About CommForge2

CommForge2 is the course website for LAIS423/523, Advanced Science Communication, at the Colorado School of Mines. From here, you can link to student sci-tech blogs, read about the course, and comment on current events and stories. Welcome!

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Final Note

First, let me say it was a pleasure getting to know all of you this semester.  I was surprised that on many of your self-evaluations you felt that you hadn't really improved in terms of communication skills over the semester, because I have seen great gains in your work.  Perhaps you will see them too, over time.

Second, I received an email from a colleague this morning who was at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference last week.  While the Society for Petroleum Engineering (SPE) ATCE had its first-ever "social panel" this year, AGU has been thinking about the social--and communication in particular--for some time.  Check out this line-up of panels and poster presentations:

Monday, December 3
ED13E. ED13E. Public Participation in Citizen Science Research I
Convener(s): Constance Walker (Natl Optical Astronomy Observ), Pamela Gay (SIUE / Astrosphere), Stephen Pompea (Natl Optical Astronomy Obs) and Nicole Gugliucci (SIUE STEM Center)
1:40 PM – 3:40 PM; 301 (Moscone South)
GC13C. GC13C. Integrating Natural and Social Science Research to Address Human Dimensions of Global Change I Posters
Convener(s): Katherine Marvel (LLNL), Steven Davis (University of California, Irvine), Kate Ricke (Carnegie Institution of Science) and Juan Moreno-Cruz (Georgia Institute of Technology)
1:40 PM – 6:00 PM; Hall A-C (Moscone South)

Tuesday, December 4
S21A. S21A. Citizen-Empowered Seismology I Posters
Convener(s): Paul Earle (USGS) and Remy Bossu (CSEM c/o CEA, Bat. Sable)
8:00 AM – 12:20 PM; Hall A-C (Moscone South)
ED21B. ED21B. Ocean Science Online: Engaging Multiple Audiences I Posters
Convener(s): Giora Proskurowski (University of Washington) and Allison Fundis (University of Washington)
8:00 AM – 12:20 PM; Hall A-C (Moscone South)
GC22B. GC22B. Communicating Climate Science—Seeking the Best of Old and New Paradigms I
Convener(s): James Byrne (Univ Lethbridge), Natasha Andronova (UM Atm, Oce & Spc Sci) and Philip Rasch (Pacific Northwest National Lab)
10:20 AM – 12:20 PM; 3014 (Moscone West)
PA23B. PA23B. Facebook, Twitter, Blogs: Science Communication Gone Social—The Social Media 101 I
Convener(s): John Cook (Global Change Institute), Simon Schneider (Institut für Wissenschaft im Film (IWF) e.V.), Jessica Ball (University at Buffalo) and Kate Ramsayer (AGU)
1:40 PM – 3:40 PM; 302 (Moscone South)
ED23D. ED23D. Ocean Science Online: Engaging Multiple Audiences II
Convener(s): Allison Fundis (University of Washington) and Giora Proskurowski (University of Washington)
1:40 PM – 3:40 PM; 301 (Moscone South)
GC23A. GC23A. Communicating Climate Science—Seeking the Best of Old and New Paradigms II Posters
Convener(s): Natasha Andronova (UM Atm, Oce & Spc Sci), Philip Rasch (Pacific Northwest National Lab) and James Byrne (Univ Lethbridge)
1:40 PM – 6:00 PM; Hall A-C (Moscone South)
SM23C. SM23C. Strategies and Innovative Approaches for the Future of Space Weather Forecasting: Science and Infrastructure II Posters
Convener(s): Harlan Spence (University of New Hampshire), Michael Hesse (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center) and Daniel Baker (University of Colorado)
1:40 PM – 6:00 PM; Hall A-C (Moscone South)
IN23F. IN23F. Near Real Time Data Uses for Earth Science and Space Weather Applications: Use of Social Media I (Video On-Demand)
2:40 PM – 3:40 PM; 104 (Moscone South)
PA24A. PA24A. Is Video Replacing Writing? The Role of Video in Effectively Communicating Science I
Convener(s): Douglas Harned (U.S.Geological Survey), Gerard McMahon (USGS) and Ryan vachon (Earth Initiatives and OPIC)
4:00 PM – 6:00 PM; 302 (Moscone South)
Bloggers Forum: Science on the Web
Get expert advice from seasoned bloggers and spark new discussions on the future of geoblogging at the Bloggers Forum. Panelists to be announced. Come with questions, ideas, or observations on the nature of blogging about Earth and space sciences. The bloggers forum will be webstreamed for those unable to attend the Fall Meeting.
5:00PM – 6:00PM; Moscone West Room 3000

