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A "Sip of Science" in Minnesota

December 12, 2013 12:00 AM

esa science cafeBeing a native of Wisconsin -- land of beer, brats, and polkas -- I've always dreamed of delivering a science presentation with a drink in my hand. I'd like to tell you that the realization of that dream was the whole reason I volunteered for a Science Café, but that wouldn't be entirely true. The real reason has more to do with a serendipity: the email announcing the Ecological Society of America's sponsorship of a Science Café in conjunction with the 2013 Annual Meeting showed up in my in-box just as I was embarking on a new journey as a Leopold Leadership Fellow.

What's a Science Café you ask? Science Cafés are popping up all over the world as a means of encouraging greater dialog between scientists and society. The bar or café setting provides a more informal, personal atmosphere, helping both parties relate to each other as human beings. They may be known by a different name in different places; for example, the usual name for the Science Café series I was a part of is "Sip of Science": a collaboration between the Aster Café in Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota’s National Center for Earth Surface Dynamics. Elsewhere, they are known as “Science on Tap” or “Pecha Cucha,” but the idea is the same: as a society, we're dealing with a lot of complex problems that science and scientists could help solve. People are not going to turn to science, however, if the investigations we conduct are inaccessible to them. Furthermore, people are more likely to trust the results of a scientific study, and to use the results in their decision making, if they know a scientist. The aim of Science Cafés is simply to lower, if not eliminate, such cultural barriers. 

Translating scientific knowledge into societal action also happens to be the primary goal of Stanford University's Leopold Leadership Program. Founded over a decade ago, the program seeks to equip midcareer environmental scientists with better communication and leadership skills. While well equipped to weigh in on contentious environmental issues, highly knowledgeable environmental scientists have historically not been well trained to make science accessible. Formal educational programs tend to be highly focused on helping students learn the foundations of our fields, rigorous scientific processes, and communication to other scientists -- and rightly so, because students need to be adept at these things to find employment in competitive fields. Also, the reward structure for tenure and promotion at many institutions does not prioritize outreach and engagement. My experience has been that, while many students voice interest in receiving training on outreach and engagement, these skills get pushed to the back burner and sometimes off the range as funding, usually in short supply to begin with, runs out.

I applied to Stanford’s Leopold Leadership Program because I recognized this deficit in my own training. As a landscape ecologist at Iowa State University, I study the causes, consequences, and design of land-use change in the U.S. Corn Belt. This region faces several environmental problems important to society, including how to maintain the region's historically high agricultural productivity in light of ongoing soil degradation, how to improve the safety of recreational and drinking water supplies, and how to evaluate the sustainability of different renewable energy pathways. Basically, the region is facing issues regarding food, water, and energy: those fundamental to our human endeavor. I have knowledge and skills that can help inform discussions and decisions on these topics, but my time is limited. How do I find and engage with communities that are committed to environmental progress? How do I make my efforts most impactful? How do I make my messages stick?

I applied to the Leopold Leadership Program to learn the answers to these questions -- and as a member of the 2013 Leopold Leadership cohort, did I ever. In a week long session at the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, I and 19 other fellows received intense, in-depth training in strategic thinking (thank you, Barefoot Thinking) and communications (thank you, COMPASS). I applied for ESA's Science Cafe because I knew it would offer a great venue to put these new found skills to use. Here are a few of the newly learned elements that I specifically incorporated into the presentation:

  • message boxUse a Message Box: One of the tools we learned from the COMPASS group during the Leopold training was the Message Box, which helps eliminate a lot of unnecessary detail and complexity for communicating with a lay audience. The image to the right shows what mine looked like as I started preparing my Science Café presentation.

  • Tell a story: Humans evolved under an oral tradition, not a written or electronic one. While technology offers an amazing tool set to enhance communication, we still respond most positively to stories. We also remember them a lot better than bar charts and p-values.

  • Visuals still matter...a lot. According to Todd Reubold, Communications Director at the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, people remember only 10% of what they hear, but 65% of what they hear and see. One simple, stunning picture that clearly demonstrates your point has more impact than 1000 words or any number of complex tables and graphs. More great advice from Mr. Reubold can be found here

Was I successful at using these in my Science Café? I’m not sure, but my father-in-law, who by any Wisconsinite’s standards is a typical, hard-to-thaw Minnesotan, was pretty enthused. I’ll also say I found the preparation and delivery to be fun and enlightening…and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Especially if I can have a beer in hand.

Find Lisa’s prize-winning pitch for the ESA Science Café spot here, and listen to a podcast on topics Lisa discussed in her Science Café presentation hereThis blog post has also been published on the Ecological Society of America's EcoTone and on the Leopold Leadership Program's Leopold Leadership 3.0.