Presentation on theme: "How can scientists best communicate science to the public? Gordon J. Aubrecht, II Ohio State University at Marion."— Presentation transcript:
How can scientists best communicate science to the public? Gordon J. Aubrecht, II Ohio State University at Marion
Abstract: Communication is hard. Clear communication is harder still. Hardest of all appears to be clear communication of science to the public. Part of the problem is the virus of anti-intellectualism, but another part of the problem is encapsulated in the Pogo maxim: “we have met the enemy, and he is us.” Solutions include eschewing scientific codewords; including information on methods of science and limitations of science in teaching at all levels; insisting that students giving oral explanations speak clearly; and insisting that physics students write clear essays as problem solutions. This sounds easy, but in practice is much harder than it sounds, and it may not even be effective: Demaree  has found that the link between writing and learning content is not obvious, and showed that students may not even be learning to write through practice in the context of physics.  D. Demaree, Toward understanding writing to learn in Physics: Investigating student writing, Ph.D. thesis, Ohio State University, 2006.
This talk was originally invited for a panel by Jean-François Van Huele for the Session HC: Scientific Communication and Writing, but I was already giving an invited paper. I suggested he contact Dedra Demaree instead, but he persisted. Somehow, it ended up here in this energy session instead.
Physicists need to be able to communicate with fellow citizens, policymakers, other scientists, and students. Each of these connections needs to be different.
Students are usually thought to be easy to communicate to. We simply gather a large number of them in a lecture hall, create a perfect lecture, and the students will certainly know the material as soon as the lecture is done.
So, what do you think? Is that how it really works?
My good friend (and former chair of my department) Will Saam many years ago told me a story about his under- graduate experience at Caltech.
Will was lucky to attend Caltech during the period when Feynman developed the lectures (on which the famous books were based).
He said it was truly a marvelous experience. They all had a deep understanding of basic physics during the lectures. All the students understood everything Feynman said. …
… … Until they got back to the dorm after class.
Then they asked one another something like: “What was it that he was saying in class? How do we study for it?”
So maybe communication with students isn’t so easy after all.
Well, fellow scientists are surely easier to communicate with.
Right! Now, remind me how many different values of the Weinberg angle were canonical before we got it right?
Okay, lets go after the policymakers. We can surely get across our messages quite well to them.
So, we’ll keep building the SSC, right? And all you political folks understand global warming and the greenhouse effect … action v. inaction.
Well, we all live with our fellow citizens. It should be easy to talk with them about science.
But …. Here’s a relatively recent headline: 2005 November 17 Thursday America Becoming Dumb And Dumber Steve Sailer points to a depressing report about the dismal demographic future of America. “But now, for the first time ever, America's educational gains are poised to stall because of growing demographic trends. If these trends continue, the share of the U.S. workforce with high school and college degrees may not only fail to keep rising over the next 15 years but could actually decline slightly, warns a report released on Nov. 9 by the National Center for Public Policy & Higher Education, a nonprofit group based in San Jose, Calif. The key reason: As highly educated baby boomers retire, they'll be replaced by mounting numbers of young Hispanics and African Americans, who are far less likely to earn degrees.” “Because workers with fewer years of education earn so much less, U.S. living standards could take a dive unless something is done, the report argues. It calculates that lower educational levels could slice inflation-adjusted per capita incomes in the U.S. by 2% by 2020. They surged over 40% from 1980 to 2000.”
Here’s a more recent one: The Chicago Tribune So how dumb are we? D ’ oh! Americans get stumped in knowledge tests in the visually driven global information age By Lisa Anderson, Chicago Tribune correspondent July 6, 2008 NEW YORK — Who hasn ’ t snickered at “ Jaywalking, ” a “ Tonight Show ” segment in which host Jay Leno flummoxes unsuspecting young people on the street with such tricky questions as: In what country is Paris located? Or cringed to see Miss America 2007 humiliated by a brainy bunch of 10- year-olds — who just happened to know the sun is the heavenly body with the greatest mass in our solar system — on “ Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? ” Or witnessed the consternation of a cashier presented with a $20 bill and two quarters for a $12.50 tab?
Some consider such deficits in knowledge and ability no laughing matter, citing it as evidence of the “ dumbing down ” of Americans, particularly young adults. Others believe any apparent decline in book smarts simply reflects the evolution of new ways of learning and “ knowing, ” forged in a fast-paced wireless world where the data of the ages are downloaded in a nanosecond at the touch of a keyboard. So, which is it? No one really knows. But the topic clearly is percolating through the popular culture: Read the less-than-reassuring poll of “ What Do Americans Know ” in Newsweek ’ s July 7-14 Global Literacy 2008 issue. Or the cover story in The Atlantic magazine ’ s July/August issue: “ Is Google Making Us Stoopid? What the Internet is doing to our brains. ” Or the just-published “ DISTRACTED: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, ” by Maggie Jackson. Dumbest generation? The question is hotly debated in academic circles, where Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein further turned up the temperature with his recent book, “ The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. ” Its subtitle: “ Or, Don ’ t Trust Anyone Under 30. ”
In the abstract, I suggested that we could address this by: (1) eschewing scientific codewords (2) including information on methods of science and limitations of science in teaching at all levels (3) insisting that students giving oral explanations speak clearly (4) insisting that physics students write clear essays as problem solutions
(1) eschewing scientific codewords Many of us know that study of science requires us to be able to discuss things. We have all found the power of words. For example, Einstein spoke of a “quantum of light.”
