Beyond Labs and Lecture Halls
Science communication can lead you to unlikely places. The Alda Center’s experiential training is designed to push STEM professionals out of their comfort zones and help them explore different ways of thinking and communicating. Effective science communication is not just concerned with subatomic particles and star clusters, but touches on people’s core values and everyday experiences. Conversations about science reach beyond laboratories and lecture halls into bars and bowling alleys, taxi cabs and front porches.
It is only fitting then that the Alda Center’s work in science communication has taken us to so many different and diverse parts of the country. From convention centers in coastal Texas to yurts in Southern California, Alda Center instructors have conducted workshops in venues all across the United States.
Regardless of their location or milieu, many organizations have begun to recognize the importance of science communication to their work. Lorien Mahay, Workshops Supervisor at the Alda Center, says that since she came on board in 2016, the Center’s workshops office has experienced incredible growth. “In the last year, we have conducted more training sessions than ever before,” Mahay says, "and we see no signs of slowing down."
Alda Workshops in the United States
In fact, workshop bookings at the Alda Center have risen by nearly 40% since 2017. To keep up with growing demand, the Center has revamped its workshops operations and hired new personnel. “Our hope is that we will grow even more in 2019,” Mahay adds, noting that there is no shortage of opportunities or enthusiasm.
As the Alda Center continues to work with organizations around the country, we also strive to make workshops more accessible. Offering more online training through the Alda-Kavli Learning Center is an integral part of that effort, but another big piece of the puzzle is the new STEM Immersion program, which the Center unveiled to the public last fall.
Built around our signature two-day science communication curriculum, the STEM Immersion program incorporates improvisational exercises, storytelling, and message design techniques pioneered by the Center over the last ten years. The first workshop, conducted in partnership with the Alda Center’s sister company, Alda Communication Training, took place in January at the SUNY Global Center in New York.
In contrast with the Center’s on-the-road workshops, which cater to the needs of larger groups and organizations, the STEM Immersion program offers individuals and organizations with small teams the chance to experience a complete Alda Method® training. For those who participated in the workshop in January, it was a unique opportunity to meet colleagues from different backgrounds and learn with and from one another.
Whether it is through on-the-road workshops or the STEM Immersion program, in the icy Alaskan tundra or off the banks of the Mississippi, the team at the Alda Center is committed to helping scientists communicate their work in clear and engaging ways. That commitment has taken us to some strange and wondrous places over the past decade, and there is no telling where it might lead in the years to come.
Jan Engert, the Assistant Director of the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Colorado, was there. So was Franck Onanga, a physics student in Indianapolis; Brian Gran, a sociologist in Cleveland; and Rosana Ferraret, a linguistics professor in São Paulo.
In total, more than 150 scientists from around the world participated in the Alda Center’s free webinar, An Evidence-Based Approach to Science Communication. Hosted by Dr. Christopher Volpe, Executive Director of ScienceCounts, the webinar offered new insights into public perceptions about science and examined how STEM professionals' own biases can stymie their research and communication goals.
“The webinar was game-changing for my research,” Dr. Ferraret says, writing from her office in Brazil. “It’s helped me reframe my approach and think more about the benefits that my research results might produce. My conclusions have to give me directions on how to implement my outcomes in the real world.”
The webinar, the first in what will be a monthly series, is just one of the ways in which the Alda-Kavli Learning Center is bringing science communication training online. In 2018, the Center launched an ambitious slate of online programs, including public webinars, blogging and podcasting courses, and interactive online workshops. The centerpiece of this new initiative is the Know Your series, which distills the Alda Center's core principles into three online workshops focused on audience, goals, and tactics. The workshops typically run about 90 minutes and are designed to reinforce each other, giving participants a framework that they can use to think about, develop, and practice their communication skills. Two of these workshops are already available online (the third, Know Your Tactics, is scheduled to launch later this year) and are garnering an enthusiastic response; 93% of STEM professionals who participated in the Center’s Know Your Audience workshop rated it as "good" or "excellent," as did 91% of those in the Know Your Goal workshop.
