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AAAS Communicating Science Program Gives Its 200th Workshop


Allison Leidner
Previous AAAS workshop participant Allison Leidner demonstrating how to mark a crystal skipper butterfly at a science summer camp.| Credit: North Carolina Coastal Reserve

After celebrating ten years of Communicating Science workshops this spring, the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology recently hit another milestone: its 200th workshop. These workshops have provided more than 6,400 scientists and engineers around the United States – and  sometimes beyond (AAAS workshop facilitators have traveled as far as Kuwait and Chile) – the opportunity to learn core communication skills and to think strategically about their goals for engaging in two-way conversations about science with non-technical audiences.

The workshops discuss different types of public engagement, and the activities attendees have participated in after their workshops reflect this diversity. Some have gone on to speak at science cafés and science communication summits, or participated in science festivals and visits to Capitol Hill. One organized a group of faculty to meet with a senator, and another started a community advisory committee to undertake community-based participatory research. Recently, a participant tweeted that a AAAS workshop inspired her to write a letter to the editor of Nature on an important policy issue related to her research, "Maryland’s pursuit of fair drug prices." Other examples of different public engagement activities can be found in the Case Study section of the Center’s website.

NASA scientist Allison Leidner attended one of the first AAAS workshops, and was quoted in a Science News & Notes article (“Workshops Build Story-Telling Skills of Scientists”). Leidner was finishing her Ph.D. when she took the workshop, and it was one of her first forays into communication and engagement. Her interest in participating stemmed from her work studying an as-yet-unnamed species of butterfly. The butterfly is found on the beaches of North Carolina, where passersby would frequently ask her about her work. Being one of the only people who could share scientific information about this butterfly motivated her to do so effectively. 

Ten years later, Leidner says her career has been far more focused on public engagement and communication than she ever thought it would be, and she says the AAAS workshop “affirmed my interest, enabled my capabilities, and made me more open to other opportunities.” She specifically recalls the suggestion to avoid the use of the word “endemic,” even if defined, and to instead say “it’s only found here.” Leidner continues to engage with the target audiences she identified during the 2008 workshop, talking with the public about the crystal skipper butterfly via a variety of channels, including radio interviews, public talks, and a science summer camp. She has also reached policymakers through the American Institute of Biological Sciences Congressional Visit Days and her work as a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow. Leidner has participated in regular communication trainings since 2008 to continue to refine her skills and keep up on best practices, and is now a program scientist for education and communication in the NASA Earth Science Division, where she oversees many different communication initiatives.

AAAS workshops are based on communication research and theory and include time for small group discussion and practice, allowing participants to work on their basic communication skills, while also thinking through their motivations for engaging with the public and how those might affect their strategies. Workshop participants have reported that they wished they had learned these best practices and strategies at the start of their career, and said it was useful across career stages and levels of experience with public engagement. In a post-workshop evaluation, one participant said that the workshop’s interactive nature kept it fun, yet relevant to their professional needs. Another said it was “eye-opening and highlighted how scientists can have a huge impact in society by applying simple and effective tools of communication.”

Participants at AAAS workshops range widely, from graduate students to senior faculty, and from academics to military scientists and engineers, and may be highly interdisciplinary or from a single department. Workshops are sometimes hosted by a fellowship program, a research group within a federal agency, or a disciplinary society, among many others. AAAS also hosts workshops at the home institutions of many of the fellows in the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science.

AAAS has focused on expanding its workshop program over the past several years, increasing both the number and types of workshops offered, improving the diversity of scientists reached, and bolstering evaluation efforts. In addition to creating new workshops on Engaging the Public with Social Media and Engaging Policymakers, AAAS recently updated its flagship Communicating Science and Public Engagement Fundamentals workshop and has plans for a new module on engaging with the media.