Wednesday, December 5
PA31B. PA31B. Facebook, Twitter, Blogs: Science Communication Gone Social—The Social Media 101 II Posters
Convener(s): Simon Schneider (Institut für Wissenschaft im Film (IWF) e.V.), John Cook (Global Change Institute), Jessica Ball (University at Buffalo) and Kate Ramsayer (AGU)
8:00 AM – 12:20 PM; Hall A-C (Moscone South)
PA33A. PA33A. Is Video Replacing Writing? The Role of Video in Effectively Communicating Science II Posters
Convener(s): Douglas Harned (U.S.Geological Survey), Gerard McMahon (USGS) and Ryan vachon (Earth Initiatives and OPIC)
1:40 PM – 6:00 PM; Hall A-C (Moscone South)

Thursday, December 6
ED42A. ED42A. Climate Literacy: Higher Education Efforts in Climate Change Education II
Convener(s): Anne Gold (CIRES/CU Boulder-Rsrch Lab 2) and Miriam Bertram (University of Washington)
10:20 AM – 12:20 PM; 302 (Moscone South)
U44A. U44A. Dissolving Boundaries Between Scientists, Media, and the Public
Convener(s): Eli Kintisch (AAAS-Science Magazine) and Juliette Rooney-Varga (UMass Lowell)
4:00 PM – 6:00 PM; 102 (Moscone South)

Friday, December 7
IN51C. IN51C. Linked Data for Earth and Space Science Posters
Convener(s): Brian Wilson (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), David Arctur (Open Geospatial Consortium), Eric Rozell (Rensselaer Polytechnic Inst) and Thomas Narock (NASA/GSFC)
8:00 AM – 12:20 PM; Hall A-C (Moscone South)
No doubt AGU is on the ball because of the long-lasting and complex controversies that have erupted in the US over climate change; perhaps fracking is pushing SPE to do the same.

This is the last post for this version of CommForge:  I imagine CommForge3 will make an appearance some time in 2014, with all new student bloggers, assignments, and controversies to discuss.  See you then!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Street Science, Meet Fracking

Andy Revkin has a good post up today over at the fabulous Dot Earth blog about how citizens are creating tools to gather data about hydrofracturing efforts across the nation.  In my mind, this is something akin to the "street science" efforts Corburn talks about in his book Street Science:  Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice (though the focus is not always on public health, and the "community" is writ large in this case).  Regardless of how you feel about shale gas exploration and extraction, I think we can agree that, in a democracy, it's pretty neat to see citizens involved in the production of scientific and technical data, engaged in important debates about environmental health and safety, and raising the stakes in terms of improving discourse on this controversial subject.  This can only be good for democracy.

Such efforts, argues Revkin, are proving increasingly important:

"Given that government resources for environmental regulation (and just about everything else) will be constrained for a long time to come, I’ve been enthusiastic about efforts by the public to take a D.I.Y. (do it yourself) role in tracking pollution or resource issues, whether on the ground or online."

Monday, November 5, 2012

Design is So Obvious. Why Bother?

Question:  What does ballot design have to do with Science Communication?

Answer:  Both can get really screwed up by bad design.
Our class text for this portion of the semester is Garr Reynolds' Presentation Zen.  I think it's a fun and provocative book, but it does occur to me that one might argue that it's not very rigorous in scholarly terms and that its lessons about powerpoint design might even be...obvious.

It's sort of like when my colleagues say to me, why worry about the deficit model of communication?  That's so 1990s.  Or why continue to work on public engagement in communication and policy?  We've moved past that.  Obvious, obvious, obvious.

Except that, across the board, the deficit model continues to reign supreme among specialists everywhere as the dominant worldview, and public engagement continues to be truly absent from most scientific and environmental decisionmaking, and also just plain hard to do.

Similarly, good design seems remarkably hard to come by.  Watch this short video with the hilarious Mo Rocca as he interviews Todd Oldham about voting ballot design.

Oh, hey.  I almost forgot.  Happy voting tomorrow (if you haven't already!).