Participant Ratings for the Know Your Audience Workshop
In addition to the Know Your series, the Alda-Kavli Learning Center has begun offering a monthly Making Your Case to Congress workshop, which teaches scientists strategies for engaging with community leaders and public officials. This workshop has also received an overwhelmingly positive reception, with 95% of participants expressing interest in attending another online workshop.
Dr. Radha Ganesan, Assistant Professor of Practice at the Alda Center, suggests that one reason these workshops have been so popular is the increased flexibility that they afford participants.
“Across the board,” she says, “people are eager to take courses online, in the comfort of their own homes and offices.” While noting that not all Alda Center curriculum will translate into the online format, Dr. Ganesan is excited about the different ways that online workshops can be utilized. ”It’s not just about flexibility in terms of where you are and when you log in, but in how you choose to participate and access information. People want that freedom and we’re happy to give it to them.”
Sparking an Interest in Science
For the last seven years, The Flame Challenge™ has given scientists a unique opportunity to practice their communication skills and connect with real audiences. Each year, the Alda Center selected a new question for scientists to consider and the answers they submitted were judged by an international audience of 5th and 6th graders.
In 2018, more than 150 scientists from around the world competed to answer the question “what is climate?”. As humans pursue new energy policies and technologies, cope with natural disasters, and adapt to the effects of global warming, it is crucial that we keep working to find good answers to this question. Because climate can mean so many different things and evoke so many different emotions, it presents unique challenges for scientists and science communicators. Luckily, last year's competitors were up to the task! The winners presented their work at the World Science Festival in June, 2018:
“Climate tells us how a place ‘feels’ over a long time,” Dr. Soumyadeep Mukherjee, aka “Deep,” wrote in the winning written entry, which encouraged the reader to imagine preparing for a vacation in Florida. A researcher who studies the relationship between emotional trauma and mental health, Deep is the first Flame Challenge™ winner from Stony Brook University since the competition began in 2012.
"You have heard Miami has wonderful beaches and you love the sea! While packing, your mom says: "No need to take your jackets and sweaters. You know that Miami has warm climate, right?" What does she mean by “warm climate”? She is telling you that Miami is warm in general. It is warmer than New York. The funny thing is, Miami will be warm whenever you visit there!”
Michael Bronski, a PhD candidate who studies molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, took a somewhat different approach to the question of climate. In his winning video entry, which featured physical demonstrations, infographics, and animation, he successfully conveyed the far-reaching effects that rising CO2 levels will have on the planet.
In 2018, The Flame Challenge™ expanded to include a graphic category. The winning team, four scientists from the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Ontario, combined their expertise to create a comic that incorporates geography, chemistry, hydrology, and food web biology.
Though The Flame Challenge™ has been put on hiatus, the Alda Center is still committed to connecting scientists with school-aged children. Through Science Unplugged, an Alda Center course at Stony Brook University, Alda Center faculty work with graduate students in STEM fields on presentations appropriate for high school students. The Stony Brook students’ culminating experiences involve going to local high schools to give their presentations. The course enables the graduate students to experience a part of the Alda Method® and begin to learn to deliver their science and their message in a way that is appropriate to their audience. It also gives the high school students insight into what it means to be a scientist, and opens their eyes to different fields in STEM.
These efforts and initiatives remind us of what science communication can accomplish at its very best: unpacking big ideas in ways that are meaningful and dynamic; challenging us to think differently; and inspiring the next generation of thinkers and problem-solvers.
The Flame Challenge™ has been made possible by the generous support of the American Chemical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Empowering Women in STEM
Cultural movements start small. For the 16 scientists who participated in the Alda Center’s Power Connection pilot workshop in May of 2018, the movement to make science more equitable started in a grey-walled conference room with a conversation about gender stereotypes.
“There was a really important sharing of stories that happened,” recalls Dr. Christine O’Connell, an Assistant Professor of Science Communication at the Alda Center. “Participants came out of it feeling as if they weren’t alone in their experiences. One of the things I heard repeatedly was that this is not just a problem that they're going through, but a problem facing the whole community. There was a sense of solidarity, but there was also this idea of starting to see many of these problems for the first time.” And once you see them, the problems are daunting.
