When teaching people about science online, what tools should you have in your toolbox?

Science communication, at its best, cuts past popular intimidation about science and math to reach any audience. This video shows why it’s important to make science communication exciting.

What is Science Communication? from Morag Hickman on Vimeo.

Here’s a list of concepts to add to the tools you use when communicating science online.

1. Learning Styles

Although you may be a visual thinker and learn well by using mind maps or flow charts, your audiences may prefer listening or participating in active demonstrations. When I was working in a factory in 2001, I found that my coworkers on the shop floor preferred handling three-dimensional prototypes to reading files and printouts.

Some of your audiences may prefer concrete examples to abstract information or prefer synthesizing ideas to breaking them down. Science communication in classrooms usually favors abstract concepts, visual and auditory learning, and breaking down ideas. This leaves many students – especially ones who prefer concrete examples and active learning – out in the cold. This is one reason that science developed its “chilly” reputation.

2. Storytelling

Why does storytelling matter in science communication? For many reasons. If you’re trying to craft a message or idea that audiences will remember, a story line can act as a hook to increase their interest and help them remember the information.

People who provide on-the-job training are aware of the power of storytelling and use it frequently. I’ve seen one example in which a trainer used storytelling to teach an audience how to remember people’s names.

Storytelling is especially important if you want to encourage an audience to take a socially positive action. Smartmeme is one organization which uses storytelling about social issues to capture the attention of audiences.

Poynter’s News University offers storytelling courses for journalists. I recommend their video and audio storytelling classes highly.

3. Analogies

Comparing an unfamiliar science concept to a known one – especially an everyday experience – is a great tool for science communicators. You can use analogies to show differences in scale – for example, comparing the size of the sun to the size of other planets. Analogies can become very important if you’re describing things that are difficult to see or imagine, like nanoparticles.

You can also use analogies to compare and contrast human experiences with those of other species – for example, to describe the importance of a dog’s sense of smell. While it’s tempting to compare humans to animals, sometimes the similarities can lead to people personifying animals and thinking that we are more similar to them than we are.

A Harvard researcher’s blog says he’s seeing a curious change among Web-savvy college students in his classes. Instead of delving into the Internet for its own sake, these students use the Web to further their offline adventures. They make chapbooks (and probably zines), engage in knitting and other crafts, and use the Web as a route to offline activities.

In 2008, I made a conscious decision to use the Web strategically. As I spent more time on social media, I found I was losing the sense of creativity that physical activity brings me.

Before 2004, I had physically active jobs. Now, my main commitment after work is to a full schedule of dance classes. I believe active jobs and classes can keep one’s ability to innovate alive.

Intriguing studies hint at the positive value of doodling, which implies that writing by hand may activate different parts of the brain than typing does. The written word doesn’t equal the typed word.

When we spend too much time behind a flat screen, we may lose the ability to solve some kinds of problems. A study of three-dimensional problem solving showed that computer-aided drafting classes didn’t improve community college students’ ability to visualize solutions. The authors recommended bringing three-dimensional demonstrations into the classroom.

Environmentally speaking, time online removes us from the ecosystems that surround us; cell phone apps that simulate global warming don’t solve that problem. It also cuts down our time spent learning basic skills like gardening and cooking.

Internet use also affects our communication and may make it easy to avoid – or categorize and dismiss – unwelcome perspectives. It can create an atmosphere where each of our artistic products are automatically in public space. This may inhibit creativity.

On the other hand, browsing on Stumbleupon helps me synthesize ideas for blog posts like this one. Internet use may make it harder for us to focus and tap into our creative sides, but it also makes it easier for us to create mental categories and mashups in which we file others’ ideas.

Ideally, I’d like to see more people understand that life doesn’t have to revolve around the Web. The online world is an adjunct to the offline one. Active learning, conversation, creativity, problem solving and conflict resolution often live offline. To reduce socially polarized conversations, access innovation, and learn and maintain survival and problem solving skills, sometimes it’s best to unplug ourselves from the digital world for a while.

data cake
Image by EpicGraphic

Is it dinner time yet? This series of cake photos, re-blogged from EpicGraphic, shows the process of making data into knowledge. It starts with eggs and flour and ends with an empty plate.

This graphic shows the importance of putting icing on the cake by presenting information attractively. It also shows the value of turning raw data into useful information before placing it in front of one’s audience.

There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes in making data viable, valuable and visually appealing.

John Maeda spoke at the MIT Media Lab this week about how art can energize science, technology, engineering and math. The event posting says “artists and designers make information more understandable, products more desirable, and new invention possible.”

Even though I missed the talk, the event inspired me to write about visual communication and science. Visual communication’s effectiveness isn’t just smoke and mirrors. Andrew Revkin wrote a post for the New York Times Dot Earth blog on the science of engaging the whole brain. The gist of the message: multimedia and visual communication help us grasp concepts and information that we might not understand otherwise. Revkin challenges data visualization experts “to find ways to envision, literally, that vague but vital concept called public health.”

Patterns of paper pollution
Paper pollution image by J. Henry Fair

Here are some examples of eye-catching visual communication:

Visual Science depicts patterns of paper pollution

Information Is Beautiful asks why the Wall Street protesters are angry

Breathing Earth shows global warming, birth and death rates

John Kyrk animates cell biology

Keep an eye on the Information Is Beautiful contest, where designers are developing ways to show the world’s non-renewable resources in multimedia format.

Although I began editing audio files in 2007, I’m just starting my first foray into video editing and production.