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hormones and Voting

We were reading excerpts from Dorothy Nelkin's classic book Selling Science last week in class.  A fair amount of my students assumed Nelkin was a man when they read her work, by the way, so here's a lovely picture of her:

In class, we created a typology of classic science narratives that appear in media coverage of science and technology on the board, narratives such as:

  • The scientist as hero
  • The scientist as deviant, which only proves the real purity of the scientific enterprise
  • Technology as the cutting edge of history
  • Technology as potentially perilous and needing to be controlled
And so on.  The book is about 25 years old now, so I challenged the class to go online (we work in a tiny computer lab), to find modern sci-tech news stories, and to examine them for evidence of Nelkin's types.  I had also hoped students might venture to update her typology somewhat, given that things such as gender representations have (hopefully) changed in the last quarter-century.

We didn't get very far.

Shane (of Chewblagga) was the first to present his article, and he brought up the CNN news flap over the scientific study that claims that women who are ovulating and single are more likely to vote for progressives, where as married women are more likely to vote conservative.  Or, in other words, single chicks vote for Obama (because, as one of my students pointed out, moms tend to vote for the handsome guy).  But that only holds if your mom is single.  And ovulating.  Which, ew.

Also, CLEARLY, in the interests of fairness, we need to point out that both candidates are handsome.  I know because I watched the debates and was checking them out.  I'm not trying to make a political statement here, like about who would make a better President based on looks.  But how could you not notice?  Same for the vice-presidential debates!  I could hardly follow what they were saying because of all the handsomeness.

Plus, really, it's hard to keep all of the politics straight.  Most likely because women who menstruate can't multitask.  And how was I supposed to follow politics and policy with all that handsomeness and potential male fertility flying around?  I had laundry to fold!

Or perhaps it's just that women are having trouble figuring out which presidential candidate turns them on.

In any case, there's some lesson to be learned here, I'm sure of it.  Perhaps it's that Nelkin is right, and that scientific study that claims to settle some sort of social debate or controversy (such as whether women really are the weaker sex, thanks to the whole menstruation thing) is going to get a lot of news coverage, because in society we tend to want science to definitively decide some things for us.  And the power that women seem to be wielding as voters in this election--which is also about a lot of policies affecting women's rights--might be freaking us out a little.  It would be great if we just had some science to tell us what to do.  Nelkin--and other classic Science and Technology Studies (STS) texts we've read in class--have tried to show us both that science is not always performed so neatly, nor can it be neatly mapped on to social issues in such a way.  We're going to have to figure this out through politics.

We could also add that science that doesn't agree with our political values is quickly discounted as being sham science, and this is true on the left, and on the right, and with climate change, stem cells, abortion, or women's hormones, among other things.  Censoring the science is probably not good for the scientific enterprise as a whole, even if it might be good for women in the short-term.  So even though I find this kind of study (what I've seen of it) troubling from a personal and political perspective, I think CNN pulling the story is an odd move.  Better to improve your coverage, have the scientific debate out and out, in full view, with transparency.

Let the golem come forth, in other words.  Let the doing of science be visible.

Or maybe the lesson you learned in class is that you can easily get your professor off on some tangent, derailing her pedagogical goals, by bringing up an example like this.  Clearly, she's no good at multitasking, and now you know why.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Midterm Evaluation Interlude

Readers who are not in my class, forgive me.  I must take a brief interlude to address the concerns of students as expressed on their midterm evaluations.  Students, your feedback was both constructive and helpful, and though I can't make all of the changes you would like (such as moving the class to MWF, or having classes catered by Applebee's) I want to deal with a few of your concerns and suggestions.

1.  You would like for me to post an example of a good ARM.  Apologies!  I always do this for the ARM assignment, thought I had done it for this class, but now see that I haven't.  Examples of a "good" ARM and a "poor" ARM are now posted under "Assignments" in Blackboard.

2.  You would like me to get more input from quiet students.  Yes.  You are right.  This is something I struggle with as an instructor.  I get very animated and enthusiastic and am excited for the conversation to move along, and before you know it, only five or six people are involved in our classroom conversation.  The hacky-sack has made an appearance recently, so if you're a quieter student, be prepared to see that (and some other tricks up my sleeve) soon.  Don't forget, too, that everyone will need to participate in the upcoming presentation workshops.

