Keep it simple: unlearning ‘science speak`

FORT COLLINS – “Science speak” can plague experts and students alike, making it difficult to communicate ideas and studies in simple terms. Details may get lost and audience understanding foggy at best when scientists revert to complicated, discipline-oriented jargon to explain themselves.
Twenty Colorado State University doctoral and postdoctoral students have been given the opportunity to change that by being selected to participate in the School of Global Environmental Sustainability Leadership Fellows, or SLF, program.
Modeled after Stanford’s Leopold Leadership Program, the course is designed to help students effectively and efficiently communicate their study and scientific focus with the media, community and general public.
Diana Wall, director of the School of Global Environmental Sustainability, established the program in 2010. She was one of the first fellows of Stanford’s Leopold Leadership Program and wanted to bring a similar program and opportunity to CSU.
“I think that scientists in general want to change the world. And we all need to learn how to communicate better. We get very narrow in our research and disciplines,” Wall said.
Throughout the one-year program, fellows participate in eight to 10 sessions that focus on preparing and giving speeches, mock interviews with media members and concentrating on the way they portray themselves and their science to the public.
Speakers have included representatives from National Public Radio and the New York Times, television producers, science experts and former public office holders. Events are also held for the students to practice pitching their science to different audiences.
The fellows are further encouraged to network among themselves and with previous fellow participants.
Paul Tanger, a 2012 SLF candidate, endorsed the program’s approach of encouraging students to talk about their science in order to become more comfortable with conveying intended ideas and messages. A doctoral student with the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management, Tanger feels that the mentoring he received by talking with media members greatly improved his communication skills.
“Practice was really important,” he said. “Before this, I had never really met any media people at all in my life. It’s interesting to understand your perspective and how you come across to people. I realized that the media people are on your side, they’re just trying to get the information out there.”
Each year, 20 students are selected from a pool of 40 to 50 applicants.
The candidates are selected by a committee through a competitive application process. The selection committee is made up of a diverse panel of individuals from different schools at CSU with the intention of correctly interpreting SLF applications. Because applicants can range from several different disciplines, the panel reflects that so as not to discard an application because of misunderstanding, Wall said.
The program consists of students across the eight different schools at CSU that have a focus on sustainability practices within their discipline, and an interest in communicating important scientific concepts to broad audiences.
“We’re in our third year of the program right now,´ said Aleta Weller, research and outreach coordinator for the School of Global Environmental Sustainability. “It has become more competitive; all eight of the schools are usually represented.”
Weller said the response from past participants has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We put together an annual report from last year’s candidates that summarized quotes and feelings; 100 percent of fellows have been recommending it to peers,” she said. “Everyone feels really benefitted.”
Tanger is no exception. Last year, he won the opportunity to talk with congressmen about science funding in Washington, D.C.
“I was one of two people in the country that were selected to do that,” he said. “Having completed the program really helped my chances for that.”
Wall mentioned that the skills developed by the program have benefitted students working internationally. She said she received a letter from a previous SLF participant who was working in Tibet and was approached by a freelance writer for a science magazine. The writer originally was focused on the research the student was conducting, but after talking with her, decided to write another article featuring her as the main subject.
“It’s been really rewarding to hear from past cohorts,” Wall said. “We’re helping young scientists get focused on what they think is the most important in our world and this is a way of getting them there faster.”
The SLF application process opens in March, and Fellowships begin in May and run through April.
With sustainability science constantly evolving and being implemented among different facets, programs like SLF are meant to help bridge scientist’s knowledge with the general public through successful communication.
“The idea is that you’re empowering new researchers with tools and the opportunity to communicate what they’re doing more effective. The long-term implications of that are really important,” Tanger said. “It’s about how to meet in the middle between techno-speak and what the rest of the world needs to know and cares about.”


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