Soft skills for natural scientists

In January 2017 I had the pleasure of conducting a 2-day workshop at the Max-Planck-Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart. We focused on

  • becoming a better listener
  • storytelling across disciplines
  • dealing with and resolving conflict
  • recognizing and improving how you work in teams

I’d like to present to you how we explored the last of these points.

  1. Team poster

In a first exercise, teams had 20 minutes to create a poster on a subject of their choice using a limited set of materials. The aim was to reflect on the roles each group member tended to take in groupwork, and how each contributed to both the process and the outcome. One interesting result was that a group consisting of members who had identified as similar MBTI types operated almost seemlessly to come up with a neatly engineered result. They didn’t begin actually creating their poster until half-way through the alotted time. Meanwhile, a second group of highly diverse types went through a lively, laughter-driven process, got hands-on almost immediately, and came up with a colorful patchwork showcasing individual contributions. Both groups were quite satisfied with their product, but the distinction between their approaches was food for thought:

  • Similar types may work together and achieve results with little friction, but they will not have the opportunity to gain an understanding for the thoughts and work processes of those unlike them.
  • Diverse types may experience a great deal of friction (to the point of experiencing the process as ‘a waste of time’), and the group will be slowed down by the attempt to include all participants, but they will, on reflection, acquire insights to enable improved collaboration on later projects. For research suggests that “It’s group conflict that actually makes a team function with more of the razor’s edge it needs to be innovative.”

2. Team meeting

In a second exercise, teams convened to hold a meeting to solve an important issue of their choice. Again the format was highly stylized, using Edward de Bono’s Six Hats approach in a precisely timed game format. At the end, the groups presented their solutions. Key lessons from the exercise were:

  • Using a strict format creatively limiting talking time heightens focus and improves results. It avoids members blocking each other competitively by trying to outdo each other.
  • A key to useful outcomes is  to allow thoughts to blossom first before finding weaknesses in them, and then to go on to seek solutions to those weaknesses, rather than shooting them down in the bud.

Such reflective exercises are great at inviting colleagues to discuss what they need and don’t need from each other, and allows them to grow as a team.

Though the team poster exercise made for better pictures (see below), the team meeting exercise won greater praise.

A warm thank you to the participants from the Max-Planck-Institute for Intelligent Systems for permitting me to show you these photos.

Lessons learned

First, a warm thank you to Wera Schmidt for thinking through my concept with me and suggesting the poster exercise. And a heartfelt thank you to my coaching colleague Wolf Wagner, who went through the feedback and assessed it for me. Overall, the feedback was quite positive. What participants liked most was the day 1 opportunity to practice listening and speaking skills. They were keen to explore conflict resolution in the simulations they were invited to act out. However, some found it quite difficult to imagine what the other side might argue in concrete terms, and in general would have prefered greater guidance in a smaller number of role plays.  This suggests to me that more focused and generative group coaching might be called for. Overall, a reprise in a similar soft skills workshop will include:

  1. fewer items
  2. a greater focus on issues specific to each participant’s work/life reality
  3. more time for guided reflection after each exercise
  4. a crystal-clear summary of the intended lesson to be learned.

Earth in Progress

Climate scientists on site, investigating lake sediments at Lake Hämelsee for clues of climate change. This is a product of the Earth in Progress project, a cooperation between various disciplines involved in responding effectively to climate events. I’ve had the privilege of providing English communication skills courses to some members of the project.
The film makers ask the scientists about their motivation, making their work a bit more more accessible to the general public.
INTIMATE: http://cost-es0907.geoenvi.org/
PROGRESS: http://www.earth-in-progress.de

The Exploratorium and the Science of Sailing

Before becoming an English skills trainer, I worked on exhibitions presenting cultural history. My teaching and translating work since has made me curious about science. This summer we visited the wonderful Exploratorium in San Fransisco and saw the interactive exhibit they set up for the America’s Cup. That has fired my imagination and whetted my appetite. I’d love to get back into the field of exhibitions.

Here Exploratorium co-director Paul Doherty explains an exhibit showing what makes a boat sail faster than the wind.

The GoldieBlox Rube Goldberg (Anti)-Princess Machine

I support GoldieBlox www.goldieblox.com, a toy startup dedicated to introducing girls to engineering through a combination of building toys and stories. That is, I bought 3 or 4 boxes of their first product from the USA on blind faith. The combination of hands-on building with hard and soft materials, abstract building materials and concrete characters,  and a storybook in relatively simple English, is really nice for 4-8 year-olds, whether or not they’ve been born into playing in English.  I do think the storybook is a bit dim, I’m afraid, but the concept and the toy itself is fine. So I have these boxes of the GoldieBlox Spinning Machine sitting around my flat, waiting for my favorite little girls to pick them up. GoldieBlox has produced a followup toy, as well.

The GoldieBlox venture is more idea than toy, at this point. CEO Debbie Sterling is using social media to create a community to empower girls.”In a world where men largely outnumber women in science, technology, engineering and math…and girls lose interest in these subjects as early as age 8, GoldieBlox is determined to change the equation. Construction toys develop an early interest in these subjects, but for over a hundred years, they’ve been considered “boys toys”. By designing a construction toy from the female perspective, we aim to disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers.”

So GoldieBlox created the “Princess Machine” advertisement to enter into a contest for broadcasting rights at the Superbowl. It’s a type of Rube Goldberg machine that employs mechanical components from the toy set, and just a few more doodads you might find around the house.

Unfortunately, it was not built by the girls acting here, which I find somewhat off-putting. Why promote a girl empowerment toy and then disempower the girls in question? The girls are, however, the power-users and testers of the toy itself. Perhaps the ad is intended to inspire others. At any rate, the video has gone viral, with nearly 3 million hits in 2 days.