3.  You would like clearer explanations for assignments and their requirements.  Let me remind you that we built the requirements for the blog together in class and that they are posted on Blackboard under "Assignments" in the "Blog" folder.  The video assignment was explained here, along with expectations.  A few of you mentioned you would have liked more time to work on the video project.  Me too!  I'll see if I can add more time in next time I teach the class.  But one of the purposes of it is to figure out how to make a video quickly and post it to your blog.  Steep learning curve, I know, but you did it, and you have that knowledge now.  In any case, I have created detailed materials for the Presentation and will post them on Blackboard today!

4.  One of you mentioned that there is an uncomfortable dynamic between undergrads and grads (with the grads being sort of know-it-alls who are going to get all the As).  I'm guessing not all of you feel this way, but for what it's worth, the grads are graded on a different scale from the undergrads, so their A's (if they get them) don't threaten your A's (if you get them).  Grads, don't let this dampen your enthusiasm for participating, but you might be aware of how you respond to undergrads.  Undergrads, keep in mind that CSM is funky in how they mix grad and undergrad class and that some times the grads may want to push ahead some.  That is just a dynamic we have to deal with.

5.  You would like to change the ARMs due date to facilitate better discussion.  Done.  You can now submit ARMs by the beginning of class the day the reading is due.  But keep in mind I won't have seen your ARM discussion questions, so you'll need to come to class prepared to bring them up.

Great comments, everyone, and I hope this post goes a little way towards addressing them.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Talk Nerdy To Me

Okay, that last post was a long one.  Those things were maybe on my mind for a while.

We're headed out of the video blog post section of the course (more on that soon) and into the presentation section.  Briana sent me this video, which I think is relevant to my last post, and to where we're headed next.

I don't agree with everything she says--engineers aren't the only ones with big brains, and tackling our grandest challenges, though they are really important.  But I like her invitation to speak with one another.  Looking forward to some nerdy talk!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Those Who Can't Do, Teach

You've heard that saying before, right?  I don't know where it comes from, but it's typically used to disparage teachers and professors who stay locked in their ivory towers (or ivory labs) and are so disconnected from the world that they don't really understand what they are teaching about.  I think it's also a barb intended to undermine teacher authority in the classroom, along the lines of, why would I listen to you?  When's the last time you were in the real world? 

Fair enough.  I bet we've all had teachers like that--who are so passionately focused on minutia or, frankly, who are so bad at their job that we wonder how they can even get their shoes tied in the morning much less inspire young minds.  I'd like to believe they are few and far between, but in some cases:  those who can't do, teach.

But I think we could also ask how far this line of argumentation gets us.

Take this comment from a student (about me):  "Besides, she has never done lab research, she has no right to preach, teach, or grade this class."


First response (to myself):  Nope, I've never done lab research.  But I do have eight years of graduate school under my belt, more than fifteen years of teaching experience, I've published widely in the field, given over 30 presentations and talks in the US and around the world, to a wide variety of audiences, and...

Wait a minute.  I'm being defensive.  Though I am reminded of Olson's critique that those who most need science communication training are often those who most resist it.  And clearly this conversation is not really about facts, or credentials.  What the heck is going on here?

Second response (to myself):  But communication is really important.  We could cite that study done by Goldman Sachs (contextualized here) that shows that about 70% of project delays for oil companies comes from social barriers, which have miscommunication at their core.  Or point to publications and reports from the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, ABET (which accredits engineering schools in the US), and a major survey done of engineering CEOs and professional engineers who argue that the one skill engineering graduates lack is communication.  Those guys rated "problem solving and communication" as the most important skill you'll need (math and engineering knowledge came in fifth).  We could look at book after book, textbook after textbook, speech after speech that argues that scientists and engineers need to know how to communicate because their work is increasingly important in the public sphere.

Shoot, I could even point to the email I got from a scientist colleague last week asking me to help him out because the very prestigious journal he just got published in is now doing video abstracts.  His will be the second one ever.  I would bet in a few years everyone will be doing them.   "How do I do that?" he asked.  "I don't know, but let's try!" I said.

But this is all just more data.  The deficit model in action.  I'm assuming that if this student knew what I know, he'd agree that communication is important.  But he might not.

And he's not alone in his belief about expertise and communication.  Last year, a faculty member on campus vociferously argued that I had no right to teach the course Nuclear Power and Public Policy because I'm not a nuclear engineer.

I'm tempted to argue:  well, then.  I suppose a World War II historian has to be a vet to write about that history?  Or maybe he should just be dead, so he can write about dead people?  Maybe we should get rid of all the technical professors on campus who have been out of industry for more than a few years?  

