This week Dartmouth formally partnered with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, Stony Brook University, in our efforts to teach scientists how to better communicate their science to the public and to each other.   To celebrate the establishment of this partnership, Alan Alda visited Dartmouth as a Montgomery Fellow, along with Elizabeth Bass, the Director of the Alan Alda Center.  Their approach uses improvisational exercises to teach scientists how to be aware of their audience, make a more direct connection with their audience, and understand the language that is needed to make that connection.

Last spring, Nancy Serrell (Director of Science and Technology Outreach) and three Dartmouth faculty took one of the Center’s courses.  This motivated Nancy to bring this approach to teaching communication to scientists at Dartmouth.  This term, Nancy, Christian Kohn (Lecturer in the Department of Theater), Gifford Wong (a graduate student in the Department of Earth Sciences), and I are teaching the result of her vision – a graduate course in Communicating Science that is modeled on the courses and workshops offered at the Center at Stony Brook.  Mr. Alda taught our class during his visit.  He also taught a Master Class to Dartmouth faculty, and visited two undergraduate classes while here, among other activities during a jam-packed two-day visit.  (I think he also attended the Homecoming Bonfire on Friday night.)

Here are a few photos from his leading the Master Class with faculty and our graduate class.

He also gave an outstanding public lecture (see a description in the Valley News here) that made many excellent illustrations about how scientists can convey the richness and complexity of their science in a language that people can understand.  He also pointed out how the process and mechanics of communication is a two way street, that scientists need to use language that the general public can understand, and find a way to make that science personal for the listener or reader.  This decidedly does not mean “dumbing down” what we are trying to convey in any way.  It means finding a language that people outside the scientist’s small cadre of colleagues can understand.  In fact, when a scientist becomes really good at communicating, she or he is able to present all the complexity and nuance needed but in a form and language that people can understand.

Nancy, Chris and I (along with many other faculty at Dartmouth who are also involved in this endeavor) look forward to learning from the folks at Stony Brook, contributing our own insights and experiences to them, and working together to help scientists become better communicators, especially with the general public.