Last June, researchers at the National Academies of Sciences published a landmark report documenting sexual harassment within academia. They found that more than 50% of women faculty members and between 20 and 50% of women students in science, technology, and medicine departments experienced some form of sexual harassment. STEM fields are also some of the most stratified, with women accounting for just 24% of STEM jobs and earning 16% less than their male counterparts.
Sexual Harassment By Discipline
The proportion of female students at the University of Texas System who report having been harassed by faculty members or staff
Faced with these bleak statistics, the Alda Center developed the Power Connection workshop to help empower scientists to reshape science culture from within. Tapping into the liberating power of improvisation, the workshop was designed to help women communicate more confidently, recognize and dismantle gender stereotypes, and cultivate networks of support. So far, the response from workshop participants has been overwhelmingly favorable.
“There was such a positive energy throughout the day,” Dr. Arianna Maffei enthuses. A neurobiologist working out of Stony Brook, Dr. Maffei says that she has already incorporated some of the techniques she learned from the workshop into her lectures. “The instructors did a great job at directing every conversation towards opportunities for practical solutions. It was a fantastic experience.”
Moving forward, the Alda Center plans to make Power Connection a permanent part of its training offerings, opening the workshop up to participants of all genders. In September, the Center followed the pilot up with a one-day workshop geared more towards negotiation. “It’s not just about negotiating for a promotion or a pay increase,” says Dr. Radha Ganesan, a professor and curriculum designer at the Alda Center, “but about really negotiating the workspace to make it more favorable for women and more egalitarian for everyone.”
None of this, of course, will happen overnight. But, if changing science culture is a long and rocky road, it is also one that more and more women are choosing to walk down.
“One of the cool things that came out of this,” Dr. O’Connell says, “is that what happened in that workshop isn’t going to stay in that room. These women are taking these ideas back to their labs and to their work groups and out into the world.”
The Alda Center’s Power Connection workshop has been made possible by the generous support of Andrew and Ann Tisch.
Changing the Climate Conversation
Global warming has long been a hot-button issue in our public discourse, touching off debates about taxes, regulation, and ethical consumption, and provoking the ire of political partisans on all sides. Many Americans have been slow to accept the scientific consensus about climate change or to push for meaningful reforms. However, new polling shows that a paradigm shift may be underway and that there are still reasons to remain optimistic about the future of the planet.
A recent poll from Monmouth University found that nearly 8 in 10 Americans now believe that climate change is happening and 54% regard it as a very serious problem. In a comprehensive study published in December, researchers at Yale reached a similar conclusion, indicating that Americans are growing increasingly concerned about global warming and its ramifications. As more and more Americans come to terms with the reality of climate change, the Alda Center is working to steer the conversation in a more positive direction, emphasizing strategies for productive climate action and discussion.
“This is an issue that is playing out over a long time frame and on a massive scale and it’s raising all kinds of uneasy questions,” says Dr. Todd Newman, a professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison." As humans, we're not very good at dealing with these kinds of issues. That's why the work we're doing at the Alda Center is so important."
Dr. Newman, a contributor to the forthcoming Theory and Best Practices in Science Communication Training, helped design the Center’s new climate change curriculum, which was field-tested in a two-day pilot workshop last June. The workshop draws on the latest research on public attitudes about climate change, offering a robust approach to climate change communication that is based in empathy and understanding.
Around the country, concern about environmental issues varies widely with age, gender, religion, and political affiliation. Perceptions about climate are shaped by people’s communities, values, and personal experiences, and reflect a host of social and economic factors.
The Alda Center’s climate change curriculum takes all of this into account, looking closely at the Six Americas identified by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the Center for Climate Communication at George Mason University. The training includes strategies for communicating with diverse audiences and will focus on addressing solutions and prevention, adapting to new realities, and engaging elected leaders and policymakers.