Absurd, right?  Is knowledge really so stuck in these tiny little boxes?  Is teaching just about how much knowledge you can accrue and then dump into a student's head?

But there I go, being defensive again.

Third response (to myself, and to you):  Sigh.  

If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that when a critique--however rudely put--really stings, it's probably because there's some truth to it.  I won't concede to the student's argument that I shouldn't be teaching this class because I haven't done lab work.  I think that's nonsense, and I would bet most thinking people would agree with me on that.

But here's the thing:  the practice of communication is still very much an art in a lot of respects.  There is a ton of research on communication, don't get me wrong.  But things are changing so rapidly that the "rules" of public communication in particular are shifting under our feet.

Meaning:  there are no hard and fast rules for what really works in every situation.  Sorry--there just aren't.  Meaning:  what really works in one situation might not work in another.  You can't plug and chug your way through a communication event.  Meaning:  we often know more about what doesn't work than what does.  Smart people are doing smart work in this area, but it's still pretty new.  Consider that it wasn't so long ago that

  • Every major American city had a newspaper (or two!), and people actually got their news from them
  • There were no 24-hour news channels
  • People corresponded through the mail
  • Blogs didn't exist
  • Smart phones and tablets didn't exist
  • If you wanted to watch a television program, you had to actually turn on your television.
I'm not that old, friends, and I remember the world that I have just described quite clearly.  The point is that things are changing rapidly, the rules of communication are in flux, and it's going to take effort and experimentation to figure this out.

Meaning:  from my perspective, we are all in this together.  I need scientists and engineers to teach me about their work so that I can communicate about it, and I hope they will want to learn about communication for the same reason.  We are building best practices and experience together (like my friend above who is courageous enough to try a video abstract for a major publication, for the first time).

I know this work can feel uncomfortable, or slow, or too subjective to be taught.  But hang in there.  Leave your cynicism aside for a moment and know that there are things we can teach each other, and learn from scholarship, and develop through practice.  It's a different kind of skill-building from what you learn in your other classes.  Still, I believe that it is possible to get better, and even to get really good, at communication.  

But only if you keep trying.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Video Post

We've just wrapped up Randy Olson's Don't Be Such a Scientist, and before we turn our attention to crafting formal, creative presentations, we're going to take a brief interlude for some video production.

Some of you might know that I teach a course called Film Studies for LAIS.  I've taught the course (or some version of it) for almost ten years, and video production is a big part of the class--in addition to studying film history, film art, and film language, students in that course also spend the bulk of the semester making videos.

Here's a few links to a couple of my favorite film projects from that class, over the years:

Abandonment (Pt. 1)

Abandonment (Pt. 2)

Last Call

Unfortunately, in Advanced Science Communication, we don't have the entire semester to devote to making videos.  And we most likely won't be making fiction films anyway.  But there are some basics of videomaking and visual storytelling that we might be able to master (or at least begin to master) in a fairly short period of time, and which can enhance the kinds of storytelling you're able to do on your blog.

Hence, this assignment.

Each blog in the class is required to post a video on the blog by Thursday, October 11, at the beginning of class.  So here's how this is going to go down:

Today in class (September 27th):  Group work to map out the concept, make arrangements for equipment and editing, setting up shoot times, and sketching storyboards for the video.

For next Thursday, October 4:  Screening of rough drafts of videos (ranging from raw footage to "rough cuts") in class.  Group feedback session.  Will continue on Tuesday, October 9, if necessary.

Thursday, October 11:  Final videos should be posted on the blogs.

Minimum expectations:

  • Videos can range from 1-5 minutes in length.  What matters most is not the length but the content, inventiveness, and storytelling ability of the video.
  • The video should be related in some way to the topic of your blog.
  • The video should not be 1-5 minutes of someone talking at the camera with no editing or other visual interest.
  • The video should incorporate some of the main ideas from Olson's book.
  • The video should incorporate the basic videomaking skills described in Schroeppel's book.  Everyone should have read this book before they begin filming.
  • You are required to procure your own camera and editing equipment and software.  The quality of the equipment is much less important than what you do with it.
  • The final product should demonstrate that you have incorporated class feedback from the rough session.
  • The final post should introduce the video in some way:  you can talk about the making of the video, the content of the video, or anything else you like, but you must provide your reader with some context.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Journal Article Translation (JAT)

One assignment we're working on class is taking a research article (not a commentary or news piece) from either the journal Nature or Science Magazine and turning the article into a relevant and interesting blog post.  These two publications, maybe along with PNAS, are probably the most respected science publications out there, and figuring out how to communicate what we might call "high-science" on our popular blogs is a good exercise.

