Science Communication Training with Portal to the Public

Posted: October 4, 2012 in Events, Science Communication, Science Outreach

This past Wednesday I had the pleasure of attending Portal to the Public’s Science Communication Outreach Training at the Pacific Science Center. The training was in preparation for the upcoming Life Sciences Research Weekend. I have participated in other science communication workshops at large meetings such as the AAAS Annual Meeting, but I found the small group setting and hands on activities of Portal to the Public’s training to produce an invaluable experience.

Portal to the Public is “a program designed to assist informal science education (ISE) institutions as they seek to bring scientists and public audiences together in face-to-face public interactions that promote appreciation and understanding of current scientific research and its application,” and is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The Pacific Science Center is one of nine institutions supported by Portal to the Public.

The training began with a general discussion pertaining to two questions. What is the importance of science outreach, and what are the challenges? The group discussed how science outreach can spark a person’s interest and excitement in science and make learning about science less intimidating. In addition, it is a great opportunity for the general public to interact with actual scientists and dispel common misconceptions surrounding the ‘nerdy scientist who can’t handle personal interaction’. Challenges that were discussed ranged from avoiding jargon and science specific vocabulary and acronyms to finding multiple different ways to explain a concept without getting frustrated.

The second segment of the training involved a series of interactive activities to demonstrate to the group the various ways in which people think and approach problems. Understanding that not everyone thinks and learns the same way you do is vital to successful science communication. We then discussed various strategies for facilitating and fostering inquiry. In general, simple questions to gauge a person’s interest and starting with the simplest topic and then progressively getting more complicated seemed to be best practice. An important concept is to ask questions that have no right or wrong answer, for example, instead of asking “do you understand gravity,” ask “how do you think gravity works.” By encouraging exploration by the guest, you are allowing them to guide the conversation and instructional level. Use of metaphors, analogies, explanation of scale, and explaining in sequence was all encouraged. We were instructed to start with opening questions such as “have you ever seen this before?” Next, ask exploration questions such as “ what could you do instead?” Finally, ask questions that allow the guest to make meaning of the activity, such as “how do you think we could explain that?”

Finally, we were encouraged to brainstorm what elements of our own research could be translated into engaging activities and stimulating conversations. For our final group exercise, we split into pairs and performed mock activities in order to practice and hone what we had just learned. Discussing complex science topics in a fun and easy to digest way is quite difficult, but training workshops such as this and lots of practice definitely helps.

The Portal to the Public offers a Public Implementation Manual for $40. “The Implementation Manual is designed as a practical resource for anyone looking to build relationships between informal science education institutions and scientists or researchers. The Implementation Manual shares the most important results from the development and dissemination phases of the original Portal To The Public project.” Much of what we learned during the training is contained in the Implementation Manual, and can serve in lieu of attending one of these trainings.

I am quite excited to put what I learned to work during the Life Sciences Research Weekend at the Pacific Science Center. The weekend is a collaboration between the Pacific Science Center and the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR). “The Weekend provides an opportunity for the public to learn more about the world of life sciences research and the role it plays in our daily lives. The event showcases the great research and talented scientists in our community and presents engaging activities for all ages.” Organizations and groups can sign up to reserve an activity table, and I will be helping out at one of these tables. Although it would be ideal to know which table I will be assigned prior to the weekend, I believe the skills I learned in the training workshop will enable me to quickly develop a plan for how best to facilitate inquiry and discussion with people visiting the table.

The Pacific Science Center also offers a more intensive Science Communication Fellowship. The fellowship involves a series of communication short courses, the development of a hand-on activity related to your area of work, and requires that fellows participate in at least 3 Pacific Science Center public programs each year. You can sign up be added to the cohort interest list to be informed when they are accepting new applications. Additionally, the NWABR often has science outreach volunteer opportunities. I encourage interested scientist to sign up for their email alerts. They are currently seeking mentors for NWABR’s high school Student Bio Expo.


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