Effective scicomm: it's all about the 'journey'

The 3-minute thesis

I recently participated in a 3-minute thesis competition. UNSW rightfully sees science communication as an essential skill — it's important for researchers to be able to present research results in a clear and concise manner to various audiences. The postgraduate program is set up to give researchers opportunities to practice and polish their communication skills — each year, postgrads showcase their research at the annual postgraduate research forum. First-year postgrads present a 7-minute introductory talk, second-years do a full 12-minute conference style seminar and third (and final) year postgrads take part in the 3-minute thesis competition.

It's not an easy task to summarise three years of research into three minutes. But, it's a great exercise in consolidating your ideas, highlighting your discoveries in a succinct way and it's excellent training for communicating with the media or giving that elevator pitch. It also arms you with a quick and dirty response when someone at a get-together politely asks you "what's your thesis about?" but quickly gets distracted by the spread of nibbles.

I really enjoyed doing a 3-minute thesis. It was a fun experience in a supportive and friendly environment and I was absolutely blown away by the calibre of presentations — they were engaging, relevant, quirky, funny and entertaining. I have said this before: I get frustrated when I hear 'science communicators' talk about scientists as socially awkward, rigid and boring people incapable of speaking in plain language to anyone who is not a scientist. There are plenty of scientists who are excellent at communicating their research to a multitude of audiences, and the 3-minute thesis was a tribute to that. Additionally, in the last three years that I have attended the competition, I've seen a huge improvement in the quality of the presentations. It seems the postgraduate research forum might be achieving its objective of improving researchers' communication skills (it would be interesting to actually measure this).

Below is a written version of my 3-minute thesis. The image above is the slide I used to open and close my talk. My friend Jim drew this for me and I think it really represents not only the process of science but my personal PhD ‘journey'. Enjoy.

It's all about the 'journey'

My friend drew this picture for me and I think it describes the essence of science perfectly. Science is a messy, endless, evolving twist of events. It's a journey.

I know ... I'm sorry, I just used the word "journey". I know, this isn't a TED talk. But that's what I want to talk about today — the scientific journey.

I research the public impacts of science communication — in particular, what people learn. What I've found so far are two things:

  1. Generally, people have misconceptions about how science is done.

  2. The way we communicate science might be reinforcing those misconceptions.

Wait, what?!

Here's what I did: I measured people's understanding of how science is done before they took part in a science outreach activity. I had a sample of adults and a sample of year 7-10 students.

As I said, I found that people have misconceptions: the majority of students and adults think that all science is done using a recipe-like, rigid, linear process — THE scientific method. And that by following this method step-by-step, scientists can uncover ‘facts’ that are 100% true and certain. Who can blame them … that's what they think because that's what they're taught in school. Few people have ever had the chance to be involved in actually doing science, so how could they possibly know? The problem is, these misconceptions can affect people's ability to make informed decisions on science-related matters. And that's a big issue.

What about after participating in science outreach? I asked the same people the same questions and compared their before and after responses. Surprisingly — people were slightly more likely to think that science is rigid, certain and absolute. Essentially, their misconceptions were reinforced.

Why? What's going on? Well, when we communicate science, we're often tempted to confidently talk about the findings, the phenomena and the scientific knowledge rather than the 'journey' and how we came to know what we know.

Don't worry, we can fix this. Research has shown that exposing people to the scientific process and also directly addressing misconceptions can reduce these misconceptions1,2,3,4.

So next time you're doing science communication, talk about the journey. It may just be the best thing you can do to improve public understanding of science.

1 Abd-El-Khalick, F.,& Lederman, N. G. (2000). Improving science teachers’ conceptions of the nature of science: A critical review of the literature. International Journal of Science Education, 22(7), 665 – 701.

2 Lederman, N. G. (2007). Nature of science: Past, present, and future. In S. K. Abell & N. G. Lederman (Eds.), Handbook of research on science education. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

3 Deng, F., Chen, D. T., Tsai C. C. & Chai, C. S. 2011. Students' views of the nature of science: A critical review of research. Science Education, 95, 961-999.

4 Kowalski, P. & Taylor, A.K. (2009) The effect of refuting misconceptions in the introductory psychology class, Teaching of Psychology, 36 (3), pp 153-159.

Related Posts