At the very least, it will make you appreciate your workaday science journalists a little more.

As you're writing your blog posts, you might do some pre-writing to prepare:

  • Summarize the article in as plain a language as you can.  Then consider these questions:
  • Who are the authors?  What kind of work do they usually do?  Do they have websites that help you to put the article into context?
  • What led the authors to do the study?  You might be able to learn this from the abstract, the introduction, or their website, if they have one.  You might also see if there were press releases or news stories about the article that you could refer to for more information.  You might also consider emailing the author with some specific questions if you're feeling daring (although emails with questions like, "what is your article about?" probably won't get much of a response).
  • What are the findings?  Were the unexpected in some way?  Or confirm knowledge we already had?  Why do the findings matter to science?
  • And here's the kicker, the hard question:  why might the findings matter to the everyday reader?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Real Climate on Science Journalism

As you're no doubt beginning to see "Science Communication" can mean many different things to different people.  It can mean

  • The practice of scientists/technologists communicating with other scientists/technologists;
  • The practice of communicating science/technology to the public, or to certain segments of the public;
  • The study of how science/technology are communicated, or the practice of how they should be communicated;
  • An analysis of public understandings (or misunderstandings) of science and technology;
  • The study of controversial cases of science and technology communication or miscommunication;
  • The desire on the part of experts, organizations, or corporations to convince people to buy their products, or accept their studies, or give them "social license" to operate;
  • And probably some more that I'm not thinking of (email me if you see others, and I'll add them).
Another sub-area of science communication practice and study is science journalism, which is what today's post is about.

A few days ago, Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist who writes for the climate blog Real Climate, published an interesting post about science journalism.  The post details how scientists or research groups will frequently release a version of a scientific paper to journalists a few days before the paper is published in an academic journal, on the understanding that the paper won't be publicly shared.  This makes the paper "embargoed," and essentially it allows science journalists time to figure out how to report on the story.  From Schmidt's point of view, embargoed early release is a win-win for both the scientists and journalists.

But now, it appears, some journalists are being required to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), which means they can't show the embargoed article to other scientists for feedback or verification.  Schmidt sees this as bad:  it limits journalists' freedom to fully understand a story, for one thing, and it also increases the likelihood that scientists' work will be seen as resisting an "open and self-critical process of inquiry."

A couple of thoughts:  this idea of the NDA for embargoed articles seems to me to be part of the increasing corporatization of academic science:  the fierce competition between research groups for funding and attention, for example, foments this sort of treatment of intellectual property.  It also can, in cases of controversial science and technology, increase the public perception that scientists are just greedy businessmen, only interested in research for the sake of self-promotion and funding, an attack that climate scientists like Schmidt are no doubt all too aware of.

At the very worst, it could amplify the kinds of "bad science" we saw in the Pons and Fleischman Cold Fusion case, which we'll discuss more later in the semester.

It also makes the work of the busy science journalist that much harder, and let's face it, with today's round-the-clock deadlines, shrinking newsrooms, and shrinking science "newsholes" (the space for science stories among all the other stories), they have it hard enough.

It could also be that this is another problematic outcome of the split some people would like to see between PR and scientists, which we discussed last week in class.  Having scientists or engineers communicate with the public or media can be so messy, difficult, or potentially litigious, some argue, that it is better to let professional communicators (i.e., public relations professionals) do the work.  But it seems to me that when scientists leave communication efforts to PR professionals, however well-intentioned they may be, you're going to end up with communication that looks more like a business and less like Schmidt's "open and self-critical process of inquiry."

Monday, September 17, 2012

Blog Fodder

I taught college composition classes for many years before joining the tenure-track at the Colorado School of Mines.  For a long time, I was pretty unhappy with most of the composition texts out there...most were either grammar manuals or readers that were too general to be interesting.

But there was one exception:  Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein's They Say, I say:  The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.  I liked this book a lot because it talks in very frank terms about the conventions of academic writing--in other words, the kinds of implicit rules American academics use when they are writing arguments.

