Education Opinion

The Unexpected Benefits of Science Communication Training

When scientists learn better communication skills, they not only convey their research to a broader audience but also become better connected to their own scientific communities.

By , Maïté Agopian, and Wendy Bohon

Communication skills are among the most important skills we can provide for new scientists; they enable better networking, collaborating, teaching, and leading. These skills will serve a scientist, and the scientific community at large, throughout the scientist’s entire career.

Although the primary goal of science communication training is to improve a scientist’s ability to communicate with the public and research peers, the potential of this training to provide a sense of community and self-awareness is of equal importance. We believe that science communication training sessions or programs (trainings), designed with these additional goals in mind, can benefit a department, school, program, or meeting in addition to benefiting the individual participants.

Why Scientists Need Communication Training

Participant surveys from trainings offered by UNAVCO, the EarthScope National Office, and the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) indicate that scientists who participated in these trainings felt more confident in their ability to communicate their science with nonexperts. Moreover, they experienced other critical benefits, including increased confidence and a heightened sense of belonging at scientific meetings, which is critical for retention within the geoscience workforce.

In addition, these trainings have the potential to strengthen networks, inspire students in their research, and increase communication within both specific and interdisciplinary research communities. These outcomes are especially important for students, early-career scientists, and first-time meeting attendees.

Opportunities and impetus abound to effectively share science with broad audiences. Scientists are seeking these opportunities to increase the impact of their research, improve public scientific literacy and appreciation for science, and increase public trust in science and scientists [Pace et al., 2010]. Yet effective communication is not necessarily intuitive; it is a skill that must be learned and practiced.

Research shows that we are not adequately preparing our science students to be good communicators [Brownell et al., 2013]. Importantly, effective science communication to a nonexpert audience is often anathema to the way students and early-career researchers are trained to communicate with other scientists in terms of the level of detail, jargon, and communication structure.

Increasingly, scientific societies, such as AGU and the Geological Society of America, and National Science Foundation facilities, such as the Geodetic Facility for the Advancement of Geoscience and the Seismological Facility for the Advancement of Geoscience, are offering science communication training at meetings and at academic institutions.

The demand for these types of trainings is growing. For example, attendance at the Sharing Science social media workshops at AGU’s Fall Meeting increased from 56 individuals in 2017 to at least 97 in 2018, and overall attendance at Fall Meeting Sharing Science events increased from ~1,000 to ~1,400 over the same interval (O. Ambrogio and S. Hanlon, AGU, personal communication, 2019).

Initiatives such as the Portal to the Public framework, developed by informal education institutions (specifically, science museums), recognize that communication training offers benefits in addition to teaching specific communication techniques and strategies. Namely, trainings can help scientists understand how the process of learning may vary from one individual to the next, recognize their own professional blind spots (for example, identifying vocabulary that may be unfamiliar to nongeoscientists), and learn differences between communicating to peers and to the nonexpert public. Trainings can also address potential biases and take into account audience needs and values. Our experience, outlined below, indicates that trainings conducted with this approach provide benefits beyond the expected scientific communication skill set.

Recognizing the Unexpected

Two of us were approached by a participant the day after we led a full-day training at the 2017 EarthScope National Meeting. The participant, a graduate student, wanted to thank us for offering the course before the main meeting began. “Before this week, I knew one other person at this meeting,” she said. “Now I know 16. I have familiar faces to have lunch with.”

She also shared that many of the other participants had come to her poster and offered feedback. When we asked whether the feedback was about her presentation or her science, she replied, “Both. I think after giving each other feedback all day yesterday we were just comfortable giving it to each other.” We recognized the impact this experience had on her and likely her peers as well, and we decided to change the follow-on survey for this course and the exit surveys of subsequent courses to try to capture some of these unplanned impacts.

The results of participant surveys following that and two subsequent communications short courses (held in conjunction with the UNAVCO Science Workshop and IRIS Workshop, both in 2018) illuminated the ways that the premeeting courses had affected participant meeting experiences. Multiple respondents indicated that

  • they were more comfortable networking during the subsequent meeting (88%, N = 17)
  • they changed how they presented their posters, for example, by assessing their audience and presenting less detail (90%, N = 10)
  • they were more comfortable asking questions during the poster session (60%, N = 12)
  • they felt an increased sense of belonging at the meeting (87%, N = 23)

In addition, one or more individual respondents commented that they felt a renewed sense of motivation for their work, felt more confident giving their oral presentation at the meeting, and felt more articulate describing their work to others in social settings.