Only when Lewis dubbed this light quantum the photon did scientists begin really to examine the consequences of quantization … of lattice vibrations (phonons), of magnetic spin switching (magnons), etc.
Nevertheless, we use a lot of technical words rather than expand in English the meaning of the thing. Torque is a word that describes a pseudovector resulting from application of a force at some displacement from an axis of rotation.
If we understand what torque is, we don’t need all those words. If we don’t, it is necessary to use those words.
It’s very tempting to use the word and assume it’s understood, but experience has shown that the “assume makes an ass of you and me” crowd had it right. At least about torque. And maybe momentum. And maybe power. And maybe …
(2) including information on methods of science and limitations of science in teaching at all levels Many nonscientists believe that science proves things. We know better. But do the public know we trust our ideas because for hundreds of years we’ve tried and failed to show that they’re wrong? Do they know that all knowledge is tentative? Do they think of science as a process rather than a result?
Why do we teach about motion near Earth’s surface neglecting air resistance? Why are ropes in introductory physics classes inextensible? Why is a body represented by a point in a free body diagram?
We need to come clean on our simplifications, and why we simplify. You’ve likely all heard the one about the chicken farmers who hired a physicist to address some problem. When he assembled the farmers to discuss his work, the physicist began, “Consider a spherical chicken …”
(3) insisting that students giving oral explanations speak clearly The level of obfuscatory discourse in my classroom blows me away. Students seem to have forgotten how (if they ever knew) to form a sentence without a “like”, a “y’ know”, a “just sayin’”! Communication assumes an intent to communicate. I wonder about my students sometimes. Maybe yours are better?
In my physics by inquiry classes, I ask students to imagine that they’re speaking to Joe Blow from Kokomo, an intelligent but ignorant person. Sometimes I suggest Joe’s a third-grader.
How does a person explain to a third-grader about mass? Very carefully, of course. One needs to form complete sentences and construct a logical sequences of ideas.
It would be helpful if all students at all levels could construct such sentences. It would be helpful if people could converse this way.
(4) insisting that physics students write clear essays as problem solutions A former OSU grad student, Dedra Demaree, now on the other OSU (Oregon State) faculty, ended up studying the effect of writing physics on understanding physics. She looked for “writing across the curriculum” evidence and found, essentially, none that was not anecdotal.
I’d like to have you ponder these words, the abstract from Dr. Demaree’s thesis, Toward Understanding Writing to Learn in Physics: Investigating Student Writing
It is received wisdom that writing in a discipline helps students learn the discipline, and millions of dollars have been committed at many universities to supporting such writing. We show that evidence for effectiveness is anecdotal, and that little data-based material informs these prejudices. This thesis begins the process of scientific study of writing in the discipline, in specific, in physics, and creates means to judge whether such writing is effective. The studies culminating in this thesis are an aggressive start to addressing these complex questions.
Writing is often promoted as an activity that, when put into classrooms in specific disciplines, not only helps students learn to write in the methods of that discipline but also helps students learn content knowledge. Students at the Ohio State University are being asked to write more in introductory courses, and the Engineering schools want their students to have more writing skills for the job market. Combined with the desire of many educators to have students be able to explain the course content knowledge clearly, it would seem that writing activities would be important and useful in physics courses. However, the question of whether writing helps learning or whether students learn writing within a non- English classroom helps learning in the discipline are open to debate, and data are needed before such claims can be made.
This thesis presents several studies aimed at understanding the correlation of writing and content, and tracking and characterizing student writing behaviors to see how they are impacted by writing in physics courses. It consists of four parts: summer and autumn 2005 focus on writing in introductory physics labs with and without explicit instruction, while winter and spring 2006 focus on tracking and analyzing student writing and revising behavior in Physics by Inquiry (PbI).
In summer quarter, 2005, introductory calculus-based physics lab students wrote essays, some sections with and some without explicit writing instruction. When analyzing student writing, we found that an essay’s grade based solely on English correlated strongly with its grade based on physics, and that explicit writing instruction improved the physics content more than writing practice alone. In addition, we have studied the location and type of comments made by both physics and English instructors on individual student essays. We find a strong correlation between the location and type of comments made by both instructors, and find that when students struggle overall with the content of an essay they make more mistakes with the writing.
A similar study in autumn quarter, 2006, reduced the writing to one specific content, and increased the content knowledge testing to look for changes in content knowledge with the writing activities, and differences in content knowledge based on the inclusion of explicit writing instruction. Limited impact of the writing or instruction on content knowledge was observed; students who completed the writing activities in place if traditional lab activities did better on lab quizzes immediately following the activities, but not on quizzes and tests taken later. However, this null result indicates that time can be devoted to writing within an introductory physics class without reducing the focus on physics content. Differences between those who wrote with and without explicit writing instruction were minimal, which may be due to the shorter time spent on writing during this project.
So, how can scientists best communicate science to the public?
We need to begin early, before we destroy students’ curiosity. Elementary school & middle school, these are where science teachers who do “good science” can make a difference.
It is possible to form connections to teachers (and even administrators) in our local school districts.
I have been fortunate to have been requested by Marion City Schools (MCS) administrators to help form a STEM middle school. We hope for funding, but are proceeding this summer with inquiry training no matter what.
All of us can do this sort of thing. I hope some of us can rise to the challenge!
As we have seen, there are no “magic bullets.” It will take commitment and hard work by us to change the system. And we may nonetheless fail, no matter how good our intentions.
If we won’t try, we will have only ourselves to blame for the result. Physics teachers: Let’s do it.