Like professional ice skating, video production looks easier than it is. Since I’m comfortable with electronics and have done sound engineering for a few radio shows, I can adapt to the technology. But I’m still learning the planning and storytelling skills that are essential for producing quality multimedia.

Making multimedia is like assembling a collage. The storytelling aspect of multimedia preparation is similar to the process of writing an in-depth news story, but requires extensive planning.

If you’re interested in gaining experience with video and audio storytelling, I recommend these courses from News University:

Five Steps to Multimedia Storytelling

Video Storytelling for the Web

Writing for the Ear

Telling Stories with Sound

Reporting across Platforms

Since taking these online courses, I’ve completed a video production training at a local community access TV station. This weekend, I recorded a short video at the Waterfire festival in Providence. I plan to edit it using the 30-day free trial of Camtasia.

The total cost of all of this training has been under $50.

Reading Unscientific America was an eerie experience for me. This book is more disturbing than most of the news I read online.

What bothered me most wasn’t the waning support for science research and science journalism. It wasn’t the social distance separating scientists from most people in the United States, either… although that is part of the problem.

Because of my experience writing about diversity and science, I took the ideas a step further and reached a disturbing conclusion. When they avoid communication, outreach and interdisciplinary thinking, science organizations may be unintentionally and effectively excluding a very large fraction of the population: women and people of color.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some minority-serving universities in the United States base 20 percent of science professors’ tenure evaluations on community service. At other universities, that expectation would be unusual.

Some research says women turn away from science majors because they don’t believe scientists help people. This stereotype isn’t true; anyone who watches TV shows like ER or CSI will see science majors saving lives.

Image of a man with a laptop
Science doesn't necessarily look like this.

If the dominant message says scientists don’t care about the rest of the public, that could contribute to public apathy about science funding. The authors of Unscientific America make a persuasive argument that we should train scientists to do outreach – and fund full-time jobs for them in that field later.

Here is the message I’m concerned could be countering attempts to diversify the science workforce:

If you enjoy communicating or want to contribute to your community, don’t choose a science major.

I blog about the personal, everyday relevance of science because I know these stereotypes don’t reflect reality. In one new industry – green technology – there are signs that women are taking an interest in science because they see their work as a social contribution.

Science is everywhere. It is relevant. It changes the world around us all the time. Science is everyone’s story.

If you saw a road sign warning you extreme weather would begin if you kept driving, what would you do?

Our auto use and industrial activity contribute to global warming. Global warming changes rainfall and snowfall patterns. Flooding and heavy rain impact communities and farms directly. But, in the news, global warming is rarely a personal story.

Science students at University of Massachusetts-Lowell dramatized the cold facts of global warming in a course this spring. On May 9, they presented their short films at a free festival called “A Look to the Future.” The festival was at Boott Mills Event Center and was standing room-only.

The film Mr. Mayhem stars a middle-aged businessman driving an SUV. Listening to the song “Party in the USA,” he ignores road signs about global warming and crashes into a tree. After he climbs out of the wreck, he tells the audience not to make the mistake he made.

In the film Inheritance, a four year-old boy’s parents toss him an earth-shaped ball. The boy sees the ball is covered with mud, is disgusted, and tells them to “fix it.”

Mystery Man and Monster in the Closet create bogeymen to represent global warming. The first one looks like a character from the James Bond series; the second looks as if he stepped out of the children’s story Where the Wild Things Are.

Book cover from "Where the Wild Things Are"
Global warming doesn't have a personality.

In real life, of course, global warming is not as sudden as a car crash. Nor is it a bad guy with a recognizable face. Maybe if global warming had a sign that was as clear as the one below, we’d pay more attention to it than we do now.

"Dangerous Goods" Label
Signs of danger should sometimes be obvious.

For more information about this event, you can visit the UMass-Lowell Climate Change Initiative website.

green eye
If we don't see our environment, that may be because we don't think it matters.

The road to forgetfulness is paved with good intentions.

If we know something is good for us, that is no guarantee we will take action. In the context of environmental and social issues, I’m interested in actions and results. Good intentions don’t mean that the rubber will hit the road.

There’s a growing discussion online and offline about what kids lose by spending so much time indoors. Asking young people questions about their neighborhood ecosystems shows that they often are not aware of the ecosystems around them.

However, I don’t see this as a question of lacking a sense of place or belonging. It’s a question of selective perception. Young people perceive the things they need to notice for survival and social approval (and for some other reasons). If something isn’t relevant, they may overlook it. They learn what matters by talking with their friends, families, classmates and teachers.

In the urban environment where I lived before college, I didn’t need to know about edible plants. I was aware of industrial pollution because I could smell steel mill exhaust. Occasionally, it was not safe to swim in Lake Michigan. So I needed to know about pollution when beaches were closed.

But the water advisories weren’t very important to me and other teenagers I knew in Chicago. We often thought about jobs, appearances, grades, friends and sports because those were the priorities of our communities. Street safety was also relevant. Edible plants were not part of the story.

Instead of regretting young people’s lack of connection to their ecosystems, we should look at the messages we give them. If they realize environmental knowledge is relevant to their lives, that’s when the story will change. If we talk with young people about environmental issues in a way that relates directly to their lives and interests, we can shift the story from “it’s good for you” to “it matters to you.” Making environmental communication relevant requires a shift in perspective.

Speaking of shifts in perspective, I decided to write this post after visiting the “Eye Spy: Playing with Perception” exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum. This exhibit, a series of optical illusions, includes a quote which summarizes the take-home message of this post.

We perceive what we expect to perceive and what we think is expected of us. – Ray Moses