Today I gave a class to PhD candidates on the challenge of communicating science to a broader audience without dumbing down.

First I did a mixer where each member chose a word from their research, something that was challenging them or very much on their mind. I told them that “intelligibility” was on mine, and explained briefly what it meant in my context. So they wrote up a word and explained theirs in their own context to the other participants. That’s a classic, and it was a very nice way in for this interdisciplinary group, who hadn’t met before, but will be working together more closely in the future.

Then I gave them a presentation that I’m quite happy with: Communicating science across fields (pdf). It’s based on a number of books I’ve found very enlightening, including:

  • Harry Collins/ Richard Evans: Rethinking Expertise, 2010
  • Carolyn Johnsen (ed.): Taking Science to the People. A Communication Primer for Scientists and Engineers. U. of Nebraska Press 2010

What didn’t work quite so well was the task that followed: Translating science basics (pdf). The basic idea was fine, but I wanted them to do not only the interview, but also collaborate on writing a text together that could serve as an abstract of their project. Under the expert coaching of Elisabeth Sillmann, a professional graphic designer specializing in scientific publications, they’re making science posters in this 3-day workshop, and need the texts to go on them. It would have been better to leave the interview as an interview, and after sleeping over it, to have them write up the poster texts separately tomorrow. In fact, that’s what might actually happen. In any case, tomorrow we’ll even things out.