Communication and education: Teach me, please; I’m willing to learn

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As I mentioned in my previous post, my research at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute secured a place for me among over two-thousand posters at the 2012 Ocean Sciences Meeting. I could talk about presenting this poster, the talks I went to, or the other activities arranged for the undergrads: including a field trip to the beautiful Great Salt Lake. I could even talk about the city itself, and walking through museums and Mormon tabernacles. However, I’d rather talk about two things I have been pondering since the conference: communication and education.

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This meeting is important for many ocean scientists, allowing them to ‘show off’ their latest research in front of their colleagues. Yet even among these experts – chosen to present their outstanding work before dozens to hundreds of people – there are fundamental challenges to communication. This is partly, no doubt, due to the fact that some of the talks deal with subjects that are, to many outside of the field at least, dry and uninteresting; however, there were still many presenters seemingly talking to themselves – assuming that other scientists were as knowledgeable as them about their area of research. The wonderful thing about researchers is that their commitment to obtaining accurate, detailed and high-quality information can also cause them to overlook the importance of clearly communicating this information to others.

One of the most interesting things I participated in during the meeting was a student workshop aimed at giving effective presentations. The speaker, a marine biologist, taught us how to draft a talk from the drawing board to the computer, using PowerPoint as a tool and not a crutch. I came to realize that anything from tone of voice, to text size, to figure coloration can become an important element of the presentation. Part of me thought that most of what he said was common sense. However, as I tried to attend talks afterward I could barely sit through them, shifting uncomfortably at every unexplained figure and uncomfortable pause. I thought “why was the workshop only intended for students and not everyone?”  To be clear, I’m not blaming the scientists; I’m sure that it is demanding to be charged with so many responsibilities: researcher, advisor, educator, and communicator to a wide range of audiences. In every field there will always be good presenters and bad presenters, good communicators and bad communicators.

I also attended an interesting plenary session on graduate student recruitment in which the speaker noted that a significant proportion of incoming undergrads who are interested STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) majors are lost to other fields prior to graduation. So why is it at universities, where there are many top notch faculty, that these students are being lost? You would think that with all the available in and out-of-class opportunities (hands-on projects, field sites, research positions, and grants that can take students around the globe, for example) that this would be the phase where the sciences are snatching up willing students left and right. So is it the curriculum, or the way it is presented? Perhaps it’s a little bit of both: sometimes I joke that although I love my major (Environmental Science), I dislike almost every single class I am required to take for it. Why? After two and a half years of college, I feel like I am only just beginning to have the opportunity to take applied math and science courses. No longer do I sit through a lecture thinking “how exactly will I use this later?”At the same time, however, I am apprehensive for those classmates who intend to work just after they graduate: they’ll only have one or two years of practical experience before being thrust out into the real world. But is the point of a math or science education to prepare you for this ‘real world’, or the world of academia? And how beneficial is ‘weeding out’ in the early stages of undergrad when many upper level courses seem less demanding? Are we saying that there are only certain people who are ‘good enough’ to be math and science majors? I don’t have answers to these questions, and I am not trying to downplay the importance of learning theory before applying it. I’m only saying that these may be the concerns of many undergraduates – who perhaps get a different perspective during college, especially after a particularly inspiring grade-school teacher has shown them how cool math and science can be.

What about the way science is presented? Another question that was asked during the plenary session concerned how graduate students are viewed: are they just workers, semi-autonomous scientists-in-training, or are they something else? What about undergrads, for that matter? Are we here to learn, to work, to produce? Why do professors teach us? Do they aim to inspire or prepare us? Are they the knowledge giver and we the knowledge recipients, or is there a two-way dialogue?  How do they measure our success: by grades, our insightfulness, or by our progress? How do they measure their own success? Do they measure it by how well-versed their students become in their subject, or by how interested in the subject they can make their students?

During a networking dinner as part of the REU program, one of the attendees boasted about the number of graduate students that have gone through his lab. While I am impressed by this, I later wondered “Who were these nameless graduate students? Did they enjoy or learn much from being in your lab? Did you spend a lot of time developing the talents of each student, or push them through the degree as fast as possible? Where did they go afterward?” These are questions I might use to determine my own success. I’ve learned that it’s so easy to quantify, a little harder to qualify.

Another one of the plenary sessions involved identifying shark species by both visual identification and looking at their DNA. The speaker was very effective, confident, organized, and spoke well without dumbing down or talking down.  Whilst I’ve never had a particular interest in sharks or genetic markers, I still found the talk enjoyable. Would that ever happen to me during a chemistry lecture, I wonder, or is it just too far of a stretch to be saved by a good speaker? If only I could have the same person teach me chemistry so I could find out.

I certainly learned a lot from my trip to Salt Lake City, but clearly there are still (several) lingering, perhaps unanswerable, questions that I have about the vast subjects of education and communication. This summer, I am developing an environmental education curriculum for underserved youth, so I feel like I will need the insights to some of these questions in hand before I can confidently walk into the metaphorical classroom (it will probably take place outside). So please, tell me your thoughts and experiences of teaching and being taught. Let this be an open invitation for a dialogue.

Teach me, please; I’m willing to learn.

Alex Snedeker is currently a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, majoring in Environmental Science and minoring in Marine Science.

One thought on “Communication and education: Teach me, please; I’m willing to learn

  1. As far as the standard of science talks goes, I think that is a real problem – many people get so focussed on the content of the talk, but forget to engage the audience. Randy Olson, who wrote a great book on science communication (‘Don’t be such a scientist’), talks about ‘arouse and fulfill’: you need to stimulate’ the audiences interest at the beginning of your talk, and then go on to satisfy that interest – this can be as simple as raising an unanswered question, and then talking through how you answered it; or talking about a problem and then discussing how you propose to solve it.

    This short YouTube video (directed by Randy Olson), on how to give an effective scientific talk, is also really worth a watch:

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