By: Jason Chang and Andy Sanchez
In just over a decade, the United States went from laughing at Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” to fighting over Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts.” Scientific evidence is a necessary resource in this contentious environment, but to utilize that resource, scientists need to build effective communication skills. ComSciCon-Cornell helps scientists do exactly that, bringing together graduate and postdoctoral researchers from across the Central and Western New York region to learn about and engage in scientific communication.
This past July, a team of six Cornell University graduate students and postdoctoral fellows organized ComSciCon-Cornell 2018 for 40 STEM researchers. The two-day event explored modern digital communication, with special focus on storytelling, socially sensitive topics, and public engagement. On both days of the conference, attendees learned from a diverse group of 20 professional communicators and experts through Q&A and interactive sessions. Concurrently, attendees wrote their own popular science articles and actively engaged with panelists and workshop peers alike for feedback.
Andrea Kissack, the Chief Science Editor and Head of the Science Desk for NPR, kicked off the event by sharing her professional journey and her observations of the evolution of digital media in science communication in a keynote talk titled “Scientists as Storytellers.” Presenting data showing that the American public has had a consistent, high level of trust in scientists for decades, she noted that the scientific community is well-positioned to engage with the public on scientific issues. Andrea concluded her talk by reflecting on how science communication has diversified the media’s representation of scientists and encouraged attendees to also help change the face of science. The workshop then transitioned into storytelling-themed panels on “How to Tell a Story” and “Know Your Audience.” Fiction writers, patient advocates, and science policy experts shared their stories as well as tips on how to establish an emotional connection with a target audience and the importance of understanding different perspectives.
On the second day of the conference, experts in climate science, genetic engineering, and GMOs helped attendees understand the process of “Navigating Dialogues on Controversial Topics.” After a networking luncheon, attendees broke into interactive workshops focusing on “Accessing Broader Audiences through Multimedia” using Twitter, animation, podcasts, and short videos. “This conference has made me more confident in my #SciComm abilities in engaging with the public as well as with other scientists. I found the controversial topics panel extremely helpful. I am looking forward to creating some good conversations! #ComSciCon Cornell,” tweeted Meg Heaney, 2018 attendee.
Throughout both days, attendees had the chance to present a 60-second pitch (“Pop Talk” of their research. During this time, the audience responded with live feedback, using colored placards to denote if the speaker was using too much jargon or effectively communicating their message.
The two-day structure also fostered a positive writing environment. Attendees came to the event with a first draft of a popular science article. On Day 1, they reviewed the pieces with their peers, and spent the next several days editing based on that feedback. Then, for Day 2 (held a week later), they engaged in a second feedback session with one of the invited experts.
(Left) ComSciCon-Cornell 2018 attendees peer reviewing popular science articles; (Right) A group of attendees intently listening to expert feedback from WSKG’s own Nancy Coddington
This structure and all of the elements of ComSciCon-Cornell produced a significant increase in attendee confidence in publishing a popular science article, as measured by pre- and post-workshop surveys. Additionally, 92% of ComSciCon-Cornell 2018 survey respondents expressed interest in publishing the writing they produced at the conference. “ComSciCon was a great experience. It certainly helped me learn better strategies to communicate my own science. Beyond that, it was inspiring to be around others who value the importance of scientific communication,” said Kate Lanza, 2018 attendee and 2019 co-organizer.
Over 200 individuals have participated in this franchise workshop since its inception in 2015, with many alumni later contributing popular science and op-ed pieces in national publications. “ComSciCon is of great educational value for those grad students interested in expand and polish they communication abilities, and an excellent opportunity to network with professional science communicators and like-minded peers,” said Mariano Arias, 2018 attendee and 2019 co-organizer.
The 2019 Organizing Committee, now composed of students from various institutions in Central and Western New York, have recently rebranded the workshop to “ComSciCon-NY.” “This change better reflects the diversity of its organizers and attendees while expanding the workshop footprint to engage all of New York state,” said Jason Chang, 2018 and 2019 co-organizer. ComSciCon-NY 2019 will take place on August 2-3, 2019 at Cornell University.
An Engaged Opportunity Grant from the Office of Engagement Initiatives funded this community-engaged project. Sponsorship also came from the following offices and departments at Cornell University: The Graduate School, School of Biomedical Engineering, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, College of Engineering, College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Chemistry, Department of Physics, KAVLI, CCMR, Office of the Vice Provost for Research, and the Alliance for Science.