Global Warming’s Six Americas
“Scientists have a critical role to play in helping to reduce the polarization and biased interpretation of science,” says Dr. Temis Taylor, who joined the Alda Center as a researcher and instructor in November. This is not just true of climate change, Dr. Taylor points out, but of other wicked problems like energy transition, environmental justice, and vaccination. “By understanding an audience's views and concerns,” she explains, “we can communicate in ways that make our science relatable and salient. Whether the people we are communicating with are other scientists, policymakers, or the general public, we can stay true to the principles of our science while conversing in ways that build mutual trust and seek common ground.”
This message seems to have resonated with the scientists who participated in the workshop last June, all of whom said that they planned to use the methods and techniques they learned in their work. In an exit survey conducted immediately after the pilot, 83% of workshop participants described the training as “excellent” and 100% said that they would recommend it to their coworkers and colleagues.
For his part, Dr. Newman hopes that the workshop will serve as a jumping-off point. “This is an important step in expanding the Alda Center’s training and research into specific areas that are becoming key issues and learning how to work with other researchers, nonprofits, and advocacy groups,” he says. “Using the information we glean from this workshop, we’ll be able to create a model that we can take all around the country, helping scientists in different cultural communities start these difficult conversations.”
The Alda Center’s Climate Change training has been made possible by the generous support of Bob Mazer, Richard Reis, and Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Translating Research into Practice
With a new research study examining the impact of the Alda Method® on scientists’ communication behaviors, the Alda Center is expanding its evidence-based approach to science communication training.
The study, which launched in August of 2018, represents a concerted effort to elevate the Alda Center’s ability to work collaboratively to advance public awareness of science in the United States. Through partnerships with ScienceCounts, Research!America, Mississippi State University, and George Mason University, this project enables the Center to translate key research findings into practice and assess changes in scientists’ communication with various audiences. Findings derived from this study will provide insights for the science communication field and continue to showcase the Alda Center as a leader in science communication training and research.
The Alda-Kavli Leadership Workshop, hosted at Mississippi State, marked the launch of the Alda Center’s new research initiative, which takes a 360° approach to understanding scientists’ communication behaviors. This multipronged approach not only examines scientists’ self-reported assessments, but also incorporates measures of actual communication behavior and the general public’s view of scientists’ communication.
On the first day of the workshop, Dr. Christopher Volpe, Executive Director of ScienceCounts, presented new data on the public’s understanding of science, which complemented the curriculum’s focus on knowing your audience. Participants referenced the data throughout the workshop to help make sense of the training’s diverse applications.
The workshop also highlighted a research collaboration with the Message Design Laboratory in Mississippi State's Social Science Research Center. Dr. Holli Seitz, assistant professor of communication at Mississippi State, assisted the Alda Center in collecting participant videos. To help gauge the effectiveness of Alda workshops, participants are asked before the workshop to film a one-minute video of themselves explaining their work and to repeat the exercise after the training. Researchers at George Mason University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison assisted in the research effort, conducting additional evaluations of the Alda training method.
Research collaborations such as these bring together experts from a range of different fields to ensure high quality, comprehensive measures are taken to address research questions. The Alda Center continues to collect data from participants at a variety of institutions and will use such data to contribute new knowledge to the field of science communication training, as well as to make improvements to the Alda training curriculum.
Science Communication Goes International
The Alda Center in Israel
The United States and Israel have a long history of working together to advance scientific enterprise. In 1949, IBM became the first major American corporation to open a subsidiary in Tel Aviv, introducing computers to the Israeli people. Twenty-three years later, the US-Israel Binational Science Foundation was formed to promote greater collaboration between the two countries, leading to advances in space flight, robotics, chemistry, and medical research.
Now, a new partnership between the Alan Alda Center and the Mortimer B. Zuckerman STEM Leadership Program is building on this legacy of cooperation and helping to foster new opportunities for innovation and discovery.