GoldieBlox is sueing the Beastie Boys for their “Girls, Girls, Girls” song. Oh, dear.

Presenting science to your peers

I gave a morning workshop yesterday on scientific presentations to students of Geoscience and updated my approach a little. It now includes the concept of creating storytelling cycles of tension and resolution (situation, complication, resolution, example), as explained by presentation guru Andrew Abela, whose book, Advanced Presentations by Design, I have just ordered. Also see his excellent Extreme Presentation Method website, which showcases his thought-provoking, well-structured approach.

The Love Competition

A wonderful experiment, set up as a competition: Six people subject themselves to a brainscan while they think of someone they love. As they concentrate fully, the dopamine, the serotonin and the oxytosin wash through their brain, showing up in the scan. This is not only a beautiful study on kinds of love, it’s also a stunning reaffirmation of the power of thought to steer feelings. The two winners are wonderful.

The Love Competition from Brent Hoff on Vimeo.

Helmut, for 20 years.

Thanks to Willow for the link

Online tools and resources for scientific writing

I’m still struggling to teach scientific writing to a diverse group of PhD candidates that I only see occasionally. My latest attempt is to give them a set of online tools to analyze their genre of target texts (published works and their own work in progress), and to tell me how they like what the tools do. These are tools I use myself when I explore a genre to analyze them within the overall corpus of English and present typical collocations. In class we’ll then look at selected texts on one topic comparing different genres (i.e. in a general publication, as opposed to a scientific journal) to determine typical collocations and rhetorical and stylistic devices.

MacMillan Dictionary
http://www.macmillandictionary.com/
handiest online dictionary, with a thesaurus, examples, audio

Corpora:
COCA Corpus of Contemporary American English
(USA)
http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/
BNC British National Corpus (GB)
http://www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/
How are your words generally used in context?

Word cloud generators:
Wordle
http://www.wordle.net/
Tagxedo
http://www.tagxedo.com/

How frequent are key words in a text you read or write? Copy it into a  word cloud generator that makes the more frequent words larger. Tips: In Wordle, create strings of words, or multiword units: Edit your text before you copy it in, joining the words you want to keep together with the tilde character: ~ (e.g. “cataclastic~rock”). Also, reduce the word output number (Layout/Maximum words) to simplify.

Just the word
http://graphwords.com/http://www.just-the-word.com/
This collocation thesaurus concordancer shows frequency and produces word clouds. Clicking on a given collocation gives you samples from the BNC. (e.g. precipitation)

Lextutor
A set of tools to analyze the text you copy in:
a. Concord Writer
http://conc.lextutor.ca/concord_writer/index.pl?lingo=English/
Work in progress: Write text in the window, and your text is dynamically linked to multiple examples as you write.
b. Vocab Profile (BNL)
http://www.lextutor.ca/vp/bnl/
A published article: Copy in your text, and the tool will output a word list.

Google Ngram Viewer
http://books.google.com/ngrams/
How has your word been used over time? Has it changed in meaning? Study a word over time based on the word’s occurance in the Google Books library (those published since 1800).

Netspeak
http://www.netspeak.org/
5 modes of search for collocations: find one word (e.g. the missing word in a phrase – e.g. verbs, prepositions, possible modifiers), several words, alternatives in the phrase (so: find a better synonym), and word order (e.g. adverb placement). Follow links to find sample sentences. Caution: the Internet is your database.

If a scientist wants to read just one article on writing a thesis: George Gopen and Judith Swan show that where you place information in a sentence makes a huge difference. Their article The Science of Scientific Writing was originally published in the November-December 1990 issue of American Scientist.

Some excellent websites to surf for university writing skills:

And when in doubt, try a grammar quiz:

Diagnostic grammar quizzes, especially recommended for connectors/ transition words http://www.grammar-quizzes.com/

These are not online tools, but books I recommend for the research library:

  • John M. Swales/ Christine B. Feak: Abstracts and the Writing of Abstracts. The University of Michigan Press 2009.
  • Christine B. Feak/ John M. Swales: Telling a Research Story. Writing a Literature Review. The University of Michigan Press 2009. (The answers to the tasks in these two books are available online.)
  • John M. Swales/ Christine B. Feak: Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Essential Tasks and Skills. Second Edition. The University of Michigan Press 1994/2009. Also get the commentary by same authors: Commentary for Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Essential Tasks and Skills.
  • Rowena Murray: How to Write a Thesis. Open University Press2002/2011.
  • Robert A. Day/ Barbara Gastel: How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper. Greenwood Press 2006.
  • Michael McCarthy/ Felicity O’Dell: Academic Vocabulary in Use. 50 units of academic vocabulary reference and practice. Self-study and classroom use. Cambridge University Press 2008.

Do you have any resources to add?

PS: There is an online scientific writing tool called Swan, the Scientific Writing Assistant, http://cs.joensuu.fi/swan/. The concept was developed by Jean Luc Lebrun, formerly at Apple and now a scientific communication skills author and trainer. It requires Java version 6.0 or higher, and runs on various operating systems, working on Apple OS 10.6 and higher. Its USP is that it helps you organize your thoughts and content (rather than your language and grammar) by working around the placement of key words.

PPPS: Graham Davies created a fantastic online site dedicated to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for Language Teachers, initiated with EC funding in 1999-2000, which he has continued to maintain himself. It contains pretty much everything teachers need in ICT. I’m finding the section on using concordance programs in class and the one on corpus linguistics helpful. It makes me want to take a week off and do nothing but dip into this world, and finally read the books I’ve got on the subject from cover to cover. Graham also keeps a blog.