• A Course in Discourse: Lessons from the #SciFund Outreach Training Class with Violet and Priya

    As aspiring scientists, graduate school is our training arena. While learning the key scientific principles of our field and applying them to new and exciting research, we often find the need to hone our skills. One of the most important skills a scientist can have is to communicate with non-scientists. Why is this so important? Effective science communication and outreach with the public can increase interest in education initiatives, solicit volunteers to help conduct the research, and make or break funding for a research project. So to brush up on our science communication skills we recently participated in the first ever #SciFund Outreach Training Class.

    The month-long #SciFund Outreach course was crafted for researchers from all fields interested in learning how to talk the (science) talk, so to speak. A whopping 171 researchers from 18 countries around the world participated, including 4 students from SDSU! Together we learned how to communicate science in effective and creative ways, building a supportive global “sci-com” community along the way. Our community was made up of scientists and non-scientists, bloggers, podcasters, and general internet enthusiasts. This group made sure we had and continue to have the support, resources, and encouragement we need to make all of our science outreach and communication dreams come true.

    A graph showing the participating countries in the #SciFund Outreach Class.

    Most course participants were from the US, but there was a relatively high diversity of participants from around the world.

    The coolest thing about the class was that we interacted with scientists from different fields on different continents. Together we learned how to “do” different types of science outreach, and how to translate our passion for science with the communities around us. We learned how to improve the basics like elevator pitches, as well as less traditional methods of science outreach like comics and podcasting.  As a community, we provided each other with feedback on blogging, presentations, and social media.

    Scientists use outreach to inspire people of all ages and backgrounds to understand, appreciate, and enjoy science.  By improving our science communication skills, we can be a part of the global movement to transform science into something accessible and exciting. We hope to motivate students to pursue a career in science and garner support from adults for science education.

    ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE WITH GOOGLE HANGOUTS. Our primary mode of discussion with our instructors and fellow students was through Google Hangouts, a free video chat service provided by Google. Each person was able to wear a virtual name tag and was brought to focus when they spoke. We had up to 12 people from 3 different continents in a single hangout!


    A Google Hangout showing Drs. Jai Ranganathan, Anthony Salvagno, Siouxsie Wiles, and Kelly Weinersmith.

    Our lovely course instructors using a recorded google hangout session to describe our weekly assignments.

    WATCH WHAT YOU SAY AND HOW YOU SAY IT. Scientists quickly get bogged down in the nitty gritty, focusing on words that can mean one thing to them, and a whole host of other things to someone else. In talking with a physicist about crystals, we learned that he was describing the symmetrical structure of a substance, not the Swarovski crystal.

    COMMUNICATION IS NOT LIMITED TO TALKING. Although presentations are the most common method used by scientists for dispersing ideas and knowledge, technology has brought us many new tools. These include Twitter (can you communicate your ideas in 140 characters or less?), blogging (talk about science through your own eyes), and infographics (“information graphics” that convey information through aesthetically appealing charts).

    THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS THE “GENERAL PUBLIC”. To craft a meaningful message about your research or science in general, you have to know your audience. For example, we practiced giving different elevator pitches to all kinds of audiences like national newspapers, environmental groups, and local community members.

    DIVE RIGHT IN AND LEARN FROM EXPERIENCE. Doing outreach can be scary–whether you are talking to a classroom for the first time, or talking to a news reporter about your recent research breakthrough. But the only way to learn is to try, and to get better by trying. For instance, are you interested in science blogging but are not sure how to start? Try guest blogging for another website and see how you like it.

    The Message Box Method in Action: for a New York Times science writer describing the benefits, problems, solutions, and signification of losing commercially valuable fisheries to climate change

    We used the Message Box method to identify the parts of our research that were most important for a particular type of non-scientific audience. This particular message box is intended for a science writer from the New York Times.

    If you’re interested in getting involved with outreach, check out some of our favorite local programs and online outreach initiatives:

    • SEA, UC San Diego’s Student Education Advancement program
    • SDSA, San Diego Science Alliance
    • Salk Institute’s education outreach program
    • MEBSA, San Diego State University’s Marine Ecology and Biology Student Association
    • PLOS ONE, a peer reviewed open access research journal
    • #SciFund Challenge, a fantastic resource on science outreach courses and methods
    • Deep Sea News, a blog devoted to marine science outreach
    • Any others?

    We also want to offer our deepest thanks to our instructors for the #SciFund Outreach Training Class: Dr. Jai Ranganathan, Dr. Anthony Salvagno, Dr. Siouxsie Wiles, and Dr. Kelly Weinersmith.

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