The Art of Science Communication: A Visit from the Alan Alda Center

The Art of Science Communication: A Visit from the Alan Alda Center
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By Gisella Higuera

Falmouth STEM Boosters, a local volunteer group, invited all Woods Hole science professionals to attend an interactive workshop presented by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Approximately 150 people attended the session, held on April 28 at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL).

The goal was to help scientists improve their storytelling skills. “I’ve always enjoyed brainstorming with scientists about how they could make their research more accessible to students and teachers,” said Deborah Coulombe, president of Falmouth STEM Boosters. “I heard about the Alda Center workshops on NPR’s ‘Science Friday,’ and thought it would be a great fit for a town-wide workshop.”

The Alda Center, which is based at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York, uses theatrical improvisation exercises to empower scientists to communicate more clearly. Falmouth STEM Boosters secured funding and support from Woods Hole science institutions and the National Science Foundation to bring the workshop to Woods Hole.

In the first half of the session, led by Elizabeth Bojsza of the Alda Center, scientists learned how to let go of jargon and engage their audiences. In the second half, the communication techniques introduced earlier were enacted in rousing group exercises.

In one exercise, each scientist partnered with a stranger and they imagined carrying a heavy sheet of glass together up a flight of stairs. The idea was to practice “reading” and coordinating with the actions of another person, which is important to help participants get out of their own shells.

Partners imagine carrying a heavy sheet of glass as an exercise in communication. Photo by Diana Kenney

“Scientist can miss opportunities for outreach to the public,” said MBL Director of Education Rae Nishi. By acquiring foundational communication skills, scientists improve their ability to explain their research and its importance.

In another exercise, each scientist partnered with a stranger and played rock, paper, scissor, shoe. The loser was cheered on and then had to find another loser to partner with and play again, until there was one final loser in the room, whom everyone applauded.

“It was helpful and we just had fun with it,” said MBL scientist Lydia Mäthger, who is interested in doing more STEM outreach with children. By the end of the session, the room was filled with laughter and new, friendly professional relationships.

Falmouth STEM Boosters is focused on democratizing available resources by connecting Falmouth public school teachers and students with local science, technology, and engineering  institutions.

The group, which is nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, began in 2014 and since then has succeeded in helping local scientists, students and teachers forge relationships. Students have taken field trips to see the inside of a research vessel, scientific laboratories, and an ice arena to learn about the solar powered system that creates the ice. Teachers can now directly contact a scientist and ask him or her  to come in for a short classroom session, to explain a key concept or technique.

To learn more about the Alda Center workshop in Woods Hole or how to build science communication skills, visit the Falmouth STEM Boosters website.

Caption above: Elizabeth Bojsza of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science leads improvisation exercises in MBL’s Lillie Auditorium. Photo by Diana Kenney