Researchers Expanding Lay-Audience Teaching and Engagement
As a scientist, I am keenly aware that communicating my science to people outside of my field is crucial, both to maintain the support and funding of the scientific enterprise and to generate collaborations across scientific fields. Scientists are trained communicators within their fields, but a number of communication barriers limits many researchers' abilities to convey scientific methods and findings to non-scientist audiences. Given that scientific communication to non-scientific audiences is key to the future of the scientific workforce, my collaborator Katie Prater and I expected that there would be training efforts already in place at the University of Michigan. After we realized the dearth of such training, we committed to developing a lay-audience communication training and outreach initiative of our own.
We were awarded the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) “Innovation in Graduate Education Challenge” Community Choice Award in 2013 for our idea, Researchers Expanding Lay-Audience Teaching and Engagement (RELATE). RELATE is an initiative geared at improving STEM researchers’ lay-audience communication skills. We proposed to pair intensive, practice-oriented training with outreach opportunities to engage with the public. Although the NSF award we received was for developing an idea and did not require us to act on our proposal, we immediately began developing and implementing RELATE. We obtained a Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop grant from the Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan to supplement the funding from the NSF award. We partnered with Leah Bricker, Andrew Maynard, Paula Wishart, and a number of communication experts to help us develop and refine the content of our workshop sessions. Our faculty advisory team has since grown dramatically, and our current most active partners are Brian Zikmund-Fisher and Tim McKay. We also work with a great team of student coordinators to keep our organization running smoothly. Finally, to understand the impact of our approach, we have an IRB-approved research to evaluate the efficacy of our workshop-practice model to investigate its effectiveness at improving STEM researchers’ communication. We use this data to both revise the model to make it maximally beneficial for workshop participants and contextualize our efforts in science communication training to others in the field.
Every year since 2014, we have run intensive communication workshops, developing and refining the model that we're planning to implement in 2018 and beyond. During the workshop sessions, participants learned communication techniques and strategies from experts (e.g., messaging, creating analogies and metaphors, and non-verbal communication strategies), and then implemented those techniques by developing a presentation about their own research designed for a lay-audience. Workshop participants record these talks to host online and publicly present them in a series of community engagement events throughout the rest of the year.
RELATE was also proud to partner with the University of Michigan's Office of Academic Innovation to host Stand Up for Science: Practical Approaches to Discussing Science that Matters. This free, online event following the March for Science (May 5-7) was intended to bring scientists and non-scientists together to build skills & discuss science. As of September 2017, nearly 1,800 people had joined. Learn more at: tinyurl.com/SciCommTeachOut.
During our first five years, RELATE trained ~120 University of Michigan graduate and early career researchers during intensive summer workshops and introduced >1500 students to fundamentals of communication skills in shorter workshop series. We are currently expanding our workshop offerings to support increased public engagement training for faculty and for undergraduates, particularly those of underrepresented minority status via workshops on professional communication for UM’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), M-STEM and Women in Science and Engineering (WISE). We also host “Science by the Pint” and “Science by the Cup”, our independent outreach event series, and we co-sponsor partnered public events with local-area organizations, including Nerd Nite Ann Arbor and the Michigan State University Science Festival.