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Science Communication Ocean Engagement Through Storytelling

Workshop Objectives

  • Introductions
  • Science Communication in Action
  • What makes a good science story?
  • Social Media & Message Framing
  • Metaphors
  • Closing Discussion

This workshop was presented at the IEEE/MTS Oceans 17 conference in Anchorage Alaska on September 21, 2017. The attendees came from diverse group of organizations in the public and private sector.

IEEE Earthzine is a free, open access, online publication for communicating developments and community interests pertaining to studying the Earth and its many bodies of water. Our publication fosters communication among professionals, researchers, academia and the general public through its focus on interdisciplinary observational sciences, technologies, applications of Earth information and their many benefits to society. The publication operates under the auspices of the IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society (OES) and is largely funded by grants through NASA as a contribution to GEO by the United States.

Paul Racette

Dad. Woodworker. Editor-in-Chief and founder IEEE Earthzine. Senior Engineer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Paul Racette: By day, I’m an engineer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center where I design and build microwave instruments and develop new technologies. I’m a parent of two teenage daughters that keep me running here and there. And by night, I masquerade as an editor of this publication called IEEE Earthzine. I say I masquerade as the editor of this outreach publication because actually I’m very shy and I’m happy to be working behind the scenes supporting a small staff that’s not afraid to put their names and faces out there in working with OES members, and the Earth observing community.

Jenny Woodman

Wife. Dog mom. Writer. Educator. Ocean-lover. Obsessed Knitter.

Jenny Woodman: I’m a science writer and educator based in Portland Oregon. I teach creative writing and intro to college research at Portland State and Portland Community College. I’ve been writing for IEEE Earthzine since 2014; I cover ocean health and technology, run our writing fellowship, and curate our social media.

I am also a 2017 Science Communication fellow in Bob Ballard’s Corps of Exploration. I was lucky enough to spend nine days on board the E/V Nautilus in August, exploring Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary with remotely operated vehicles. It was incredible!

I arrived at science communication via a compulsion to write and my undergraduate work in communications, where I studied media framing and public perception of issues like poverty and climate change. Thanks to an internship at NASA Goddard, working with Paul and the IEEE Earthzine team between my undergrad and grad school, I discovered that science writing tapped into my general curiosity about the world. It’s a constant process of learning and discovery and I can’t get enough of it.

To me, the largest challenge I face when writing about oceans is how quickly a story can turn into an obituary -- plastic and marine debris, pollution, ocean acidification, over-fishing -- the list of obstacles is long and terrifying. This has been something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time. Thanks to some great conversations with Jyotika Virmani at XPRIZE and my own background in media studies, I began to think about how I frame my stories to offer, at the very least, a great story, but ideally something we all need a bit more of: Hope

Our workshop will examine science communication through the lens of storytelling. We’ll discuss what makes a good story, how social media can engage the public, and how media framing impacts public perception. Our hope is you will leave this conversation with ideas about how to communicate and engage the public with your work through storytelling.

(Jenny asked Paul, an engineer, to explain how a scatterometer works. He gave a very detailed, technical explanation about this technology as a set up for our first challenge. Jenny took a brief, early morning nap.)

Science Communication Challenge #1

  1. You've got five minutes to Google, confer, and plan how you will explain/teach/describe your assigned object or concept! Your explanation cannot be any longer than 1 minute. (Topics were: AUVs, CTD, Buoys and Moorings, multi-beam sonar, and passive accoustics)

What Makes a Great Science Story?

Disappearing Seagrass Protects Against Pathogens, Even Climate Change, Scientists Find

Why is this a good Story?

At the top of piece, there’s a quick video -- a way in for the viewer. Subtitles explain the story that follows, touching on the key points and summarizing the most important question every story must answer: so what? The article that follows is eloquently written with each short paragraph emphasizing the important role seagrass ecosystems play in regulating ocean health and providing critical habitat for critters.

Zimmer lays out why we should care, hints at the problems, and then moves into our understanding of the history, of how seagrasses have shaped our underwater terrain over millions of years. From here, the author brings in several ways that seagrasses are important to us land-dwellers, deftly weaving in expert testimony and research from all over the world.

The bottom third of the story drives home the dire nature of the problems alluded to in the top section. He explores the impact of climate change and the likely results of seagrass die-offs. It feels a bit like a rickety old roller coaster in my imagination – as he approaches the end of the story I feel a sense of loss and foreboding. Fear truly sets in during the final plummet, but then the roller coaster’s last swooping descent levels out and rounds the corner back to the platform with a message that there is reason for hope. Everything could be all right. Efforts to restore sea-grass habitats have been successful and researchers off the coast of Virginia have been able to recover 6200 acres where there were none in 1997.

The artful storytelling with gorgeous photos, video, and hyperlinks to resources for a deeper understanding combine to tell a story that I didn’t know was important. Prior to reading the piece, I knew nothing about seagrass. Now, I care about these ecosystems and the role they play in making the planet more habitable for us all.

People want to connect with the stories they choose to read. When you are trying to tell your story, remember: Weave in the human element. Interviews with people doing the work injects life into the story -- it’s crucial to get the human voice in there. What motivates the scientist? How will the research impact a reader’s life? How will this technology touch the reader in ways both large and small? Think beyond the technical aspects of your work and find ways to make a person want to know more, whenever possible.

Social Media & A Transmedia Approach

One of the takeaways from this discussion was that the media landscape has changed in such a way that many of the attendees stories won't get out there without effort. Publishing research and technical papers in peer reviewed journals may not connect the public with why a topic or issue matters, but telling stories on multiple platforms may increase the reach.

We also discussed the need, in some instances, of offering hope. Given the challenges we face, communicating about climate change, ocean acidification, and life on a changing planet -- people need hope. People need a reason to feel as if there is still time to take action. Obviously, this is a conversation too large for 90 minutes, but one we are committed to continuing with anyone who will listen.

Metaphors & Similes

  • Metaphor: a figure of speech that refers to one thing by mentioning another thing. Provides clarity or identify hidden similarities between ideas.
  • Simile: a figure of speech that directly compares two things. Similes and metaphors are similar; similes explicitly use connecting words (such as like, as, so, than, or various verbs such as resemble).

About Those scatterometers...

Returning to the scatterometer definition given earlier in the presentation, we used a metaphor about this technology functioning like a BB gun to help explain how a scatterometer works, which may or may not have been more engaging than Paul's previous technical explanation.

Visual & Verbal Metaphors

Often conveying complex technologies can be simplified with metaphors.

This is IEEE Earthzine's logo. The Earth. The globe adds a symbol of education, of our search for knowledge. The double helix in the water drop helps convey that water is life. Water covers 70 percent of the planet; this proportion is mirrored here. Finally, stars situate the Earth in a larger universe -- offering what astronauts have referred to as the cosmic perspective.

There’s social science research that shows how powerful metaphors can really be, we can offer metaphors as an explanatory tools for understanding complicated subjects. And, it’s important to keep in mind that metaphors often fly under our radar -- just as the visual metaphor discussion got at, we don’t always realize the work they are doing when it comes to making meaning.

Metaphor Improv Challenge #2: You've got five minutes to come up with a metaphor explains your technology or concept.

For more information or resources on science communication and IEEE Earthzine, email Jenny Woodman. jennywoodmanwrites@gmail.com.

Follow IEEE Earthzine on Facebook @earthine and Twitter @earthzine. Follow Jenny Woodman on Twitter @JennyWoodman.

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Jenny Woodman
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