Scientists Watch Alan Alda Video

Scientists watch video of Alan Alda sharing communication tips.

Woods Hole scientists got some acting tips from actor Alan Alda to better communicate science to the public at a workshop last Thursday, April 26.

The Falmouth STEM Boosters, a parent group that works to build stronger connections between the science community and Falmouth Public Schools, hosted the event with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. A video with Mr. Alda offering some insight started out the event.

The center, based at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York, teaches communication skills using improvisational techniques Mr. Alda learned as an actor.

Mr. Alda has had experience communicating with scientists over several seasons hosting the PBS show “Scientific American Frontiers.” He has also written a book about his experience called “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating.”

Deborah A. Coulombe, director of the STEM boosters, said that part of her job is talking to scientists about their research and developing a way to present their work to students and teachers in an engaging way. She realized that the center could offer some tips for the boosters and the scientists with whom they work.

“It seemed like a golden opportunity for all of us to be on the same page on what is good science communication,” Ms. Coulombe said.

Elizabeth Bojsza, an improvisational trainer with the Alda Center, led the workshop for a group of 150 scientists from the various Woods Hole scientific institutions. She said that people are improvising all the time because life is not scripted. Being able to recognize these acts in daily life and use them in conversation can offer an easy and clearer exchange between scientists and their audience.

“With improv you learn to read cues from people to take the next step,” Ms. Coulombe said.

Ms. Bojsza started the session with an exercise throwing an imaginary ball out into the audience, with participants passing it around the room for someone to catch. She asked people to throw the “ball” attaching a meaning to the action, such as throwing out a “greeting” or a “compliment.” The meaning behind the throw gave it different qualities. For example, an “apology” throw had “kind of a tender” quality Ms. Bojsza observed.

Next, audience members paired up to ask each other questions about their scientific interests, what they had for breakfast and where they were from. Later they shared their partner’s information by memory with another team.

John J. Stegeman, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, paired up with Kelly Taranto, a grants and acquisitions coordinator at NOAA Fisheries.

Ms. Taranto of Falmouth said the workshop was beneficial because she is not a scientist, although she writes about it for her job. She did not have time for breakfast that morning.

“I am interested in everything,” Dr. Stegeman said.

He described his enthusiasm to learn now the same as when he was 10 years old. Dr. Stegeman described his research to Ms. Taranto as the study of chemical changes in organisms that lead to certain characteristics, such as color. Dr. Stegeman grew up in Quincy, Illinois, and had a healthy oatmeal breakfast that morning.

Another exercise had participants distill the essence of their work into the title of a country music song.

Sara Weeks, also with NOAA Fisheries, said that she came to the event because she is always looking for better ways to communicate information to fishermen with whom she interacts.

Sofia Ibarraran, a biologist, said that she attended because she wanted more tools on how to communicate her science.

“I think people left with concrete ideas that they tried out and feel comfortable trying again,” Ms. Coulombe said.

The local scientific institutions supported the event. MBL offered the use of its Lillie Auditorium and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution helped fund the workshop through a National Science Foundation grant. Woods Hole Research Center and the Sea Education Association were also sponsors and NOAA Fisheries and the United States Geological Survey were supporters as well.

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