There are lots of subtleties in this little book that I won't go into in this post, but I think its most important message is that the key to understanding academic writing is knowing that when you are writing about a subject, you are entering into a dialogue that is already going on.  Most likely, a whole bunch of people before you have thought quite a bit about your topic and have written down those thoughts.  Writing your own paper as if that dialogue didn't exist is sort of like walking up to a group of people at a party--people who are animatedly discussing the Presidential election, say--and just interrupting with a diatribe of your own about politics without pausing to listen to what they have been talking about.  You come across as a party pooper at best and an ignorant boob at worst, but also you've done little to further the line of argumentation that was already in place.

In other words, refusing to acknowledge and understand the ongoing dialogue around you is something akin to a big, giant party foul.

Shamelessly borrowed from this blog.

For the blog project, this leads to the question, what kinds of dialogues are already happening about your subject?  Who is talking about, publishing on, blogging about nuclear power, or fraccing, or space exploration?  What are people saying about the politics of geophysics, or the perils of the robotic work force?  Until you know what the conversation is about, you won't be very effective at entering it.

In other words, your blog needs fodder.  Something to feed on.   Something to build on.  A dialogue to engage in.

I've asked students to sign up for various types of blog fodder, and then to send that list to me.  Here's what it looks like so far (I'll be adding as students send me their fodder):

These are good sources; I hope students will also subscribe to other blogs (preferably reputable or professional ones) so that they are reporting not just on the news but also engaging others in terms of arguments and ideas.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Bit More on Fracking/Fracing/Fraccing and the Deficit Model

In class today, we spent some time looking over one another's blogs and providing feedback on blog design, the content of our posts, and just general stuff about how to set things up.  Since most of us are new bloggers, we'll all be making some mistakes and hopefully taking some risks.

Toward the end of class, we began discussing Fraccing with Two C's, a student blog dealing with hydrofracturing.  We talked about the title--not only what it means, but what meanings it might connote--and also about the tone of the initial posts.  When the team labeled their blog "Fraccing" they did so in order to note that this is the correct spelling of the abbreviated form for hydrofracturing (I've also seen a lot of industry folks spell it fracing).  The media and anti-hydrofracturing activists, on the other hand, tend to use the spelling "fracking," both because it's more phonetically familiar and because it looks like a swear word, with that emphasis on that hard "k" sound at the end (google the term "What the Frack?" to see what I mean).

From TAG

After class, this very interesting article by my colleague Adam Briggle (he's at the University of North Texas" popped into my inbox.  The article is called "The Religiosity of the Fracking Debate," and in it Briggle argues that although the debate over fracking is a scientific one, those involved in the debate make their argument about the "facts" with a fervor bordering on the religious:

"It is reminiscent of a time when religious factions tore through Europe, each certain that it knew the will of God and the proper order of things. What was truth for one faction was heresy for another."
Doesn't that sound like fights over fraccing, or abortion, or stem cell research?  Controversial science debates start to look a lot like religious debates, sometimes.

Briggle goes on to argue that, really, there is a whole lot of uncertainty in the science about the effects of fracing, at all its various stages, than either side wants to acknowledge.  Supporters of fracking argue that it is 100% safe and risk-free, while opponents paint fracing as typical oil-and-gas exploitation of health and environmental loopholes.  Briggle argues that instead of polarizing in this way, we would all do well to acknowledge where uncertainty exists as we move forward with our policy decisions.

This isn't easy to do, as we discussed in class today.

So, our Fraccing with Two C's group has a choice to make:  1)  Decide that theirs is decidedly a pro-fraccing blog, and that their mission is to defend fracking as best they can against the misunderstandings of the ignorant public and "fracktivists."  This will simplify their mission tremendously, give their blog focus, and probably key them into a ready, if small, audience of people who are also interested in defending fraccing.

OR, they can 2) decide to adopt a less "religious" stance as Briggle suggests, and instead try to understand the uncertainties around fracking as best they can, interpret those uncertainties using their training and knowledge, and invite a much larger audience into dialogue with them.  This option is much riskier, they might make mistakes, and they might have to get out of their comfort zone a bit.  But the payoffs, in terms of audience and personal growth, might be bigger.

In case it's not clear: I don't think you can do both.  I don't think you can strongly advocate for one position in a controversial science debate and be seen as a trusted, impartial expert, interested in "educating" the public about the issue in general terms.

But I'm always ready to be proven wrong.

