A science communicator takes a communications class?!

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Adult African-American man wearing a black mask talks about presentation titled
Jalen talks about batteries during the 3 Minute Thesis assignment.

Even though I have been involved with the STEMComm VIP team for almost four full years now, I have never taken the time to learn about science communication properly and ways to go about it. Taking a communication class has been long overdue for me because it’s something that I’ve always been interested in improving about myself and my skill set as a graduate student and as a budding scientist. So, I finally leaped into MSE 8200: Advanced Presentation Skills.

 

The Warm Up

MSE 8200 had six students in a classroom meant for 40, so I needed to connect with my classmates to go through the class. We started with some surprisingly deep icebreaker questions about where we came from and what drove us to become engineers. From there, we began our warm-up exercises, where we went over problems of writing in science and how we can improve our communication. We all related to the feeling when we finally found an article with a title that might help us with our projects, but then we came to find out that the paper was impossible to understand. Since writing is the most significant thing that non-scientists see, it’s one of the things that should be practiced to be understandable and intriguing!

After discussing the basics of science writing, we reviewed different science stories, what they did well in communicating their science, and what could have been done better. We finished the warm-up also talking about how to communicate with younger audiences, reading some different stories from well-known scientists, and how we can improve on explaining technical issues to a non-technical audience (with some pretty cool Ted Talks). After writing our versions of how to explain some of the foundations of our research, it was time to make our presentations!

 

Speaking Up

After the warm-up, we switched between learning about different methods of presentations and creating presentations for the class with peer and instructor feedback. Our first style (and probably the easiest for me) was the elevator pitch, where we gave a short 90-second pitch on the research we do, why it matters, and what we learned from our work. It was an easy assignment since I love telling people what I do, whether they’re other materials scientists or a friend who wants to listen. The 3 Minute Thesis presentations were also fun to practice, summarizing my work and learning more about what my classmates do. It also gave me a fun challenge to take my research from my summer internship and condense seven research slides into one slide that explains three months of work!

My most challenging communication style was long-form oral presentations for a technical audience. Essentially, they were presentations a researcher would give to other scientists at an academic conference. I realized that I’ve never attended an academic conference, so I wasn’t sure what would be the best information from my internship to explain further or delete. I also realized that since my Master’s research experience is from my internship, it was difficult to talk about my work for 15 minutes when I’ve been used to presenting it for 3-5 minutes. We closed out the course with a poster presentation, where we gave a brief pitch of our work once more, with some final comments on our experience in the class.

 

Did Jalen learn to communicate better?

Yes. 1000%. Absolutely (and any other words you can think of). Even though I have a good amount of experience creating science-related content, what I learned in this class will make me a better communicator. With the help of my instructor and my peers, I got a lot of feedback on what I could improve on in my presentation style and what I could do better. I learned that even though my long-form presentations were shorter than I would have liked, I did a great job presenting my work’s complicated terms and concepts in a way for both technical and non-technical audiences to understand and engage. With the use of animations and analogies in my work, I could put a clear image in the audience’s mind of what I was doing and put a lot more emphasis on the why; if a scientist cannot explain why their work matters, then it becomes even more challenging to engage with a non-technical audience, especially in fields like renewable energy, electric vehicles, and artificial intelligence.

What I want to work on and improve is including more conciseness in my presentations. Though my explanations were clear, I spent more time elaborating on small details than I probably needed to, especially for a non-technical audience. I think if I improve on this, then I will be able to create more accessible presentations. I also hope to practice with more resources like “Academics Suck at Writing” to learn more ways that I can improve my STEM communication skills.

MSE 8200 has been one of the most enjoyable and engaging experiences of my Master’s. Not only did I learn skills to make me a better science communicator, but I also realized that my communication style is more robust when it includes visuals or oral presentations. It also gave me a path to move forward with my STEM communication journey as I prepare to graduate and move on to the next career step. I plan to attend a science communication conference in the spring and use the lessons from this class to grow even further. If you can take a science writing or presentation class in your program or work, I highly recommend it!

 

Note: If you want to see my research (and my communication skills in action ), I posted my 3 Minute Thesis presentation from my class below.