Last night I ran the Science Communication Challenge for the International Students Science Fair at John Monash Science School. My original brief was “something techy, maybe with robots”, but over the months I spent planning it I became more and more convinced that what we really needed was not a token attempt at code, but to focus on connection. On Communication. Don’t get me wrong, as a computer scientist I love to teach code. But in a couple of hours it’s hard to take away lasting meaning from a coding challenge, especially with a range of starting skills wider than the Grand Canyon.
Communication is different.
Without communication, science achieves nothing. It’s not enough to discover things. You can find all the novel and fabulous solutions to climate change, world hunger, or pandemics that you like. If you can’t communicate them then you have no chance of persuading people to take them on, fund them, work with them, and implement them. In which case your earth-shattering ideas become dust-gathering ideas, and you might as well stay in bed.
When I first started my PhD in Computer Science, my husband, Andrew, was doing a Masters in Electrical Engineering. When we met people for the first time, the conversation went a little like this:
Stranger to Andrew: “So what do you do?”
Andrew: “I’m studying windmills.”
Stranger to me: “how about you?”
Me (all starry eyed and passionate about my topic) : “I’m doing a PhD in Computer Science.”
Whereupon the stranger’s eyes would glaze over and they would turn desperately back to Andrew. “So… windmills, you said?”
Windmills are cool. PhDs in Computer Science, not so much.
So I learnt to say this: “I’m trying to work out why computers are so sucky to use, and how to make them better.”
Suddenly I was party guest of the year.
Both versions were equally true, my PhD was partly in Usability, but one version made eyes glaze over, the other made me a star. Only locally, in a very small and slightly inebriated firmament, it’s true, but nonetheless I was no longer an outcast.
All it took was a little bit of thought about my communication. It didn’t come naturally, but it can be taught. I’ve taken students who start out paralysed with fear at the idea of public speaking, and taught them to speak confidently and comfortably to large crowds. It’s just tricks and practice. Anyone can do it.
But for the most part we don’t teach it. It’s not a compulsory part of any science degree that I know of. There may be a token communication skills elective such as I used to teach within a CS degree, but those courses are generally woefully under-subscribed, and usually the first against the wall when the curriculum review comes. Sure, we make students present stuff, but without teaching them the tricks and giving them the practice, that’s a little like saying we teach them to fly by pushing them off a cliff. They may appear to fly in the short term, but it doesn’t end well.
I’m not convinced you can effectively teach someone to change their communication style in a once-or-twice-a-week semester-long subject anyway. I think it takes immersion – much like learning a foreign language – and intensive experience, followed by practice and ongoing support. It requires knowing how to build a connection with your audience, and learning to connect, and even perform.
I think we need a Centre for Science Communication in Australia. The USA has the Alan Alda Centres for Science Communication, and they are achieving great things with them. It’s fundamental: If Science is to save the world, it has to be able to talk to it first. You know the joke about how the lightbulb has to want to change? Well science has to persuade the world to want to change.
I think we can do this. I think we have to. Who’s with me?