The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences

July 11, 2012

The Flame Challenge winners, and other attempts to get science communication out of its rut

I blogged recently about Alan Alda’s contest with the Center for Communicating Science: explain flame to an 11 year old. The entries, mostly from trained scientists, were judged by thousands of actual 11 year olds. But their picks, announced last month at the World Science Festival, suggest either a weak field or the kind of 11 year olds who spend too much time on Wikipedia. Compare the winners to a new NASA video that’s going around and a fizzling effort in Europe to get tween girls excited about science.

The Flame Challenge was won by Ben Ames, a 31 year old American doing graduate work in quantum optics. “I also have a passion for music, film, and the performing arts,” he writes. “So when I learned about this wonderful contest, I had finally found a project where I could put all of my interests to use.” To what effect? Channel your inner 11-year-old and take a look:
 


You can see the other finalists’ texts, graphics, and videos here. None of them, unfortunately, shows much clue about how the strategies and sensibilities of science communication have been changing lately.

Part of the problem lies that word ‘explain,’ which sets up someone who knows (an explainer) conveying what she knows to someone else. Right away we’re in the old knowledge-transmission model that science museums, for example, have been trying to move away from for the last decade or so (with mixed success).

And Alda probably didn’t help by emphasizing the ideal of ‘clarity’ when he talked about the contest. Making explanatory clarity the brass ring may have pushed the entrants toward the pedantic end of the spectrum. They seem to have been worried mostly about getting the facts right — and in some cases, cramming all the facts into the story.

But even within those guardrails, we could have hoped for something more than just a friendlier, animated version of a fifth-grade science textbook. What’s missing are the things that great teachers and professors do instinctively: Make us care about the question before we try to answer it. Helping us answer it instead of handing us the answer on a platter. Sharing his own personal enthusiasm for the answer in an infectious way. Making us feel like he’s talking to us, authentically, spontaneously, and without condescension. Ideally, telling us a story in which both he and (at least implicitly) we are present. ...

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Categories: Advocacy, Informal science education, Learning, Public media, Science museums, Social media, Subjectivity
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May 02, 2012

Alan Alda warms up science communication with the Flame Challenge

How would you explain flame — what is it? what’s going on in there? — to an 11 year old? I grew up watching Alda play an army doctor on M*A*S*H, but his acting and PBS interviewing work have led him to some real-world questions about how science is conveyed to us laymen. In partnership with Stony Brook University, where Alda teaches scientists how to improvise and “be more authentically themselves” with the public, he has organized a contest for scientists and anyone else who wants to enter. Submissions are now being judged...by an 11 year old near you.

I blogged a year ago about how little patience the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman had for standard science pedagogy, which too often teaches us vocabulary (“energy,” “momentum”) but not what’s really going on.

Alda is putting on Feynman’s mantle when he describes his own 11 year old self asking his teacher what a flame is and being told, predictably, “It’s oxidation.” As he writes in a recent guest editorial in the prestigious journal Science, “I knew there had to be more to the mystery of a flame than just giving the mystery another name.”

 

Hence the Flame Challenge, which received more than 800 entries from 30 countries. After being vetted for accuracy by scientists, the entries were sent to kids at 130 schools around the US for judging. Finalists and a winner will be announced next month at the World Science Festival in New York. (That festival, as I’ve mentioned, is run by the real latter-day Feynman, theoretical physicist Brian Greene, along with his partner, the science journalist and media producer Tracy Day.)

The emphasis here is on clarity, on helping somebody really get the concept. Alda is no fan of dumbing down; there’s no condescension here about the sophistication of the average 11 year old. The point he’s making is that if you can communicate a complex idea successfully to a kid, you know you’ve really nailed it. And a sixth grader is less likely than an adult to nod sagely when he’s fed an “explanation” that’s really just a vocabulary list.

But Alda is onto something deeper here. When he pursued that clarity and accessibility in his interviews with scientists, he found that the interactions became warmer, more human, more connected. It wasn’t just the facts that came to life, it was the people behind the facts — as well as their relationship to Alda and, by extension, viewers at home.

Having to talk with someone who was truly trying to understand caused an actual human interaction to take place in these interviews. There was more warmth, and the real person behind the scientist in the white lab coat could emerge. Suddenly, both young people and adults could see that scientists were like them, with a natural way of speaking and even a sense of humor. ...

