How to effectively communicate science (blog post from AAAS)

by Stephanie Chasteen on May 4, 2010

Today we’ve got a treat — a very detailed guest post on science communication from my colleague Carolyn Gale.  I found out she was going to the AAAS conference, which had a lot of great sessions this year, and asked her if she’d like to write up some of her experiences.  Following is her wonderfully detailed post about a workshop on effective science communication to diverse audiences.  Carolyn runs “Elevator Talk” workshops for researchers — see her website at


While in San Diego for an unrelated conference, I realized AAAS was occurring at the same time. AAAS has an amazing deal where anyone can attend the plenary sessions, exhibits, and career development workshops for free. That’s a price you can’t beat, so in my limited time I attended two workshops. I will discuss Learn How to Effectively Communicate Science in Diverse Situations in this post.


Before the session started, participants were handed index cards with two questions:

  1. What interested you in this session? What made you come here?
  2. What questions do you hope to have answered?

As someone who runs “Elevator Talk” workshops for researchers, I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting (to me!) instructional activities. I appreciated the time to reflect on this before handing back the card.

The moderators were Sabine Jeske and Jennifer Chu, who work at UCSF’s Science & Health Education Partnership (SEP). This program supports high quality science education for K-12 that involves 200 UCSF employees (each volunteering about 30 hours/year). Program activities include scientist-led classroom-based partnerships, professional development courses for teachers, a high school internship program, and workshops for scientists.

After introducing SEP, they presented the “Big Ideas” we would explore during the 90-minute workshop:

  • formal to informal environments (from classroom to science cafe/museum)
  • get to know your audience: find out what they know (the why and how)
  • role of language
  • how to put content into context (tell a story)
  • strategies to involve all learners
  • creating a safe environment (a K-12 thing)

Your Audience

But first, they quickly polled all of us, asking how many were K-12 teachers, grad students, etc. and placing Post-It notes (1 per person) on a “graph”. It’s a neat visualization technique used in the K-12 classroom, but it helped us all quickly see who was (and wasn’t) in attendance: 15 grad students, 10 other (consultants, policymakers), and 8 program administrators/coordinators.

I then realized that this presentation – which was geared for K-12 – would not be a total match with the audience. That actually wound up being fine with me – I rarely work in the K-12 sphere, but found plenty of interesting lessons that could be applied in the higher education world.

The presenters then proceeded to discuss each Big Idea, with a related activity and follow-up discussion.

Big Idea #1. Get to know your audience

The ideas behind this point were broken into two areas: for an individual, doing an activity to get to know the audience helps introduce themselves and serves as an icebreaker. For instructors, this can help assess the range of experience of the group. So, it’s important to “find ways to get at what your audience knows.” This is also known as formative assessment: know what your students know before you start to teach.

We were split into informal groups of 3-4, and each given a random object. Our task: to determine how the object was like a cell, and how it was not. Our group received a metal egg, and I was surprised to hear the word “membrane” pop out of my mouth – not sure when the last time was that I used it!

After a large-group discussion, we were presented with other ideas for activities:

  • Pre-Write (Take 5 min and write about your current understanding of X),
  • Brainstorm (What comes to mind when you hear the phrase X),
  • Assessment Probes (What kinds of misconceptions/ preconceptions do people in the audience have?),
  • Clicker Questions

Big Idea #2. The role of language in communication

Sometimes, words that are common in your own situation are not used the same way in another world. Our group activity was to take the following words, define individually, and share our answers:

activity / model / abstract

Our group (a marine biologist, a policymaker, and myself) came up with different answers for both model and abstract. Fascinating discussion, and I think this would be a great activity to use in my own workshops (that include researchers from all disciplines).

Aftewards, Sabine and Jennifer followed up with a quick discussion: Sometimes there are words just in your discipline/professional world that doesn’t have the same significance for others outside of it (aka jargon!) i.e. teachers: scaffolding; scientists: running a gel

Their strategies:

  • be aware of differences in cultures between laypeople and scientists
  • be explicit about the language you use
  • ask questions and encourage questions from others

Big Idea #3. Put content in context

This was mostly lecture with an example. Their tips:

  • Activate Prior Knowledge: pre-assessment (like the cell…I remembered the membrane)
  • Then Make it Relevant: draw useful analogies that relate to everyday life
    • used example of “currency of energy” as a table
    • Explain conventions and acronyms
    • Use fewer terms (although I’ve learned that’s easier said than done)

Big Idea #4. Strategies to involve all learners

Now we get to the various situations where one would need to explain a scientific concept:

  • lecture hall (large audience)
  • seminar (small group setting)
  • science café (a new term for me – yes, I wasn’t aware of their existence!)
  • classroom/lab

(I personally would have added more media-related areas, like a newspaper, magazine, TV show, or radio – but in many ways, that could also be translated to a “large audience”)

So, what strategies work in these settings?

Each group received an index cards with a strategy. We discussed:

  • in which situation could this work well?
  • how might it look in different settings (give examples), and
  • how might the strategy help people/students learn?

Our group received “Think-Pair-Share: Have audience/students think and write about a question/prompt, then discuss their answers with a partner before sharing with a larger group.” This seemed to be one that worked well across all settings, so our small group conversation turned to the policymaker, who wondered aloud if any of the strategies given to us would work in a policy briefing. There seemed little room for creative strategies in such a formal setting. We also discussed the different work styles of California vs. DC, and those of us in the group from the West Coast started to appreciate the freer-spirited nature of work life here.

Big Idea #5. Creating a safe environment

Unfortunately, I had to leave in the middle of this session – and, as something that’s very K-12, didn’t feel very relevant to my work on first glance. Bullet points presented before I left included:

  • emotional state fosters or hinders information intake and long-term storage
  • avoid being judgmental (about questions or answers)

The latter point reminded me of the challenge of running cross-disciplinary workshops, where it’s quite possible for a humanist to sit next to an engineer. I often have to remind participants to give feedback on clarity, not judge the validity or worth of the person’s research. Sometimes, I’ve been surprised to learn that this might have been the first time a participant really sat down and talked to someone from another discipline! So, it was nice to feel validated – and yet another good reminder that useful ideas can be gathered in any session, even one that didn’t feel relevant on the surface.

For more information

Strategies for Involving all Students is a PDF that includes a complete list of strategies from Big Idea #4. is a database of lesson plans for K-12 science classes. This is being developed in conjunction with the San Francisco Unified School District.


Thanks for the great post, Carolyn!  Again, Carolyn runs “Elevator Talk” workshops for researchers — see her website at


Melissa King May 7, 2010 at 5:27 pm

Great post – thanks! I’d like to add one more point related to effective communications about science: make it relevant. Most people are eager to see connections, and in particular, we tend to want to know how this information relates to “my everyday life.” When people discover how science is indeed an important aspect of just about everything we are involved with, they will begin to “listen” and offer focused attention.

Torah Kachur May 11, 2010 at 3:18 am

One of the most important ideas – be concise!

And that doesn’t necessarily mean short.

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