interpret biology for them. It was a really good preparatory exercise in that way,” said Hamel.
At her first presentation, she got firsthand experience of the challenges of presenting science to the public. During her talk, an audience member became increasingly upset and confrontational, particularly taking issue with her use of data from United Nations-funded projects as evidence that biodiversity was declining. Hamel recalled the experience as uncomfortable but ultimately positive.
“It was my first experience presenting information to the person who really needs to hear it,” she said. “He had strongly held misconceptions about science, scientists, the agenda of scientists, conservation, biodiversity, about all of it. I am actually quite glad it happened when I was still in graduate school.”
Hamel subsequently gave the same presentation at additional venues, including two adult-living facilities, an alumni event, the local library and on a local television show.
For Hamel, the course has better prepared her as a scientist: “I see it as just one more thing in my toolkit: How am I going to speak to the public about this topic that they don’t know anything about? I think that is a really valuable skill set to have as a scientist.”
‘Show Me’ more
In 2010, Alexander initiated a graduate-level certificate of science outreach at the University of Missouri and recruited King, the physicist and a strong advocate for science outreach, to co-chair the program. The purpose of the certificate is straightforward, said Alexander: “to cultivate the sense that public engagement is an ordinary part of the professional life and to recognize students who make efforts to develop in this area.” She said she is confident the program will be a significant asset to future scientists who will be asked to demonstrate the broader impact of their research.
Alexander has co-authored two articles about the Science Outreach: Public Understanding of Science course, one in the Journal of Intergenerational Relationships and one in the Journal of College Science Teaching. Although a successful and productive author of research articles, Alexander has new insights into the difficulties of getting the word out about such programs.
“Many outreach programs do not start as controlled experimentation in science outreach but rather as an initiative by a scientist who believes in talking to the public,” she explained. “As such, they lack formal assessment and evaluation, which are required for scientific publication.”
She has since been encouraging scientific societies and journal editors to consider allotting a small space in their publications in which science-outreach programs can be advertised and shared.
If the recent attacks on federally funded science programs (e.g., the “shrimp on a treadmill” study blasted by AARP) in Congress and in the news are an indication, the need for more science outreach to adults is ever more pressing.
As King said, “It’s no longer taken as a given that science is a good thing. We have to convince the public that what we’re doing is beneficial.”
Melody Kroll (email@example.com) is executive staff assistant for the division of biological sciences at the University of Missouri.