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Communicating science to a general audience

October 29, 2010

Educating science graduate students across campus to successfully communicate their research to a general audience was the subject of a program held Oct. 21. A similar event is planned in the spring.

'Communicating Your Science' program

Peter Dorhout, vice provost for graduate affairs at Colorado State University, started speaking to the 200 graduate students, communicators, and scientists in the room.

“I am a radiochemist. In our research, we examine how the 5f electrons of uranium and plutonium interact with ligands from the group V and VI elements of the periodic table to form stable solid state materials….”

He heard a twitter in the audience and some laughter, but continued to address the group.

“…Using optical spectroscopy, X-ray diffraction, Extended X-ray Absorption Fine Structure, and magnetometry, our students study the orbital hybridization of the heavy elements so we can learn more about relativistic effects on itinerant electrons.”

Dorhout couldn’t keep from smiling as he looked up and studied the crowd at the Fort Collins Hilton. “Did you understand that?” he asked.

But he already knew the answer – most of them didn’t. After a dramatic pause, he started again:

“I am a chemistry professor. Our research program focuses on the important question of what happens to the plutonium from nuclear weapons when we and others destroy the weapons as part of the effort to improve global security in response to weapons treaties. Over 2,200 tons of man-made plutonium must be safely managed for the next 200,000 years, and as a chemist, my goal is to understand how plutonium from nuclear bombs can be recycled into usable nuclear fuel for generating safe, clean electricity or safely stored so that it will not impact our natural resources.”

Finally, recognition spread across faces in the room. The same information. Two ways of presenting it.

Tricky business, essential skill

The point? To educate science graduate students across campus to successfully communicate their research to a general audience. Professor Stu Tobet in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Engineering created the “Communicating Your Science” program, held Oct. 21 at the Hilton, with help from faculty and other content experts across campus, which included many of the colleges, alumni, and friends from industry, the Research Integrity and Compliance Review office, the Department of Public Relations, and the Vice President for Research office.

Campus participants included:

  • Brett Beal – Coordinator, School of Biomedical Engineering
  • John Calderazzo – Professor, English
  • Mark Frasier – Associate Professor, Biomedical Sciences
  • Shana Gillette – Assistant professor, Clinical Sciences
  • Chuck Henry – Associate professor, Chemistry
  • Jennifer Nyborg – Professor, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
  • Garrett O’Keefe – Emeritus professor, Journalism and Technical Communication
  • Kathy Partin – Director, Research Integrity & Compliance Review office
  • John Volckens – Associate professor, Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences
  • Marty Welsch – Coordinator, Vice President for Research
  • Donald Zimmerman – Professor, Journalism and Technical Communication

60-second elevator speech

“That second speech I used makes a lot more sense to people who aren’t chemistry majors,” Dorhout said after the Oct. 21 event. “Communicating science is a tricky business, but it’s an essential skill for graduate students – and faculty – who are speaking to a wide variety of audiences about their research. How else can we communicate broadly that we are conducting research at Colorado State University that is making a difference in people’s lives?”

In a round-robin format, eight students were seated at each table with a professional communicator and a scientist. Twice, students moved to another table with a new communicator and scientist so they could practice a 60-second elevator speech about their research, Tobet said.

Giggles, grins, and false starts

There were lots of giggles, sheepish grins and false starts, but by the second or third try, students walked away a little more confident about their speeches. Practice is key to a successful elevator speech, but so is understanding your audience and dropping the jargon and acronyms, said Professor John Calderazzo, a presenter at Thursday’s event who also promotes climate change communication at the University through Changing Climates@CSU.

“When in doubt, you can’t go wrong by imagining you are at a dinner party, and your host’s bright-eyed 12- year-old daughter comes up to you and asks, ‘So, what do you do?’, Calderazzo said. “You need to tell her in a way that she understands.

Everyday words or metaphors

“As CSU Geosciences Professor Ellen Wohl says, a carpenter doesn’t ask his buddy for ‘that screwdriver with the little cross at the pointed end’ - he asks for a Phillips head,” Calderazzo said. “But when you talk outside your field, replace your specialized language with everyday words or metaphors.”

Brennan Johnson, a second-year doctoral student in the School of Biomedical Engineering, said the forum was useful: “It was helpful to get feedback on which parts of my research are most interesting to people outside of my field, and it also helped me word things in a way that most people can easily understand. It is easy to get caught up in the technical details of research, so it was nice to step back and consider how it relates to the big picture.”

Describe expertise in a concise manner

Whether they’re applying for a federal research grant, talking with their grandparents or conducting a media interview, students – and faculty - need to learn good habits about communicating what they do, Tobet said.

“We’re trying to help these students describe their expertise in a concise manner,” Tobet said.

A similar event is planned in the spring.

For additional help communicating science on campus, please contact the Department of Public Relations, Division of External Relations, at 491-6621.

Contact: Emily Wilmsen
Phone: (970) 491-2336