My Favorite Science Communicators! pt. 1
Wow! It has been a while. Like many people around the world, my life underwent a series of back-to-back, nonstop changes alongside a very stressful work and home period. I didn’t have the energy to blog. However, there was a fun and enriching side during that time where I got to do a series of talks, webinars, and guest lectures in different virtual spaces. One question that I received repeatedly, and would stump me every time was, “Who are some of your favorite science communicators?”
I always gave an answer of the names I remembered at the moment, but when I really contemplated the question recently I decided I had much more fun (runner? lol) and genuine responses.
Before I get into it, I think it’s helpful to know where I’m coming from with these answers. For me, so much of science communication is rooted in storytelling- engaging an audience- primarily because I practice more outreach as opposed to in-reach scicomm.
Outreach vs. In-reach
In scicomm, there are typically two major categories of defined science communication: outreach and in-reach.
In-reach is pretty much what we learn to do as students in a science field. We learn the language and technical jargon associated with our skills, learn to ask questions in relation to that field, interact with the experts who are our professors, we present and attend specialized conferences, learn the specific writing styles and formats that allow us to be included in journals, publications, etc. In other words, it is peer-to-peer or expert-to-expert communication.
Outreach is a method of communication where the communicator is seeking to expand or share information beyond specialists or their current audiences. Usually, it requires us to be able to explain or provide information plainly without our jargon and technical language, employ more storytelling or creative strategies to speak beyond the specialists within a specific field or discipline.
That said, I do believe that outreach techniques can definitely inform and enrich in-reach communication, but for this exercise clarifying the two approaches and making sure you (the reader) are more familiar with how I operate would also help you understand my upcoming response to the “Who are some of your favorite science communicators” question.
Since storytelling is such a foundational component for how I like to engage with scicomm, I realized that I really have a collection of favorite techniques that I really enjoy, admire, and try to employ from a bunch of different sources rather than a few favorite science communicators. Also, because it is the technique that I’m connecting with, some of my favorites aren’t specifically science communicators. Some are educators who influenced me or characters that inspired me. I didn’t even touch on songwriters and artists who I think helped me learn to scicomm! In any case, I’ve broken up my 10 into two parts since this post quickly got overwhelming, and long as I recounted my who’s and why’s. Here’s my 10 in no particular order! Let’s go!
- Bill Nye– Bill Nye is a traditional science communicator. His show had a profound impact on how I connected to the process of science and indulged my scientific curiosity when I was little. I loved his clear explanations, he was silly, everything was presented as an adventure in curiosity. I loved the experiments and the experts he met along the way. He was what I wanted science class to be. I attended a super broke (NO MONEY) school in elementary and science was confined to a textbook and worksheets. It was joyless and purely about memorizing. When we did get to visit science museums on field trips that was the best! That feeling of seeing something up close, understanding a concept as I participated in the action, was so powerful that it’s what I seek to recreate with my own bone lab. That hands-on experience is dynamic! But also, Bill Nye’s energy and excitement for the thing he presented made me excited! I know I’m not the only one who felt that way because whenever someone says his name, what is the song we all sing together on cue? “Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill Nye the Science Guy!” And yes, that theme song came in hard!
- Gina Athena Ulysse– Professor Gina Athena Ulysse is a cultural anthropologist who I had the pleasure of hearing speak the first time I attended the annual American Anthropology Association meeting. It was 2014 I think, I was alone and new to this professional world of anthro and conferences. The session was about anthropology and storytelling. The ‘Rockstar Anthro’ blog was very new, or maybe even just a concept, and I thought this would be a good learning experience for me. Boy, was it! Professor Ulysse stood up and moved so deliberately and so gracefully. I recall getting a feeling, some kind of butterflies in my stomach. My inner nerd was telling me I was not cool enough to be in this room, lol. She stood silently for a second before she began to speak. Then as she spoke, she weaved theory into poetry and poetry into analysis. Her voice painted pedagogy. I didn’t think a person could be an academic and an artist this way. I thought they had to be separate endeavors. I’m no poet, but what I came away from that moment with was really understanding that I didn’t need to be bound by the expectations of traditional academia. I could employ the creative tools that I had in my toolkit to great effect. I also felt like I was given permission to carve out a space for a communication style and delivery vehicle that felt right and was unique for me.
- Professor Valeria Frizzle of the Magic School Bus– Let’s not pretend that Ms. Frizzle wasn’t ’bout it. She was absolutely reckless FOR SCIENCE! I appreciate her willingness to probe and explore a thing deeply. When her students responded in uncertainty and fear, she invited them further into curiosity and exploration. I loved reading the books and the vibrant colors. I wanted to BE Ms. Frizzle! I loved that her accessories matched the subject matter. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I wonder if that’s why I have a skeleton wardrobe that I wear when I teach? Ha! Cute! Ms. Frizzle and her Magic School Bus was the creation of Joanna Cole and illustrator Bruce Degen, so perhaps they are who I should give ‘favorite science communicator’ credits to. In any case, Ms. Frizzle was passionate about explanation! She wanted to be thorough and she wanted to be sure that her audience (her students) didn’t just understand, but engaged deeply with the learning. Her energy for explaining and embarking on a quest for learning is just so *insert chef’s kiss here*!
- William Shakespeare– I know The Bard is not who you expect to show up on a list of fave scicommers, but again this is more about strategies and techniques that are my favorites that I think translate really well in science communication outreach. One of the tips that I’ll sometimes give in guest lecturers or webinars is to start at the end of your story. I don’t know who invented this technique, but I learned it from reading Shakespeare. Try it! Start at the end of your presentation/ speech/ lecture, and then use your remaining time to help the audience get to where you started. Shakespeare was great at this!
When Romeo and Juliet opens, we get six lines in before he tells us what’s going to happen:
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
Basically, he’s telling us from jump that some lovestruck kids are gonna kill themselves which leads their parents to stop beefing with one another. If an audience member is not interested in how Shakespeare got there, they can actually leave at the prologue since they know how it’s going to end anyway. Hopefully, the enticing opening compels them to stay. We have a few minutes to compel our audience to listen further or to even engage in the first place when it comes to science. Try this technique out! Once, I didn’t even say anything- I just held up a badly healed femur bone and the requests for answers began pouring in! Enjoyment can be derived from the exploration and events that led to the demise of the characters- or in my case, the grisly, malaligned bone.
5. Sesame Street– Yes, the whole dang gang! For those of you who don’t know, I am a massive Sesame Street/ Muppets/ Jim Henson fan from day one. I have learned from the gang at every step in my life and continue to watch sans children. When I was learning Arabic in college, I watched Iftah Ya Simsim (Sesame Street in Arabic). Sesame Street is the gold standard for audience engagement. There are so many techniques that they use to impart educational lessons as well as helping kids develop emotional intelligence. I have often talked about how developing content for the bone lab wasn’t just about giving kids an opportunity to have an anatomy lesson or learn what archaeology is. What I was/ am attempting to create is an opportunity for critical engagement with tough conversations and historical understandings that are centered and rooted in anthropological techniques. I create games, make kids the lead investigators, and practice repetition in my bones labs because Sesame Street taught me to.
I watch Sesame Street and think about how they approach tough conversations, practice cultural competency, talk to and about each other, use the environment and surroundings, pick the most appropriate characters to present a situation, engage the grown-ups (I always ask teachers and parents to join in even though some will use the time to take a break. I understand), and how they address the audience. While these methods are specific to working with kids, they seem to translate really well when I work with adults.
That’s it for now! Stay tuned for part 2 of my science communication favorites!