How to rewire your brain (Part II)

9 06 2010

A personal experience from the 2009 Banff Centre Science Communications Program. (Reprinted from E-cass September 2009, Part II of III)

By the end of the second day the goal of the program was becoming clear. No matter how we look at it, the overall level of scientific literacy in our society is not as high as it could be. Is this a function merely of low standards or even too many conflicting options in the education system, or rather that we don’t do a good job of communicating science effectively? Probably both. However, if we could get the information out in a way that connected with people, beyond poorly written newspaper or web articles, wouldn’t that be a good thing?

The next few days covered skills we would need for our projects, but focused most strongly on journalism. Tom Hayden of Stanford gently coaxed us through a two-hour “Journalism 101”. After this brief tutorial all the participants developed a 700 word piece on a science topic of their choosing. I wrote about the different roles of “proof” in law, science and mathematics and the problems that occur when the meaning is misinterpreted.

The “CSI effect”, that forensic science can be “absolutely certain”, is a classic example of this confusion. Desiring “unequivocal proof” of climate change, another. The article was well received but I struggled with different editors who wanted the style of the piece to go in different directions. It took a while to finish, but in the end appeared on “The Mark“.

Mark Winston providing some very helpful advice

By the end of the fourth day our groups had been assigned. I was incredibly lucky to be on a team that ran the gamut of skills: a journals editor, a neuroscientist, a science communications consultant and communications and marketing manager. I was also the only male on the team, which was at times interesting. That wasn’t entirely a surprise either. Two thirds of the participants in the program were female.

When the groups were assigned, strict guidelines on interaction were provided. We were to “presume positive intent,” namely that anyone contributing was trying to help. We also were given a questionnaire to help us focus on interpersonal skills that needed improvement. Turns out I seem to be a poor listener and let my thoughts drift. Others needed to work on paraphrasing and summarizing. It was fun to know who was working on what.

Our project goal was opened ended: choose a science communication idea and then come up with a project that communicates it. It could be a website, pilot for a TV show, a play – as long as it was practical we could go with it.

The team came up with the idea of a website, including podcasts and videos, promoting science to the 11-15 age group. “Fun and unexpected” became a makeshift theme. Two characters, Skydiver Sally and Skydiver Steve would parachute into a location and discuss or present a science issue. You wouldn’t know where Sally and Steve were going or what they were going to do.

As professional scientists we all appreciate that progress frequently relies upon serendipity. Yet how many of the public truly appreciate this? The team agreed that communicating this was immensely compelling. Breaking down any perceptions that science is predictable or routine was our goal.

Joke cover produced for the project

I’d like to say the concept named itself: “Out of the Blue”. But, it took a stroke of genius from one of the team members to come up with that name. Once we had the concept and the name our “brand” became clear. Everyone bought into the idea and felt it would “sell”.

But first, we had to pitch our idea to the faculty.

That proved to be surprisingly nerve wracking. We were presenting to a hardened group of TV and communications professionals. No egos were spared. “You have no content” was one criticism. “It isn’t clear you have the creativity to carry this through.” was another. All that said, the panel agreed we had a good idea. It was now down to us.

Next post: Part III, the strength of toilet paper.

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