Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Tips on communicating science to a class

Yes, I am still alive.

My wife and I just returned from a long hiking and climbing trip out in the western states. It's tough readjusting to normal life after having been on the road for a month, but I've managed to slowly get back into the world of science while I wait out the visa application process for Switzerland.

Today I came across an interesting article in Wired called "A Media Guide for Physics" by Rhett Allain. In the article, Rhett gives a few tips for producers of science TV shows that would help them communicate science better. His tips are
  1. don't be wrong;
  2. it's better to say nothing than to be wrong;
  3. don't be misleading;
  4. [don't focus] on comparisons and numbers;
  5. don't get out of control crazy.
I agree with Allain on all these points, especially the last one. Though this example is not from TV, I've noticed that graduate students (myself included) will tend to describe the minutiae of their research to lay people because they don't want to be wrong and because they've been so immersed in it that they forget what other people know and don't know.

The article also got me thinking about what tips teachers and educators should use when communicating science to their students. The list must necessarily be different because the audience is different. What follows is my own list of tips that I think are valuable to college professors when communicating concepts to a class.
  1. Don't assume that students are well-grounded in the "background" material and concepts.
  2. Don't gesture too much while lecturing. When you gesture, you're referring to an image in your head that only you can see. At least put that image on the board.
  3. Present ideas visually and verbally before going into derivations.
  4. Include a little history behind the concept you're about to teach if there's time. The reasons for why a concept is important are often found in the history of the development of the idea. For example, Newton's laws seem obvious now, but philosophers had some very muddy ideas about motion before Newton formulated them. And all of thermodynamics arose out of a need to understand how newly invented engines and devices worked. If you start a class by talking about molecules in a box, the relevance is lost.
The list is obviously not exhaustive, but I've seen many professors violate one or more of these to the detriment of their students' understanding. What other tips might be included?