There is an unexplainable phenomenon in the zoo world. People will pass by an exhibit with an incredibly unique animal in it and barely give it a glance. Put a human in there, even just cleaning the glass with a squeegee and the next thing you know there is a crowd watching intently to see what the human will do next. Now imagine this, in front of the komodo dragon cage at the reptile house you have two scientists in chairs roped off so people cannot get too close. A third is in the cage interacting with a dragon. This is the five alarm fire of the zoo world. People desperately trying to see what is going on, literally rubbernecking a scientific experiment. Invariably someone would always ask, “So what are you guys doing?” I would go into the detailed explanation of the experiment, because they were there and they asked and I presumed they really wanted to know. Plus I loved Komodo dragons and wanted everyone to love them like I did. It was here I discovered the different degrees of “wanting to know”.
I found that the majority of the time I was diluting this impressive animal to an understandable set of basic behaviors because the complexity was lost on the general public and they didn’t care about the specific jargon I was using. They wanted the simple bread and butter version of the answer, not the entree.
None of my friends are really that into reptiles, and none of them really care about how many tongue flicks or claw rakes we recorded that day. Believe me, I wanted them to, I desperately wanted them to ask me and genuinely care about my answer. I mean this was a study to see if Komodo dragons exhibited play behavior. Something that is on the more interesting spectrum of the reptile research scale.
Believe me, this sucks. I often couldn’t figure out why everyone didn’t love Komodo dragons as much as I loved them. But 11 years ago I made a conscious decision to change that. I left research to become a high school science teacher because for me it was about getting the awareness out to young people and to champion for an underappreciated group of animals.
So after a decade in a classroom and many, many, many mistakes I feel I have found a decent balance as a science communicator. I admit I have an unfair advantage, I have real time metrics in front of me on a daily basis. I get to utilize various forms of explanations and see how they are received by my audience. I get to see what works and what doesn’t and then refine them two or three more times that day until I have them perfected. Not only that but my audience often replies back with brutal and blunt honesty. High school students will let you know if you are coming across in a condescending manner. A lot of people, and myself included , are unaware that their methods of explanation often have a condescending tone to them. It is not purposeful, but sometimes unavoidable when the person is in the position of explainer. It takes a while to pick up on your own cues and attempt to avoid them.
If you really wanted to get offended, try discussing something you passionately love and put a lot of work into what you think is a great lesson only to be met with yawns, blank stares, glances at the clock, and snoring. It takes a lot of strength to not take it personal, even when it is.
So where does this all fit? Well the one thing a teacher has to know before they begin a lesson is “what is my end goal? What do I want to achieve with my communication? Do I want to explain? Do I want to inform? Do I want to infect? Do I want to extrapolate?” All these come with much different methods of communicating.
In science education I can’t avoid the jargon, but I need to know when to drop it into play. If I throw complex words right out from the get go and say “memorize the words” then I lost them. If I come up with a great analogy or metaphor that the students can relate to and then slide the word in there I have them hooked. I need to sell them on cell division before I introduce mitosis. I need to make them feel like they were asking me if there was a specific word for what I was describing instead of telling them the word and describing what it means.
A subtle trick I use to hook my students is to discuss the material is to pretend I am searching for the right word and let them fill in the blank for me. This makes them feel like they are contributing to the explanation process and lets me know they are getting it.
My end goal with my students is to get them interested in science. At this point as juniors in high school it is not important to me that they understand every detail of biology, but that they have an interest in understanding it. I have seen this with freshman students taking a conceptual physics course. The students are begging their teacher to learn trigonometry so they can better understand what is happening when they launch a projective off their desk.
Yes, begging to learn trigonometry. Why? Because they were hooked by the bread and butter and are now hungry for the main course. This is why the first thing I do in Chemistry is drop a gummy bear into molten potassium chlorate. Hook the students with a dazzling example of candy becoming bright light and make them want to learn more.
I truly believe that the role of the scientist is changing. With the advent of blogging, twitter, and social media scientists are becoming accessible to the general public, and we want to be accessible because we love our science and want people to love it as much as we do. But we need to realize if they did love it as much as us we would be talking to a fellow scientist, not a layperson.
Follow John Romano on Twitter at @paleoromano
[This is an excerpt from a longer blog I wrote on my personal site. It has been edited to reflect the audience of PLoS]