Science for the Public

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Education or entertainment? That was the major question facing attendees at the fourth annual International Public Science Events Conference (IPSEC), held June 1-2 on campus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Frustratingly, two days of discussion and debate failed to deliver a clear answer.

For years, those involved with organizing public outreach activities like science festivals and science cafes have fretted about what the goal of such efforts is (or should be). Certainly all event organizers and participants intend to provide content and information during their programs that educates audience participants. However, organizers are increasingly turning to unique cultural approaches that entertain first, and educate second, hoping to draw in bigger, more diverse audiences. Successful examples include You’re the Expert, a science-themed comedy show, and improvscience, a theater-based approach to public science engagement.

The issue for organizers then becomes how to reconcile such seemingly conflicting approaches, a theme that influenced all of the various sessions at IPSEC, from those on how to organize and execute an event, to how to recruit volunteers and market to target audiences, to evaluation and reporting.

In an attempt to directly tackle the tug of war between education and entertainment, one of the IPSEC sessions featured a mock debate between Darcy Gentleman (thirstDC) and Kishore Hari (Bay Area Science Festival), with each arguing in support of one side. Unfortunately, their facetious attempt to convince the audience as to the absolute benefits of entertainment or education was in vain, as the consensus was that the best approach was to aim for a balance between the two. However, no one seemed able to agree on what that balance actually should be, though there was agreement on the need for clearly defined goals for public science events in order to help reduce such conflict.

Attendees also sought to wrestle with this issue by considering the bigger question of the role science is trying to play in society, a point brought up by Story Collider founder Ben Lille. For some, public events are an attempt to integrate science within societal culture, much like the arts or sports. Such events therefore lean more towards entertainment, providing audience members the opportunity to interact with a scientist and thereby develop an interest in, or at least an appreciation of, science. A different viewpoint, espoused in particular by Meri Jenkins, Program Manager for the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Adams Arts Program, holds that science is a necessary component of policy making, providing a pathway to robust economic benefits. Science events, therefore, should be seen as critical educational outlets that amplify formal efforts and provide a far-reaching societal impact.

Finding a middle ground between such extremes will undoubtedly be a challenge for those in this burgeoning field. Yet even though attendees left the conference with this debate unresolved, almost everyone was confident in the overall appropriateness and worthiness of their different approaches to putting on events. Moving forward, some organizers will continue to just try different ideas, figuring out what works and what doesn’t as they go. Others will rely on research and data to carefully construct the most impactful, efficient activities. Regardless of the methodology, any and all public events will definitely achieve the goal of bringing science to the public. And maybe that’s good enough.

Making the Windy City a Little More Windy

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The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is a hodgepodge of talks, presentations and workshops from across the scientific spectrum. In recent years, the theme of science communication has featured prominently throughout the meeting. This year’s version, held last month in a frigid Chicago, continued that trend.

The meeting kicked off with the annual International Public Science Events Conference (IPSEC), attended by outreach and public science professionals from across the globe. With an overall theme of incorporating science into popular culture, IPSEC 2014 featured several sessions focused on strategies for going beyond standard outreach activities to reach non-traditional audiences. A wonderful example was presented by Mark SubbaRao from the Adler Planetarium, who worked to have astronomy images displayed in various public spaces around the greater Chicago region, including in subway trains, at O’Hare airport, and even in local penitentiaries (he is still awaiting feedback from the Blues Brothers). Examples of other novel outreach approaches abounded, from the collaborative Discover, Explore and Enjoy Physics and Engineering (DEEP) program at Texas A&M University to the hipster gathering that is Nerd Nite.

Once the AAAS meeting began in full, an entire session track dedicated to communication fit alongside scientific themes like Physics and Astronomy. One of the more notable sessions, sponsored by COMPASS, featured a wide range of stakeholders discussing different approaches to incorporate science communication into student training programs, continuing the discussion that was begun at the initial #GradSciComm meeting held last December. Officials from both the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and National Science Foundation outlined actions being taken by the federal government, such as novel funding opportunities and prescriptive programmatic recommendations, while university-based speakers Karen Klomparens (Michigan State University Graduate School) and Rachel Mitchell (University of Washington- ENGAGE) talked about their experiences with science communication training programs at their individual institutions.

A crowd favorite was a session, hosted by the Center for Communicating Science at SUNY-Stonybrook, focusing on the use of improvisation tools to facilitate communication. An overflow crowd of more than 100 attendees swarmed into the session room to take part in various exercises, such as silently working with a partner to carry an invisible sheet of glass around the room (without breaking it!), that demonstrated the critical non-verbal aspects of communication.

For science communicators (at least of a certain age), the unquestioned highlight of the meeting was Alan Alda giving his plenary lecture “Getting Beyond a Blind Date with Science” to a packed room of meeting attendees. Alda spoke of the need for scientists to engage with the general public, describing his (often-times frustrating) interactions with scientists while hosting Scientific American Frontiers, as well as his personal classroom experiences that served as inspiration for the creation of the Flame Challenge.

The theme of public interaction extended beyond the session rooms, with several different public science events taking place that gave meeting attendees a chance to put their communication skills to use through science-based interactions with people from the local community.

Chicago families check out the American Society of Plant Biology booth during Family Science Days at AAAS2014.

Children and parents crowded into Family Science Day to learn about meiosis using poker chips, use a 3D printer to make miniature self-models, and help generate indoor tornadoes. Other public facing communication events included a science café on dark matter, hosted at the Adler Planetarium, and a live filming of StoryCollider, a science podcast/storytelling platform.

As science communication becomes ever more integrated as part of the scientific process, these types of activities and sessions will feature regularly at scientific meetings and conferences. ASBMB will feature its own platter of events at the 2014 Experimental Biology meeting next month, including a science communication workshop and a public science cafe (check out our full lineup under the “Public Policy and Science Outreach” header: http://www.asbmb.org/Meetings_01/2014mtg/2014AnnlMtgProgInfo.aspx). So the next time you go to a meeting, try to see what you can do to communicate your science without using a poster board or PowerPoint presentation. You might be amazed at what is out there.