Communicating Science Class Held at Dartmouth

Republished from the Graduate Student Forum.

This past fall, 15 Dartmouth graduate students took part in Communicating Sciencea term-long class to learn how to communicate their research more effectively, drawing on improvisation and storytelling techniques. The course was based on a model pioneered by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. As reported previously, Alan Alda visited campus and led a session for the class on October 11.

An interdisciplinary cadre of instructors taught the course: Mark McPeek (Department of Biological Sciences), Nancy Serrell (Director of Science and Technology Outreach), Christian Kohn (Department of Theater), and Gifford Wong (PhD candidate in the Department of Earth Sciences). The goal of introducing young researchers to improv is not to turn them into actors, but to provide them with a strategy by which they can honestly connect with their audience, whether its a group of peers or a classroom of middle school students at an outreach event. During the Communicating Science course, those in attendance learned skills for communicating science authentically and personally, both of which help make science accessible, exciting, and relevant.

Improvisation and theater exercises are designed to enhance observation, active listening skills, and presence. Even a simple warm up such as “Zip Zap Zop” – here students stand in a circle and pass the words “zip,” “zap,” and “zop,” one after another to each other – can tap into the visceral component of communication so often lost in a typical science talk, such as eye contact and body language. To work on listening, we played a theater/improv game that literally had students verbally mirroring each other. Two students sat facing each other; one began describing something while the other student mirrored what the other person said. In other words, the goal of the two students is to say things at the exact same time. This exercise was to help students 1) consider their speaking cadence, emphasizing the importance of speaking deliberately, and 2) pay attention to their audience, taking cues from them when discussing new or complex topics. Other games were introduced to create an opportunity for students to “play” with complexity and failure. One such activity had students standing in a circle and passing multiple “objects” (e.g., bouncing ball, stuffed animal, a word) to each other in different patterns. The goals of this activity, echoing most of our improv and theater exercises, were to develop the students’ awareness of those around them, to enhance the student’s ability to focus on varied topics, and of course, to underscore the fun in the “doing” irrespective of success or failure.

To complement these newly developed skills, additional exercises were introduced with an emphasis on enhancing clarity, limiting jargon, and participating in two-way communication. One activity we did in class can be found online. We first had students choose a concept in their respective sciences and explain it to the class. They could not use pictures or props, but they were allowed to use language they felt the class would understand. After every presentation, non-presenting students gave constructive comments to help presenters with clarification and imagery. The next step was for students to take their presentation and re-write it using the Up-Goer Five Text Editor that only allows one to use the “ten-hundred” most commonly used words in the English language. Experiences varied, but overall the exercise helped students explore a realm of explanation and communication devoid of jargon. An example of how to explain the complex (how a space rocket works) in simple terms can be found online here.

Looking to the future, Christine Urbanowicz, a graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences, is developing a graduate student group where students will be introduced to some of the primary improvisation skills learned in class. There are also plans to offer the graduate-level course again. In addition, we are working to address the desire to develop a similar course for postdocs and faculty.

by Gifford Wong