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Sunday, March 24, 2013 - Page updated at 06:30 p.m.

Science students learn to tell stories

By Sandi Doughton
Seattle Times science reporter

Juliana Houghton wrapped up a practice run of her Town Hall talk, and turned to face a jury of her peers.

After applause and several encouraging comments, the University of Washington class got down to the criticism. One student said Houghton used a little too much jargon to describe her research on the boat noise that bombards orcas in Puget Sound. Another wanted more background on the factors that landed the whales on the endangered-species list.

Jessica Rohde, student instructor for the course, gently pointed out that Houghton had kept her eyes glued to her laptop as if reading from a teleprompter.

“It’s to the point where it’s almost too scripted,” Rohde said.

Houghton nodded.

“I wrote out every word,” she admitted.

But with a week to go before she took the stage at Seattle’s premier venue for civic discourse, Houghton had plenty of time to improve — which is what the class called Communicating Science to the Public Effectively is all about.

The goal of the course, founded by graduate students, is to teach young scientists how to share their passions for cosmology, chemistry or evolutionary biology without putting people to sleep. The program is one of several springing up across the country, fueled by a new generation of researchers who see public outreach as integral to their jobs.

“It’s part of being a citizen,” said Phil Rosenfield, a doctoral student in astronomy and co-founder of Engage, the grass-roots effort that gave birth to the class. “We feel like it’s making us more well-rounded scientists.”

With science at the heart of many of today’s pressing issues, from climate change to energy policy, resource conservation and medical ethics, a scientifically literate public is more important than ever, said Rohde, a doctoral student in fisheries. “If you can deliver information in a way that engages somebody, then they can use that information to make their own decisions.”

The UW students teamed up with Town Hall Seattle last year to create the UW Science Now series. After taking the course, students test their chops in evening talks that usually precede or follow a marquee speaker. The 2013 series runs through early June.

Focus on storytelling

Science lectures aren’t new to Seattle. Science on Tap has been serving up cutting-edge research — and cocktails — for a decade. The Pacific Science Center’s Science Cafe offers another laid-back forum for discussions of technology and science.

What’s unique about Engage is its focus on training student scientists to tell stories instead of recite facts, to purge their vocabulary of jargon and explain why their work matters to them — and to society.

That runs counter to most advanced science education, where students specialize in narrow fields and earn kudos through technical presentations to other experts.

“We have a hard time communicating with people other than ourselves,” said Julia Parrish, a UW biology professor and associate dean of the College of the Environment.

Parrish is a graduate of the Leopold Leadership Program, one of the first national programs to school established scientists in working with the media, presenting congressional testimony and reaching out to the public directly. Nearly 150 Washington researchers have received similar training through a program at the Pacific Science Center.

With the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other agencies requiring outreach as a part of many research grants, the demand far outstrips training programs at the university level, Parrish said. Already accustomed to reaching out through Facebook and blogs, today’s graduate students are especially eager to hone their communication skills.

But courses like the one at UW remain rare. A national survey was launched last year with NSF funding to find out where courses are taught and what approaches work best.

“There’s a strong sense that we are not adequately preparing graduate students to face the professional world they are going to be joining,” said Liz Neeley, a UW-based representative of COMPASS, the science-communications group conducting the survey. “Scientific leadership and solid communications skills are intrinsically linked.”

The UW eliminated some of its science-writing courses last year. But this year, the environment college upgraded the Engage program from an informal seminar to part of the curriculum. More than 40 students applied for 19 slots.

Houghton, a master’s student in aquatic and fisheries science, signed up out of frustration.

“I got tired of people’s eyes rolling to the back of their head when I tried to explain what I did,” she said.

If it was difficult for Houghton, who works with a beloved species of marine mammal, imagine the challenge for Rosenfield, who studies the physics of stellar evolution. People are always jazzed to hear he’s an astronomer, but can get quickly lost in details about wavelengths, luminescence and computer modeling.

Weeds of arcana

The book, “Don’t be Such a Scientist,” by former UW biology student and filmmaker Randy Olson, was an eye-opener for Rosenfield and the other Engage pioneers and an inspiration for the course.

Olson stresses the importance of storytelling and distilling research to its essence instead of floundering around in weeds of arcana. He also points out that style and presentation often count for as much — or more — than content, when it comes to reaching people.

“A good story is like good art — it touches some place inside of you and that’s why you remember it,” said Parrish, who was shocked during her Leopold training to see how stiff and pedantic she appeared on film.

“I was speaking in that voice reserved for small children and family pets,” she recalled. “It was fake.”

A mistake many scientists make is to view the public as empty vessels, waiting to be filled with the knowledge that will inspire them to line up behind the same agendas as scientists — whether that means support for science funding or political policies, said Deborah Illman, who teaches science writing at the UW.

But it doesn’t work that way, she said.

People make decisions based on many factors, including emotions and values. Scientists who approach public outreach with a strident agenda can turn people off.

The UW course focuses more on conveying the students’ excitement about science than pushing a point of view, Rohde said. Classes include improvisational exercises to loosen the students up, and a mock cocktail party, where they sip sparkling cider and chat about their work with fellow students pretending to be bankers or bored teenagers.

The class also offers tips on how to overcome the normal jitters that are always part of public speaking.

On the night of her Town Hall talk, Houghton used one of those tricks to boost her confidence. In the bathroom just before showtime, she struck her “Superwoman” pose: Hands on hips, chest out, head high.

Then she strode onto the stage and nailed it — no jargon, not a hint of nervousness, and no looking down at her laptop.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com