Edward van Opstal: Communicating through teaching
The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Edward van Opstal, Ruchi Masand, Corina White, and Darcie Cook will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday for new blog posts!
Current position: 4th year PhD candidate in Biological Sciences
Program start date: 2013
Institution: Vanderbilt University
Welcome back everyone,
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about communicating scientific ideas to an uninitiated audience is that there is no one right way to do it. During my teaching experiences at Vanderbilt, I’ve learned a lot about connecting with an audience and showing them why they should care, a skill set I believe will be fundamental to my future career path. Here are three key take aways about science communication through my teaching experiences:
Every message has to be tailored to a specific audience. You can’t just turn on a mental tape recorder and start talking. I jumped into this challenge head first, when I agreed to participate in a Vanderbilt program called SAVY, for which I designed and taught courses to 3rd and 4th graders. Having not been in either of those grades for about 20 years, it would be safe to say that I was out of my element. For starters, I made the big mistake in my first class of thinking that 8 and 9 year olds would be able to stare at PowerPoint slides for 10 minutes…. on a weekend. I had only talked for five minutes before I realized I might have a small scale riot on my hands. Teaching has helped me to think through how to reach a particular audience – and learn how to read the room. This skill will be vital to my career development because the only people who need to care about my presentations are the audience and they will come from completely different backgrounds, whether student or senator. If you’re looking out at your own mini-revolt, rows of people looking down at their smart phones hidden in their laps or heads nodding off in all directions, be ready to adjust your presentation.
Success in science communication occurs when you actively engage your audience. When I faced that room of 8 and 9 year olds, I had to quickly change gears and set up an interactive lesson during which the students cultured microbes to learn about hygiene and how to set up an experimental design that tests a hypothesis. Even when I found common ground with my students, I still had to make the activities and post-discussions engaging so the content would be absorbed. This ability to grab people’s attention became an extremely useful skill when I worked as a graduate teaching assistant in an Intro to Biology lab. I found it incredible to have a student stare me right in the face and somehow absorb nothing I said. But, I just needed to apply more active learning devices such as Jigsaw groups (i.e. having the students learn, pair, and share parts of the material with each other) to draw out participation and engagement. I saw that my students worked better when they had to hold one another accountable and didn’t rely on me to talk at them.
There is no substitute for actual teaching (so take every opportunity, and expect to fail sometimes). What surprised me the most about teaching through SAVY was the ease in which I could apply what I had learned to largely diverse settings whenever I needed to present scientific content. In the effort to become a more effective teacher, I noticed that I also improved my science communication skills. Both roles require me to be able to connect with an audience and make my story relatable to their lives. Being an effective teacher is an even harder responsibility because you have to successfully convey your topics every single class period, not just during the occasional presentation or seminar. I learned more about publicly presenting my ideas through one course with SAVY than during the several years worth of seminars and talks I had to give on my research. I’ve even gotten to the point where I like explaining my work to strangers, including my repairman and my barber. I like the challenge of having to create new, fun analogies that make my research more accessible and it’s great practice, especially with my career aspirations of science communication and outreach. So, to anyone out there who wants to communicate their research more clearly, I highly recommend taking any opportunity you can to teach a class outside of your university or engage in community-wide educational programs. What you’ll learn during the process is priceless and a community supported by science will inevitably support science.
So, what to do with these lessons? Through my experiences, I’ve seen the fun and fulfillment of teaching and plan to incorporate teaching into my future career goals as a science advocate. Short term, Vanderbilt is fortunate to have a Center for Science Outreach that offers postdocs the opportunity to bring the excitement of science to the surrounding Nashville community. Long term, I hope to use my teaching skills in developing talking points and advancing clearly laid out science goals/positions in government or industry.
That’s it for now. Next month, I’ll talk about my experiences communicating my research and science policies as a scientific advocate. Until then, I leave you with yet another poem:
The future of science belongs to our young,
Their learning of science has only begun.
Our story, our message, must bridge the divide,
We must be their teacher, their mentor, their guide.