For a great example of science communication (and some fascinating thought puzzles) take a look at Wait But Why’s The Fermi Paradox, which addresses the question: where is all the other intelligent life out there?
(NSFW language in the article)
A researcher at my institution has written a blog for the Wellcome Trust about the public engagement event we ran from February-May 2014: Magnificent Microbes.
Hints on best practice include:
Over at Compound Interest they’ve put together a handy Rough Guide to critically reading science reporting.
Might have to invest in a poster for the wall of my office!
The British Science Association (BSA) has posted two ‘spring experiments’ for young people to try at home or in school on their website. One, involving eggs, has a small explanation about why the observed results are occurring but the other, about measuring the speed of light using chocolate, has no explanation and several seemingly random maths figures included on the sidebar.
I originally clicked on the link because I was interested in seeing how they would explain the relationship between microwaves, light, and the way it can be measured using household materials. (Also I remembered Jessamyn’s excellent post on the polymorphism of chocolate and had a craving for more!) The experiment guide walks you through the steps for producing the right measurement with the necessary safety precautions but nowhere in the guide does it actually tell you what is happening! This raises far more questions than it answers, including:
Certainly there are more ways to learn than just instructively – indeed, for many people it’s doing that nurtures true understanding. In order to truly grasp the workings of what you’re doing, however, it is important to provide the necessary background knowledge so that your results can be interpreted correctly. Merely plugging some measurements into an equation does nothing to lead people towards understanding and does everything to enforce the idea of science as a dry, incomprehensible topic – even with chocolate.
While creative exploration of science topics is to be commended, we need to make sure we always ground our exploration in good information and good procedure. I would be keen to see the BSA publish additional guidance for the experiment to tie in the relevant material so that young scientists can develop their knowledge as well as their chocolate melting skills.
Now if you excuse me, I’m off to fulfil a craving…
Instead of merely telling your audience information, think about turning it into a two-way street. It allows your audience to become more involved in the process of learning new information and automatically makes it interactive. There are many different types of questions that you could use depending on what type of information you wish to get back from them.
The two most commonly used ‘types’ of questions are open and closed. I’ll talk a bit more about them now.
Closed questions require a short, simple answer in response, such as yes/no, true/false, or an uncontroversial fact such as “what is your name?” They are good for gauging knowledge levels and confirming understanding – “do you know what a cell is?” “Do all cells have a nucleus?”
Open questions can give longer answers and can involve the answerer’s knowledge, feelings or opinions. They can help you find out more information about the audience’s understanding of a topic, e.g. “what sorts of things do you know about cells?” Open questions often start with ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘how’.
It is, of course, crucially important to listen to the answers to the questions you ask; just because you assume an answer is obvious or easy does not ensure your audience will know it.
If you get a wrong answer do not be discouraging – you can always reward their effort even if the information is incorrect. You could say “that’s a good guess”, “I can see why you might think that”, or “not quite, but you’re on the right track” before following up with another question to help guide them to the right answer.