The partnership began in full in February of 2018, when the Alda Center conducted the first of two science communication workshops with the Zuckerman Scholars, an elite group of postdoctoral researchers working in universities throughout Israel. Guided by veteran Alda Center instructors, the Scholars participated in a range of exercises designed to help them distill their message and communicate with diverse audiences. As part of their training, Scholars received personalized feedback and recommendations on how to engage the public and galvanize support for their research among potential funders, policy makers, and media influencers.
“One of the instructors gave me some advice that I’m really trying to work on,” says Dr. Laura McCaslin, a postdoctoral researcher at Hebrew University and the University of California Irvine, who attended the initial workshop.
“When I get up and give a talk or tell a story,” Dr. McCaslin explains, “I often fall into ‘performance’ mode. I learned that I need to work on connecting with an audience. For me, this was extremely valuable. I’m trying to slow down, make more eye contact, and really ‘listen’ to my audience’s body language.”
Like Dr. McCaslin, many of the Zuckerman Scholars who participated in the Alda Center training in Tel Aviv came away with skills and insights that are directly applicable to their work.
In an online survey conducted after the workshop, 80% of participants said that they planned to use the communication methods they learned and the same percentage said that they would recommend the workshop to coworkers or colleagues. An independent analysis conducted by Dr. Yael Barel Ben-David and Dr. Ayelet Baram-Tsabari of the Technion Institute of Technology found that there was a “clear and visible change in the way participants communicated.” As a result of the training, Zuckerman Scholars used less scientific jargon, addressed the social impact of their research more directly, and placed greater emphasis on connecting with their audience.
Clear and empathetic communication is a critical part of effective leadership and collaboration. To continue making advances in the 21st century, the next generation of leaders in science will need to be able to clearly articulate their ideas, listen and respond to a variety of perspectives, and create an open and collaborative culture within their teams. The success of the Zuckerman-Alda Scholars Project shows that by working together, scientists from the United States and Israel can transcend geographic borders and span cultural divides to make a global impact.
Collaboration Builds Science Communication Success
Cultivating strong institutional partnerships is critical to the growth and success of most endeavors, but this is especially true in the world of science communication. STEM institutions can be rigid and hierarchical, which makes them hard to change and difficult to permeate. Teaming up with organizations that share our goals and values has helped the Alda Center grow stronger and spread our ideas and practices to a wider audience. Over the past year, the Center has partnered with a number of organizations from around the world to explore new applications of the Alda Method®, develop new research and teaching methodologies, and expand communication training opportunities.
Science Communication Fellowships
One of the most exciting of these collaborations is happening at the University of Dundee in Scotland, where the Alda Center has joined forces with the Leverhulme Centre for Forensic Science and the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication. Together we are sponsoring a science communication fellowship focused on statistics, risk, and uncertainty, which will address challenges related to the use of forensic evidence in and outside the courtroom. In collaboration with Virginia Sea Grant, the Alda Center is offering a fellowship that will work to restore and protect Virginia's aquatic life. The Sea Grant Fellow will focus on climate change, conducting research, designing training, and exploring communication in the context of marine ecology and coastal resilience.
New Research Collaborations
In the past year, the Center has doubled down on its research efforts, forging partnerships with some of the leading lights in science communication research. Working with Dr. Anthony Dudo of the University of Texas, Dr. John C. Besley of Michigan State University, Dr. Todd Newman of University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Dr. Christopher Volpe of ScienceCounts, the Center recently conducted a study on the impact of communication training on scientist's willingness to engage with the public. This work will shed greater light on the utility and efficacy of science communication training and provide crucial context to the Alda Center's work.
The Center has also begun working with ScienceCounts to integrate research on public opinion directly into our training. Last November, Dr. Volpe led an Alda Center webinar focused on evidence-based approaches to science and earlier in the year he joined Executive Director Laura Lindenfeld and Mary Woolley, Executive Director and CEO of Research!America, at the Aspen Institute for a panel on public perceptions of science. "I’m especially excited about our collaboration," he says, "because we’re striving to better bridge science communication research and practice. By sharing our audience research, we're aiding in the Alda Center's efforts to optimize professional communication workshops, and in turn, the Center’s burgeoning ranks of science communicators are helping us hone-in on the research that has the most practical benefits in the real world.”
