Willy Goldsmith is a scientist who wants to share his work with others. As a National Marine Fisheries Service-Sea Grant Marine Resource Economics fellow and PhD candidate at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), he hopes to help better align fishermen preferences with fishery health. But he says that talking about his work with fishermen and other nonscientists can be difficult because “it can be hard to visualize economics.”
So Goldsmith enrolled in the Advanced Science Communication Seminar (ASCS), a semester-long professional development opportunity for graduate-level marine scientists who want to develop their skills in communicating to nonscientists, hosted by Virginia Sea Grant (VASG) and George Mason University’s Science Communication Department.
The fall 2016 ASCS was held via two in-person workshops, and lots of online interaction. Through the seminar, Goldsmith and 11 other students from VASG’s partner institutions, including four current and former Knauss fellows, and six VASG graduate research fellows, created products that communicate their research to stakeholders, such as infographics, videos, a song, and a photo essay.
“The purpose is to train upcoming scientists how to communicate their complex research and findings to a lay, focused audience, for example policy makers or elementary school teachers,” says Ian Vorster, VASG communications program manager. Vorster and Katherine Rowan, professor and director of the Science Communication Graduate Program at George Mason University, are ASCS’s main faculty.
“Ian Vorster and I, with the help of two George Mason science communication students, Allison Engblom and Erin Ziegler, wanted participants to come away thinking deeply and broadly about options for sharing their science,” Rowan says. “We also want them to finish the seminar with a useful outreach product that assists them in sharing their research.”
ASCS gives students the opportunity to approach science communication as a team—participants get feedback on their products from faculty, peers, and relevant stakeholders at two day-long workshop events.
“When scientists, communicators, educators, and stakeholders work in teams, they can find smart ways to make science accessible, useful, and sometimes, fun,” Rowan explains. In ASCS, Goldsmith created a photo essay about his research.
“I learned to start with what people are familiar with, so the first picture is something everyone can relate to: an excited fishermen holding a big bluefin tuna” Goldsmith says. “I’m leading with what’s important to them.” He printed his images on panels and is taking the presentation to the April meeting of the Stellwagen Bank Charter Boat Association, a Massachusetts-based group, to help him illustrate his research with this gathering of charter fishermen. He says he plans to use the science communication skills he learned in ASCS in the future as he gets into policy work.
Another student in the seminar, Pamela Braff, a VIMS PhD student studying wetlands, produced a whiteboard animation video explaining what wetlands are. The Center for Coastal Resource Management at VIMS, where Braff is a graduate student, will use her video in their outreach events and with teachers in classroom, and it will be featured on the Bridge, a collection of marine education resources for teachers.
Braff also presented her video at the premiere screening of Splash and Bubbles: One Big Ocean, an event hosted by the Community Idea Stations and held January 14, 2017, at the Science Museum of Virginia to present this new PBS KIDS animated series. Braff and another ASCS student, Lauren Huey—who designed an infographic about her oyster research—presented their products with other marine biology and science-marine biology and science-themed activities for families. A one-minute version of Braff’s video will also be submitted to PBS for screening as a break in Splash and Bubbles episodes.
Braff admits that the most challenging part of making her video was writing the script without being too technical. After she presented her video at a ASCS workshop, Lisa Lawrence, an educator at VIMS, ran her video script through a readability program, and found it was written at the eleventh-grade reading level.
“[Lawrence] highlighted all the parts she thought were contributing to that, and it was pretty much all of it,” says Braff. Lawrence helped Braff remove jargon, and use less advanced words to make her video easier for nonscientists to understand. Braff also found input from seminar faculty useful. She sat down one-on-one with Vorster to figure out how to improve the design of her video. “It was so helpful to have a resource to take it from a school project to something more professional looking,” Braff says. She’s excited to make more videos about her work.
“I really enjoyed the structured environment to create a product,” she reflects. “I’ve participated in a lot of science communication seminars, and talked about how to create a product, but never actually made one. I’ve been wanting to make something for a long time, and the seminar was a push to actually make it happen. I’m really happy with the final product.”
Five students, including Goldsmith, will present their final products on April 22 at the Mariner’s Museum’s Earth Day event. Virginia Sea Grant, and GMU will host another seminar next year.
By Chris Patrick, science writer