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I'm an assistant professor of neuroscience at Washington State University in Vancouver, where I use tiny zebrafish (the size of an eyelash!) as a model system to study human hearing loss and how we can prevent it. I'm also a long-time Toastmaster and I teach communication workshops. This blog represents the merging of my two passions - science and communication, which has really become one central passion - the science of communication. There's a revolution in science right now...the idea that we scientists should sometimes leave the lab and talk about what we do, and why we do it, to real people. This blog looks at why we should do this, and how to actually talk about science with non-scientists (and with each other!). Portions of this blog are also featured on Qualia, the AAAS MemberCenter blog site.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tools of the Trade

I’m currently remodeling my house, which is why I haven’t blogged recently!  All of this remodeling has led me to think about tools…specifically about having the right tools for the each job.  If I want to do something, like paint a wall, I use a paintbrush.  I don’t actually have to invent the paintbrush, or build it, but I can buy one and use it for my project.

Similarly, when we speak to the public (or even to other scientists), there are many successful tools that we can use to actively engage our audience.  A few months back I had a great chat with Anna Lakovitch from The Smithsonian Associates, an organization within the Smithsonian Institute dedicated to public outreach and education.  Anna and I discussed creating a toolbox of ready-made audience engagement tools that speakers could use to liven up public presentations, even make them (gasp) fun!

So here goes…a first attempt at creating an audience engagement toolbox for scientists.  These tools are based on the idea that people are more engaged, and more apt to remember information, when they are asked to do something (move, talk about an idea) rather than just listening passively to information. Anna encountered some of these ideas on a political engagement website, while others are drawn from the literature in active teaching techniques.

This technique works great at the end of a talk when we invite the audience to ask questions.  We first give them a minute to think about their questions, discuss with someone sitting near them, then share their questions with the group.  This way people are less embarrassed to ask questions because they have validated their question with a partner.

Opinion Corners
This is a great way to get people up and moving while learning about the preconceived notions of your audience.   The speaker offers up a statement and 4 possible responses, then the audience moves to one of the 4 corners of their room based on what response they agree with most.  Opinion Corners works well for controversial issues such as human evolution or climate change.

Last Person Standing
Sometimes we want out audience to help us visualize the data, so let’s get them up and moving. Let’s say we’re giving a talk on bluefin tuna conservation, and we want to show our audience how few Atlantic bluefin are left in the ocean.  We first have the whole audience stand up, representing the historical population of bluefin (if you’re doing this exercise with kids, you might even have them pretend to be bluefin and swim around!).  Then we have all but a handful of them sit down, with those left standing representing the small number of bluefin left in Atlantic waters.  The audience walks away with a muscle memory of the data, and maybe a diminished appetite for bluefin tun!

Snowball Fight
This works best with kids, or in regions of the country where people aren’t quite as polite as here in Seattle (I tried a marshmallow-throwing exercise here once with dismal results).  Have everyone take a sheet of paper and write what they think is important  about your topic, or perhaps a question they have.  Then everyone crumples their paper and throws!  Participants grab the closest “snowball”, open it, and read it to start discussion.

Just as I don’t tackle every home remodeling project at once, we won’t overfill our speaking toolbox in one post.  I hope these tools help you to start engaging your audience better, and I look forward to hearing about all of your favorite tools and techniques for audience participation.

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