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This article was originally published by Devin McGinty in 2010 as part of coverage for the annual CGS conference in Washington, DC.
The Council of Graduate Schools recently held their annual meeting in Washington, DC, and one of the many guest speakers was actor Alan Alda. So why exactly was the guy that played Hawkeye on the sitcom "M*A*S*H" at a conference for graduate school deans? Good question -- but the answer is even better. Alda, an accomplished actor and director, and host of Scientific American Frontiers on PBS, is dedicated to improving communication in the world of science. In fact, he's so dedicated that he helped develop The Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in Long Island, NY.
[Right: Alan Alda photo from http://www.pbs.org/saf/alan_bio.htm].
Alan shared his personal experiences interviewing scientists for his PBS series, and he explained that the show runs smoother when a genuine dialogue takes place, rather than just a stiff scientist lecturing to the camera. Personable and engaging experts make the subject matter more interesting and accessible to an audience; people can relate to the speaker and better understand the practicality of science, which is often interpreted as overly complex. Scientists need to develop skills, Alan explained, to effectively communicate with the public, with policy makers, and with other scientists. He is so passionate about this cause that he hopes one day writing and communication classes will be a core part of the science curriculum at universities nationwide.
Everything that Alan spoke about made perfect sense, but one important question remained -- how do you teach communication skills to students of the sciences? Currently, Alan is a visiting professor at Stony Brook, teaching in The Center for Communicating Science, which he helped establish with the cooperation of the School of Journalism and funding from the US Department of Education. Along with theater director Steve Marsh, they were joined by five graduate students of the sciences, and together they demonstrated the unconventional methods they use to improve their abilities to communicate science.
The exercises wouldn’t be considered unconventional to a theater major, but passing around an imaginary object that changes shape, partaking in role-playing guessing games, and pretending to pick up quirky hitchhikers on an imaginary road trip aren't what typical biology students do in the lab. These improvisational exercises are intended to relax the students and allow them to communicate more freely. The strongest evidence that these exercises are beneficial to building communication skills came from a video of the workshop at Stony Brook.
The audience laughed as the students engaged in improvisational exercises that teetered between incredibly silly and surprisingly creative, and Alan chimed in with some insight and more than a few hilarious one-liners along the way. But it came time to close the deal; time to prove to a room of graduate school deans that this new school of thought about communicating science wasn't a hokey experiment, but a truly valuable tool that could benefit generations of future scientists.
Alan shared a "before and after" video of graduate students that had participated in the improvisational theater classes. Students in the "before" video stood anxiously on stage in front of their classmates, reciting half memorized phrases from textbooks as their voices quivered; their presentations were overly technical as they stumbled through complicated jargon and polysyllable terms in an effort to explain their focus in a particular field of science. It was painful to watch.
Next were clips of the very same graduate students after only a few of the improvisational theater classes. Confidently commanding the stage, the students clearly explained their area of study in a relaxed manner, using metaphors and real-life examples to relate ideas to an audience generally unfamiliar with details in the various fields. They went from stiff scientists lecturing to the camera, to intriguing experts worthy of an Alan Alda interview on "Scientific American Frontiers."
A chemistry professor in front of a lecture hall full of students, a Ph.D. lobbying for an environmental cause on Capitol Hill, a biology graduate student searching for someone to fund a project -- Alan Alda and The Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University are helping scientists like these become more efficient communicators. Next time you can clearly understand a physicist explain the intricacies of their dissertation, keep in mind that Hawkeye from "M*A*S*H" may be partly responsible for that scientist's effective communication skills.
Learn more about Alan Alda and The Center for Communicating Science: