Science communication: Creativity and empathy
My speaking invitations are normally limited to flies or dementia – it was therefore a refreshing change for me to be asked to talk about my teaching passion of science communication. It was a great privilege to be asked to attend the BERA event on ‘Creativity as spaces of resistance’. I’ve been in the higher education business for more than 30 years. I’ve been fortunate enough to hear some great talks by scientists that I will never forget, yet I’ve slept and dribbled through many a presentation. Indeed, I’d even accuse them of attempted murder by PowerPoint for the density of the data casting my brain into oblivion.
In the past 15 years or so I have actively engaged in public outreach – with schools, public groups, festivals, theatre groups and the media, taking science to the masses. Sometimes I was good at it, other times a disaster. Notably, it gave me networks of people sharing my interests – a tribe. From these interactions I reflected that while a few of my colleagues and students weren’t really aware of their poor engagement methods, a few were actually brilliant. Importantly, watching these ‘extremes’ showed me that the majority might benefit from some training.
Collectively, these experiences led me to develop a science communication course. I was keen to follow the insights of Alan Alda about the need of scientists to develop empathy with the public (Alda, 2017). Equally, I was acutely aware of the creative talent pool among my students. Moreover, the restrictions of a science-based curriculum prevented them from using these talents – I would venture – even to the extent of suppressing their voice. They needed an outlet for their skills, and I might enable them to gain academic credit in applying these skills to their degree.
‘The restrictions of a science-based curriculum prevented my students from using their creative talents, even to the extent of suppressing their voice.’
My approach has been to use experienced professionals to help deliver workshops. We cover diverse areas: storytelling, illustration, narration, poetry, empathy, theatrical games, as well as blogging, vlogging and podcasting. These elements are built upon weekly as students develop online portfolios of their work. With around 100-plus students taking the course, we divide the cohort into groups of 10, training postgraduate mentors to facilitate group work. This provides the undergraduates with a mentor who is not involved in assessment, a confidant. The course runs over 10 weeks across two terms. As a minimum we suggest blogging each week on a subject area, while additionally reflecting on the skills they are developing and mistakes they are making. Final assessment is driven by a reflective essay utilising their portfolio as evidence and the creation of a short video or podcast. In combination this allows the students to choose their own areas of science, and to demonstrate creativity in delivery. Our breath is frequently taken away by their outputs – sculptures, high-quality videos and beautiful writing, notably in storytelling – whether written, spoken or in videos. Storytelling is a powerful method for communicating with a variety of publics. In the context of science, while not without critics who feel that this dilutes the importance, or even distorts, the data (Katz, 2013), many have demonstrated storytelling’s usefulness in engagement (Krzywinski & Cairo, 2013; Neeley et al., 2022).
We compound the soft skills they are developing with a training session to demonstrate empathy – largely considering the findings of Alda on theatrical improvisation and increased engagement from scientists (Alda, 2017). We feed their inner scientist with neuroscience discussions of parts of the brain implicated in empathy – most famously mirror neurons. The science on these and any role in empathy is in truth still out. But, at the very least learning through observations of others, learning to watch, listen and imitate drives some understanding (de Waal & Preston, 2017) that can be perceived to some extent as empathic learning. The second part of the course then switches gear to look specifically at different audiences – families, politics, media, funding bodies. All require different skills to engage with, yet all have similarities. Again, I facilitate each with a specialist, and request students to build their portfolio as they see fit to meet the learning objectives of the module.
In the BERA meeting I was struck by the relationship of our approaches with those of the non-verbal connections that Richard Hayhow so brilliantly demonstrated to us and how Johanne Clifton’s demonstration of engaging her students and staff in creative spaces could lead to such transformations. From the meeting I take away that these creative approaches are applicable to many teaching situations, and indeed will be the solution to many problems that perhaps we currently see as unsolvable, as wicked. They are the interesting ones to crack.
Alda, A. (2017). If I understood you, would I have this look on my face? My adventures in the art and science of relating and communicating. Random House Inc.
de Waal, F. B. M., & Preston, S. D. (2017). Mammalian empathy: Behavioural manifestations and neural basis. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 18(8), 498–509. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn.2017.72
Katz, Y. (2013). Against storytelling of scientific results. Nature Methods, 10, 1045. https://doi.org/10.1038/nmeth.2699
Krzywinski, M., & Cairo, A. (2013). Storytelling. Nature Methods, 10, 687. https://doi.org/10.1038/nmeth.2571
Neeley, L., Barker, E., Bayer, S. R., Maktoufi, R., Wu, Katherine, J., & Zaringhalam, M. (2020). Linking scholarship and practice: Narrative and identity in science. Frontiers in Communication, 5, 1–6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fcomm.2020.00035