By Dr. Isabelle Côté
<i>Edit: Charlotte’s podcast is now correct, sorry for the error!</i>
Remember the three ‘R’s? Reading, (w)riting and ‘rithmetics – the pillars of any education. When it comes to science, I think that one more R is needed: the ability to Relate discoveries in a way that captivates rather than bores the listener.
Scientists are told over and over (and over) again that they cannot communicate. We use too much jargon and provide too many details, which makes us incomprehensible to most people. There are two possible ways to react to this criticism: stop trying altogether or try harder. The second option has been my choice for the past year or so. I’ve attended communication workshops, created websites, started tweeting and blogging, all in an effort to learn to communicate science more clearly and effectively to a broader audience.
Of course, this enthusiasm for ‘sci comm’ is spilling over into my teaching. The students on this year’s (2013) Marine Behavioural Ecology field course have been at the receiving end of it. In three weeks, they’ve each given two formal and one informal presentations and had the chance to write, and then re-write, in the light of feedback, parts of their final report. However, the one exercise that was new to all of them was the creation of a podcast – a 60-second recorded summary of a recent behavioural paper that they thought was particularly interesting.
What on earth can be the training value of a minute-long assignment? There are in fact lots of skills involved in making a good podcast. Students had to really understand their paper to be able to extract a single, most exciting nugget of new knowledge. They had to write their piece, explaining the context, the question, the answer and the importance, in a jargon-free way ‘so that their grandmother would understand it’. (Grandmas, by the way, are synonymous with an intelligent, interested, but non-specialist audience!) They had to fit all of this in a mere minute, which involved a great amount of writing, pruning and learning not to get attached to their words. They practiced and practiced, listening and giving feedback to each other, experiencing the great value of peer review. And they finally faced the microphone and recorded their pieces, and all agreed that I could post them. So here they are (on SoundCloud):
It is likely that none of my MBE students will have a career in science communication, but given their keenness and ability for the subject, I anticipate that a fair few will stay in biology. I hope that this little foray into how to make science popular and accessible will encourage them to explore how they can best master the fourth R.