Sixth Annual AAAS Communicating Science Seminar Discusses Challenges and Opportunities in Public Engagement

Panelists and audience members exchanged perspectives from both research and experience about different audiences, messaging tactics, and cultural change
Dr. Nalini Nadkarni opened the 2018 Communicating Science Seminar panels.| Credit: Professional Images Photography.

The Communicating Science Seminar at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting offered the audience of approximately 500 scientists, science communicators, evaluators, and students a chance to hear from and ask questions of speakers with diverse backgrounds and expertise in practicing, researching, and facilitating public engagement. The day included three panels, the first on expanding and diversifying the types of audiences that scientists and others engage with, the second on using narrative as a tool for conveying scientific information, and the third on increasing support for public engagement within scientific institutions and cultures.

During the first session, Reaching Beyond the Science-Interested Public, participants discussed a range of ways to engage with audiences who may not be seeking science content. Panelist Nalini Nadkarni, a professor of biology at the University of Utah, opened with examples of bringing science to under-served audiences and those who face legal or physical barriers to engaging with science, and her more recent work with the STEM Ambassador Program. She challenged the seminar participants to take on small acts of engagement -- – and creative ones (Dr. Nadkarni was wearing a blazer she helped design to encourage conversations about ecology). Jean Ryoo, a researcher with Exploring Computer Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, brought perspectives from working with K-12 students in out-of-school programs. She discussed how to shift stereotypes and identities in relation to science by helping kids see science as something they can do, not something that’s done to them -- in part by connecting it to what they already care about or do, but might not see as “science.” Mónica Feliú-Mojer, program manager at Ciencia Puerto Rico, a non-profit that works to advance science in Puerto Rico, gave a talk on ways to make science culturally relevant. She encouraged listening, being humble, and finding partners in the communities you’re trying to reach. The panel was moderated by Mark Rosin, co-founder of Guerilla Science and professor of mathematics at the Pratt Institute.

Dr. Renata Rawlings-Goss moderated the second panel on using narrative to engage people with data.| Credit: Professional Images Photography.

In the second session, Developing a Narrative About Your Data, Michael Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute and professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, contrasted his experiences discussing technical topics with technical audiences to communicating in the public arena. Karen Akerlof, a visiting scholar at AAAS, discussed how stories are the basis of memory formation and how they fit into human evolution. The third speaker, Joe Hanson, hosts PBS Digital Studios’ It’s Okay to be Smart, and suggested that data and anecdotes should not be seen as at odds with each other, and that the data is not the story, but a character in the story. The panel was moderated by Renata Rawlings-Goss, co-executive director of the South Big Data Regional Innovation Hub and director of industry partnerships for the Georgia Tech Institute for Data Engineering and Science. The panel and audience discussion included ways to frame and address uncertainty, and the importance of not underestimating the intelligence of your audience.

Dr. Patty Debenham shared "bright spots" in support for public engagement.| Credit: Professional Images Photography.

The final session of the seminar addressed Advocating for Public Engagement with Science through a variety of approaches to expanding the community of scientists who are trained, interested, and encouraged to participate in multi-directional public exchanges about science. Panelist Patty Debenham, a strategy consultant, described her recent work surveying the landscape of support for scientists to engage with the public. She shared some of the “bright spots” in public engagement and noted the importance of different tactics to target both the practical and emotional in encouraging greater support. Jessica Hellmann, director of the Institute on the Environment and professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior at the University of Minnesota, discussed her experience with creating change in academic cultures. She pointed to the need for training at all levels and making it easier for scientists by having boundary organizations within the institution. She also suggested finding a good definition for what constitutes excellent public engagement. The final speaker, Susan Renoe, is executive director of the Connector at the University of Missouri and principal investigator of the NSF-funded National Alliance for Broader Impacts. She offered her views on successful strategies for building infrastructure to make engagement easier for scientists, and encouraged the audience that doing good engagement locally can build an institution’s reputation globally. The panel was moderated by Mahmud Farooque, associate director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University.

Those interested in continued online conversations related to these and other topics in science engagement and communication may contact the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science by email. The seminar was recorded and will be available online along with videos of past seminars.