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Categories: Conferences, Informal science education, Institutional personality, Natural history, Public media, Science museums, Storytelling, Subjectivity
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April 06, 2012

Do cultural institutions tell stories? A new bestseller gets me thinking

The rise of live storytelling in recent years is remarkable, both for its bottom-up, scrappy scene (headquartered in Brooklyn, of course) and its rehabilitation of a historical form of entertainment and conviviality. A few storytelling events are held at museums, but that’s not the same as museums telling stories in their own exhibitions or programs. A new hiking memoir, of all things, just reminded me what the recipe has always been.

Having been laid up sick for a few days with the book, Wild, for company, I can tell you that its author, Cheryl Strayed, deserves the praise that critics have been showering on her. The book, which is about how she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone in order to put her reckless, splintered life back together, is heartfelt, honest, gripping, funny and, for me at least, deeply moving.

Those are critical clichés, I know. But there’s one kind of cultural narrative they’re almost never used to describe: museum exhibitions. Museum people often speak of exhibitions as “telling the story” of so-and-so, or collections as “telling the stories” of a particular time and place. But compared to the real storytelling that’s going on these days, from The Moth (pictured) to This American Life to books like Strayed’s, museums’ use of the word “story” feels like a mere metaphor, an approximation.

You’ve seen plenty of exhibitions with a historical shape, and a beginning, middle, and an end. But when’s the last time you came out of an exhibition feeling like somebody had told you a story? 

When’s the last time you’d have described an exhibition — or a symphony concert or dance program, for that matter — as heartfelt, gripping, honest, or moving? The individual artworks, historical artifacts, or performances, sure. But the exhibition — the evening — the program created by the cultural institution itself?

Strayed’s book got me thinking about the difference between a narrative (that slightly precious, academic word) and a story. Her book, like all good stories, moves in two directions, which we might call horizontal and vertical (see diagram, below). The horizontal direction is the unfolding of the plot: where the story is taking us, and how we’re going to get from here to there. It’s the dimension of surprises, twists, and the pleasure of wondering (or fearing or wishing) what’s going to happen next. When we say something is gripping or suspenseful, we’re praising the horizontal dimension.

Exhibitions, for all their traditional emphasis on chronological and other kinds of narratives, aren’t particularly good at this. As I’ve asked here before, when do museum visitors ever feel suspense about what the next gallery will tell them, or how it’s going to end? ...

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Categories: Classical music, History museums, Institutional personality, Museums, Public media, Science museums, Storytelling
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November 28, 2011

Everybody’s favorite astrophysicist leads science into new territory: popular culture

I’m not the target audience, and neither are you. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s weekly radio show and podcast, StarTalk Radio, is aimed at people with a high-school education who listen to commercial talk radio call-in shows — the “blue collar intellectual” segment, according to a grant summary from the National Science Foundation, which supports the show. But there are big lessons here for us white-collar intellectuals who work in museums and the arts.

I didn’t know anything about StarTalk when I stumbled on it a few days ago on iTunes. But I’ve been watching Tyson’s public science persona evolve for years and have read several of his books, so I downloaded a few episodes and played them in the car during a family Thanksgiving drive. I was immediately struck by the commercial sound of the show. Fast pace. Voices bantering and interrupting and laughing. Comedians and celebrities mixing it up with Tyson and his scientific guests. Rock and Motown hits pumping us in and out of the segments. And Tyson’s voice, more animated and...well, slicker than I’d ever heard it.

So I was excited but not surprised to read that StarTalk was created to “bridge the intersection between pop culture and pop science” and that it bills itself as the “first and only popular commercial radio program devoted to all things space.” In other words, it’s content you might expect from public radio or public television (and Tyson has put in plenty of time on those media), but repackaged in a commercial format for people who’ve never heard of Radiolab or Story Collider and don’t watch NOVA.

Which proves that innovation in public science — and by extension other social and cultural domains that are too important to leave to the experts — doesn’t have to be geared to the educated, urban, young creatives who stream Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! and the Slate Political Gabfest on their smartphones, nor to the older, affluent generation that’s still watching PBS and attending lunchtime lectures at their local university. It can meet a different (larger?) demographic on its own turf. And that, for anyone who cares about reaching underserved audiences and getting the arts and sciences out of their 20th-century temples, is good news. ...

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Categories: Demographics, Informal science education, Institutional personality, Public media, Science museums, Subjectivity, Young audiences
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Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »

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