A recent training at the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences indicated that these same benefits can affect students within a single school or department. Thirteen out of 14 survey respondents (of 24 participants) indicated that the workshop helped build a sense of community among them and their peers, commenting that

  • they appreciated learning about their peers’ research
  • they would feel more comfortable approaching peers in the future to work together
  • they appreciated seeing that others value science communication
  • they were relieved to learn that others experience similar challenges in their academic lives

In turn, elements of the training empowered participants to reflect on academic culture and their role in it and how they can be agents of change for the better.

The Formula for Success

On the basis of our experience, several factors are critical in the success of science communication trainings when building community and confidence.

Consider Timing. The timing of the training is key in reaping the community-building benefits at meetings: Trainings should be before or at the very beginning of meetings, when possible. An hour focused on networking can be helpful, but half- or full-day courses allow participants to get to know each other better and benefit from a more immersive shared experience.

Make it Interactive. Activities like giving elevator speeches, assessing audience values and interests, and listening allow participants to get to know each other in group settings while also learning skills critical to good communication with public and professional audiences. For introverts, especially, these one-on-one and small-group guided conversations can help build relationships in a safe setting.

Start with the Basics. General communication skills are a critical foundation for focused skill building. Our trainings include activities developed by informal educators (Portal to the Public, funded by the National Science Foundation) as well as our own general and targeted activities. These general activities are designed to promote self-awareness and an understanding of differing audience perspectives. Understanding audience perspectives requires a discussion of beliefs and value systems—topics inherently more personal than those discussed in most other scientific settings. This process fosters an atmosphere of trust, openness, and respect.

Continue Contact. Follow-on sessions after meetings enable participants to practice what they have learned during the training and to maintain the sense of a cohort. Although follow-on sessions do not necessarily affect the sense of belonging at a meeting or in a department, participants in the two programs we offered with such sessions indicated that they appreciated the continuity. All respondents indicated that they either agreed (59%, N = 17) or strongly agreed (41%, N = 17) that “the remote sessions and exercises were helpful and should be a part of the overall course.” Additionally, we have hosted meet ups at subsequent meetings to provide a continued sense of cohort and support.

Science Communication Training Options

An increasing number of institutions and individuals are offering interactive science communication trainings. Examples of organizations, in addition to the authors’, currently offering science communication training include the following:

Trainings are offered at many major meetings, and organizers of small to midsize meetings should consider including an interactive training component so that scientists leave the training or event with new skills and new relationships.

A Need for a Changing Value System

Scientists and policy makers consider creative and skilled science communication both an asset to and a fundamental element of science [Trench and Miller, 2012]. However, few institutions within science explicitly support science communication efforts within their reward systems [Bankston, 2017]. Effective communication is critical for supporting the next generation of the geoscience workforce, attaining and maintaining funding, increasing public support of both basic and applied research, giving back to the taxpayers who fund scientific research, and enabling science-informed decision-making [e.g., Bankston and McDowell, 2018].

Offering communication training is only one step toward supporting scientists in effective conveyance and application of their work. We also need to specifically acknowledge and reward scientists for these crucial efforts, throughout their careers.

Acknowledgments

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

References

Bankston, A. (2017), Valuing and rewarding intangible activities in academic careers, ASM Careers, academicleadershipinstitute.eu/2018/05/27/valuing-and-rewarding-intangible-activities-in-academic-careers/.

Bankston, A., and G. S. McDowell (2018), Changing the culture of science communication training for junior scientists, J. Microbiol. Biol. Educ., 19(1), 19.1.43, https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v19i1.1413.

Brownell, S. E., J. V. Price, and L. Steinman (2013), Science communication to the general public: Why we need to teach undergraduate and graduate students this skill as part of their formal scientific training, J. Undergrad. Neurosci. Educ., 12, E6–E10, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3852879/.

Pace, M. L., et al. (2010), Communicating with the public: Opportunities and rewards for individual ecologists, Front. Ecol. Environ., 8, 292–298, https://doi.org/10.1890/090168.

Trench, B., and S. Miller (2012), Policies and practices in supporting scientists’ public communication through training, Sci. Public Policy, 39, 722–731, https://doi.org/10.1093/scipol/scs090.

Author Information

Beth Bartel ([email protected]), UNAVCO, Boulder, Colo.; Maïté Agopian, EarthScope National Office, Fairbanks, Alaska; and Wendy Bohon, Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, Washington, D.C.

Citation: Bartel, B., M. Agopian, and W. Bohon (2019), The unexpected benefits of science communication training, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO129023. Published on 24 July 2019.
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