Second Century Stewardship Workshop Reaps Benefits from Collaboration

Abbey Paulson, left, gathers ideas about how her research as a Second Century Stewardship fellow can help school-age children learn about science, gathering ideas from an Acadia teacher; Schoodic Institute representatives and a filmmaker. | Suzanne Thurston/AAAS

Chris Nadeau is studying a species of water flea whose tiny, easily replicated and manipulated rock pool habitats make them ideal test subjects for predicting how climate change affects the planet’s most vulnerable species.

But Nadeau, a Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut, with a passion for science education, has run into trouble over how to make his research on Daphnia magna water fleas relevant to educators in the classroom. “I haven’t been in high school or grammar school for 20 years, so I don’t have any idea of what someone in grade five is learning and how my research might be useful to them,” Nadeau said.

Help came when Nadeau attended a communications workshop as part of his participation in the Second Century Stewardship Research Fellowship program, which is administrated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in collaboration with the Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park in Maine and the National Park Service.

During an intensive, three-day workshop, Nadeau was able to sit down with teachers, as well as National Park representatives, filmmakers, writers and other science communicators to discuss how such communications platforms could be used to spread understanding of his research findings.

The water fleas, he found, could be invaluable to science teachers. “You can bring them into the lab and that means you can bring them into the classroom too,” said Nadeau, “and their basic biology, like population growth, is something that’s really easy to observe for school kids. I didn’t know that’s something they would be interested in having going on in their classroom.”

Nadeau is one of four Second Century Stewardship fellows who took part in the communications workshop designed to improve how scientists share their research with the public. It was the multi-disciplinary and collaborative aspect of the workshop – featuring scientists, National Park Service representatives and teachers – that made it particularly useful, participants said.

The three other Second Century fellows participating in workshop were Abbey Paulson, a post-doctoral researcher from the University of Colorado who studies biodiversity by analyzing traces of DNA in small samples of soil and water; Allyson Jackson, an assistant professor of environmental studies at the Purchase College in New York who studies how contaminants move through the food-chain; and Alessio Mortelliti, an assistant professor at the University of Maine, studying the northward movement of plant species as temperatures increase.

While the workshop was primarily designed for the four fellows, they were not the only beneficiaries, participants said.

“I don’t think a single person who attended the workshop walked away without learning and feeling inspired,” said Elizabeth Rogers, a public affairs specialist at Fire Island National Seashore, who addressed the fellows as a Park Service representative and learned much in the process.

Rogers was among five Park Service staff members who participated in and benefited from the workshop. They were joined by eight school teachers, seven representatives from the Schoodic Institute, two AAAS facilitators and additional researchers. “It was truly an interdisciplinary group that came together to share and experience,” said Rogers, “and you don’t always get people who are ready to do both.”

Bob Hirshon, AAAS’ Program Director for Technology and Learning, briefed the fellows and the presenters alike on how to use new media and storytelling tools to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with the public, by creating their own podcasts, videos, blogs, TED-style talks and social media feeds. 

He said that while it is important for the fellows to work well with intermediaries, like journalists and press officers, they no longer need to rely on them. “I want them to be useful to that communications officer who’s writing a press release so the press release gets across the energy and the passion of the researcher,” said Hirshon. “But, of course, the best person to present the energy and passion and expertise of the research is the researcher.”

To that end, the workshop included training sessions focused on crafting stories for various audiences, shooting compelling photos and video, using social media to engage the public and leveraging upcoming digital technologies.

Attendees learned photo and video techniques from Jonas Stenstrom, a wildlife filmmaker and founder of Untamed Science, a website featuring videos and other resources meant to inspire life-long science learning. Jacquelyn Gill, a paleo-ecologist and biogeographer known for her Warm Regards podcast, blogs and web presence taught the group how best to use social media to communicate their research.

Marine biologist and filmmaker Randy Olson provided guidance on how to tell compelling stories with their research and how to craft those stories to reach different audiences. AAAS Education and Human Resources Project Director Suzanne Thurston led a session on working with educators, while Acadia National Park Science Coordinator Abe Miller-Rushing helped attendees understand the potential of engaging the public through volunteer “citizen science” activities.

Miller-Rushing described how energizing it was to have such a mix of expert participants. “Everybody, the whole time, was learning and contributing to the sessions, even the people who were not presenting,” he said.

Participating fellows will continue to hone their communications skills by developing communications plans and building portfolios and AAAS staff will work with the fellows to identify communication opportunities.

“The whole fellowship is great for that reason,” said Nadeau. “As fellows, we really feel supported to pursue science communications. I feel like I have a network of people that can help me do that, and that’s really useful and motivating.”

[Associated image: Bob Hirshon/AAAS]