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Workshop provides practical science communications training for researchers

July 17, 2017

Penn State faculty members are often world-class experts in their research fields. However, clearly communicating that research and its importance to those who are less familiar with the subject matter can be challenging.

In order to help faculty members and researchers improve their science communication skills, the Institutes of Energy and the Environment is offering training through COMPASS, an organization that was founded to help scientists share their knowledge in a way that effectively communicates their message to the general public but doesn’t compromise the accuracy of the science. The training takes place on October 4–6 and is open to Penn State faculty and graduate students. There is no cost to attend.

The COMPASS events include a faculty member workshop that is focused on health and the environment, a graduate student workshop, and a plenary panel of science and research journalists who will share their experiences and stories with research in the media. These will take place between Oct. 4–6, and there is no cost to attend.Kathryn Brasier, associate professor of rural sociology, attended the COMPASS workshop in 2016 hoping to gain a better understanding of what journalists and policymakers are looking for from researchers.

“[I wanted to know] how they take information from us and create their stories and their policy briefs and how to whittle down my information to something that is reasonable for their purposes without getting something that is inane or out of context,” Brasier said.

COMPASS training introduces participants to a method using a “Message Box,” which is aimed at helping the researcher identify the most useful information to share with their audience.

The message box helps scientists distill their research by answering several questions, including identifying the issue the research is trying to help or solve and determining the benefits and solutions the scientist has found.

Graduate student Veronika Vazhnik also participated in the workshop last year and uses her experience from the workshop to help guide how she approaches science communication now.

“Since participating in the workshop, I try to make implications of my research more explicit,” said Vazhnik, who studies agricultural and biological engineering. “I recognize that adding personal stories and connections to the scientific study helps the listener to be excited as well, and now I am less afraid of sounding non-scientific when adding these anecdotes.”

While aimed at communicating with the public, the COMPASS training can be implemented in a variety of ways.

“[The workshop] has helped me to think more ‘big picture’ about my work and how it relates to issues that people care about,” Brasier said. “I have begun using the core idea of the message box training in my classes, with both undergraduate and graduate students. For example, last semester I had my undergraduates create posters centered around the questions of the message box, and then in their oral presentations they had five minutes to convey these core ideas. They really enjoyed this approach, as it gave them a chance to talk about potential solutions instead of just focusing on the problems.”

The workshop for graduate students will be held on the afternoon of Wednesday, Oct. 4, and is open to the first 50 who register for the event.

The faculty workshop will be held Oct. 5–6 and is focused on health and the environment. The faculty workshop is by invitation. However, there are still some openings available. If you are interested in being on the list of potential invitees, please fill out the faculty workshop registration page.

The plenary session on Oct. 4 is free and open to the public, but registration is requested. This year’s invited panelists include Jon Hamilton, NPR; Christopher Joyce, NPR; Mark Fischetti, Scientific American; Amanda Paulson, The Christian Science Monitor; and Liz Grossman, freelance journalist.

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