Improved Training & Professional Development
The relationships that the Alda Center cultivated in 2018 have allowed us to broaden our reach and create new opportunities for professional development. Through a partnership with Scientific American, the Center's online blogging course, Share Your Science, offers participants interactive and web-based instruction, as well as feedback from Alda Center instructors and editors at the magazine. Working with organizations like the Packard Foundation, the Mortimer B. Zuckerman STEM Leadership Program, and the Schmidt Science Fellowship Program, the Center is introducing science communication to new audiences and promoting communication and leadership skills among early-career scientists and engineers. These efforts are helping to expand the conversation around public engagement with science and push the frontiers of communication training and research. The Center looks forward to strengthening these partnerships and building new bridges in the years to come.
Science Communicators Summit
Building Professional Bridges
When the Royal Society of London released its seminal report, The Public Understanding of Science, in 1985, it changed the way the scientific community thought about public outreach and engagement. "Scientists," the report concludes, "must learn to communicate with the public, be willing to do so, and indeed consider it their duty to do so."
In the nearly thirty-five years since these words were written, the field of science communication has grown by leaps and bounds. Training and research organizations like the Alda Center have found success in academia and in the marketplace, reaching tens of thousands of STEM professionals, and there is a growing body of literature that supports this work. Science communication has also entered the public vernacular, discussed in the pages of popular magazines.
In other ways, however, science communication is still in its infancy.
Even as research and demand for training has grown, there has been little development in terms of shared training metrics or best practices. In a 2017 workshop sponsored by The Kavli Foundation, many trainers expressed interest in developing a community of practice which would allow for a greater level of cooperation and information-sharing. As Amanda Stanley, Executive Director of COMPASS, and Laura Lindenfeld of the Alda Center, have written, "We've all been traveling alone for a while, but this community has recognized that by working in isolation, we are losing knowledge and missing opportunities to push the field of science communication forward.”
It was with these challenges in mind that the Alda Center, in partnership with COMPASS, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Kavli Foundation, organized the 2018 SciComm Training Summit. Attended by representatives of 37 science communication organizations, including trainers, researchers, practitioners, and facilitators, the two-day summit convened in December to explore how to build stronger ties and create a richer and more diverse community of practice.
During the Summit, attendees outlined a set of common goals, which included professionalizing the field, creating shared identity, ensuring quality and standards, increasing diversity and inclusivity, and linking research with practice, among others. Over the course of the two days, these goals were explored in greater depth, with participants proposing novel ideas like the creation of a resource database and setting aside increased opportunities for graduate students and young scientists.
Perhaps most important of all, the Summit attendees resolved to maintain close contact and to meet again in the future. Next steps will include developing a community charter or code of conduct, securing funding, and creating a leadership structure. Those who attended the Summit laid out an ambitious and sweeping agenda for the science communication community, one that will take years of hard work to fully realize, but in doing so, they have already made a big leap forward.
How We Use Your Money
Financial support for the Alda Center is critical to the success of our mission of advancing science and medicine through training in clear and vivid communication. In sharing this information, we endeavor to be transparent about our funding and operations, but it is what this money allows us to accomplish that we hope others will find most exciting.
Aside from the information already provided in this report, the funds noted here have allowed the Alda Center to:
- Hire staff with specific skills sets in communication research, improvisation, and administrative expertise
- Develop new science communication training curricula to address needs expressed by the science or medical community
- Develop a more robust evaluation and assessment protocol to see what works and what doesn't in our training approach
- Increase the number of workshops we can offer, not only in the U.S. but internationally and thereby increase the number of scientists and medical professional we have reached
- Publish papers on our communication research to share with the 'science of science communication' community
- Expand online training opportunities such as our Know Your series, and offer webinars by other science communication experts
- Offer online classes in podcasting and blogging
- Participate in national science communication meetings and discussions with our colleagues in the training field
The Alda Center staff and faculty are truly honored to receive your support.