I'll be writing about other blogs over the course of the semester as important issues arise.  I'm grateful to our Fraccing group for their brave posts and their willingness to accept feedback in class today.  Nice work!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Sexy Snails

Today in class we listened to this NPR story from veteran science reporter Joe Palca.  The story translates the findings of this study (no subcription required), which shows that a certain species of male snail is the epitome of the superdad.   In fact, they are such good dads that they carry around the eggs of offspring, who are not their own, on their very own backs.  And they don't even ask for child support.

Snail Daddies.  Courtesy NPR.

The reason we looked at the story in class is not because we are so interested in snails, but because this news story offers a great example of science communication--the story begins with a Monty Python clip (an effort to "arouse" the audience, if you believe Randy Olson, whose book Don't Be Such a Scientist we're reading in class).  It then mentions "sex" a few times (in this case, referring to snail reproduction), interweaves scientific information with a few more jokes and some soundbytes from science, and above all tells us why the findings of the study are important.

Which is pretty much the opposite of hitting us over the head with a bunch of science facts.  NPR may not be perfect, and my guess is that the scientists featured in this story would have preferred more detail in the story and less Monty Python.  But this counts as an example of good public science communication--at least as far as mass media goes--in my book.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Oredigger on Communication

There's an interesting, brief article in The Oredigger about the importance of communicating for engineers.  Though this isn't a technical writing class, we are learning how to do different types of writing and communication for different audiences.  This excerpt from the piece was particularly pertinent, I thought:

"Our final product is typically a written report," adds Lauren Evans '82, president of a Lakewood-based consulting firm called Pinyon Environmental Engineering Resources. "A lot of times the work is for a client who's not a technical person, such as a banker or a real estate developer, so we have to be able to communicate our findings and recommendations to them in a way they can understand." Moreover, she says, the report has to be persuasive. It's not enough simply to present data clearly; that data must also be placed into context and shaped into an argument. In other words, rhetorical skills are important for the engineer.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Sample Ted Talks

As I mentioned in class, one of our class projects will be to complete a really good, compelling oral presentation that connects meaningfully with the audience on a topic related to science and engineering.  I mentioned that our gold standard--if primarily in terms of style, not content--is the TED Talk.

TED Talks are ubiquitous now, so it may be hard to believe that they are only six years old.  That's old in new media terms, but barely newborn in the grand scheme of things.  We talked in class about how not all of you will leave the course being able to deliver in the style of the TED talk, but that we would all try to move along the presentation spectrum toward that more relaxed style, which is not just about dumping information on the audience, but connecting with them.

Ripped from Neurobics

So, let's get comfortable with the TED format, and then as the semester goes on, we'll discuss its strengths and weaknesses as a form of science communication.

Here is one of my favorite TEDs, and (in my opinion) on of the TEDs that put TEDs on the map:  a talk by Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain research who talks famously here about her own stroke:

This is a longer TED (around 20 minutes) but well worth the view.  I'll post others that you send me over the course of the semester.  Here's one from Connor by Kirk Thorensen, on thorium as a nuclear fuel (around 10 minutes):

Here is Ali's pick, Ron Gutman's "The Hidden Power of Smiling"


Welcome to the class blog for Advanced Science Communication at the Colorado School of Mines!  We use this space to collect examples of good (and not so good) communication, with a special focus on science and technology communication, and as a way to link all of the student blogs for the class.

After our first day of class, I asked the students to search the web for blogs they like.  They didn't need to be connected to science and technology (and most of them aren't!) but did need to appeal to the students for some reason.  Here is the list they came up with:

Briana:  NASAWatch
Shane:  The Denver Broncos
Emily:  YowaYowaCamera
Ian:  Environmental Engineering
Taylor:  ESPN
Vince:  Robot6
Abe:  Uranium Blog and Roger Pielke, Jr.
Connor:  Penny Arcade and An Engineering Mind and For the Love of Cooking
Nolan:  Shibamac
Ali:  Lil Blue Boo and Betty Mountain Girl
Nate:  Scientific Wrestling
Michael S.:  In the Pipeline
Michael C.:  Android Community and XDA Developers
Zach:  The Cool Web Comic List
Adam:  The Round Ball Mining Company
Waldo:  Play Station
Lauren:  Annamal Unscripted
Colin:  Bicycle Design
Zach N.:  Female Science Professor
Savannah:  Shrimp Salad Circus
Derek:  Political Ticker
Aubrey:  Texas Attorney Blog
Kelsi:  Pup Life