December 3, 2012 by Dr. G
Monday, December 3, was the first full day of the 2012 AGU Fall Meeting. It is always a challenging trying to figure out my schedule at the meeting, as there are always so many sessions (talks and posters) to choose from. But I spent my morning assisting with the Council on Undergraduate Research’s workshop Getting Started in Undergraduate Research. This is a workshop the councilors of the Geoscience Division of CUR have run several times, primarily at GSA and AGU meetings, for graduate students, post-docs, and new faculty. One of my roles in the workshop is to talk about mentoring freshmen and sophomores in undergraduate research experiences, whether it be through classroom-based projects or independent study. I always enjoy doing this workshop with my GeoCUR colleagues and friends, as I always leave the workshop even more energized to get students involved in inquiry-based experiences.
Because I was at the GeoCUR workshop, I was not able to attend the big NASA press conference that there was so much excitement leading up to. This is when an announcement was going to be made about a discovery by the Martian Rover Curiosity that would “go down in the history books.” The announcement? The rover is analyzing soil, and it found organics that may or may not have originated from the Red Planet (see NASA press release). What does this mean? It means some people are disappointed about the hype, but some people are thrilled with this new data. There are several excellent blog posts that have appeared online since the announcement (such as this one) that challenge all of us to use this event as a “teachable moment,” and to go forth and educate.
But after the workshop, I headed over to the AGU Presidential Forum to hear Ira Flatow of NPR Science. My student researcher Abbey Dufoe was kind enough to save a seat for me, as the hall was packed with people to hear what Ira had to say. His talk certainly was packed with information and examples about how science is communicated and portrayed in the media. Ira began with a review of scientists we were exposed to in the “early days,” such as images of Albert Einstein, Young Frankenstein (portrayed by Gene Wilder), Mr. Wizard (for my students that have no idea who this is, I’ve linked the video Ira showed), Carl Sagan, and others. But despite these science “personalities,” if you will, the American public is still challenged by a lack of scientific knowledge – 40% of the population think the Flintstones are real, 53% of the population does not know the Earth goes around the Sun every 365 days, and Harvard graduates, on graduation day, still do not know how to answer the question, why is it hotter in the summer than the winter? (see A Private Universe to watch the full video online of this classic case study) The icing on the cake for me was seeing a NBC Nightly News story that announced our population in the US reached 300 million, but Brian Williams said, “don’t ask me how we know that.” UGH!
So, the general public is weak on science (it doesn’t help that only 30% of people that graduate from college take a science course). How do we get science to the public? We have to go to where the public is – on the internet, on TV, in the entertainment business – and have the right person do the talking. We need another Grace Hopper to appear on David Letterman to explain nannoseconds, or more people to watch MythBusters, or more sitcoms like Big Bang Theory to make science exciting and appealing again.
Ira gave some great tips for us scientists in the room on how to communicate science. He suggested we learn how to speak in plain language, learn how to speak out, host a science film festival, create science websites, and create videos, such as the NPR Science Friday video, Where’s the Octopus? (definitely worth viewing!). And, if money were no object, having a commercial during the Super Bowl on Super Bowl Sunday wouldn’t hurt.
The afternoon was spent going to posters with Abbey, discussing with her different poster format, reviewing ideas on how she should present her poster, etc. There is so much a student can learn from a poster session, even if the student doesn’t know the science behind the presentation. We attended an afternoon session of talks on New Ideas in Geoscience and Environmental Communication. The session was very informative on not just how to communicate science, but why it is so important to do so. I think our favorite talk was the one on Earth Girl, a computer game where a girl saves her family and friends from natural disasters (tsunami, volcanoes, and floods). I am so downloading this app…
We spent our evening at AGU’s first Open Mic Night: Tall Tales and Earth Sonnets. The event was hosted by Richard Alley, one of Abbey’s professors this semester. I don’t think Abbey was quite prepared for how fun scientists can be, but it was a great evening filled with haiku, poems, stories, and songs. Where else can you hear songs about LIDAR and planetary classification performed by people from the NRC and EPA? Richard Alley ended the event with his performance of Ring of Fire, which totally made Abbey’s night.
I was doing some live tweeting during the event, and one of my students back at Penn State Brandywine tweeted, “What do geologists do for fun? They ROCK OUT!!! LOL” Yes, we do rock.