This photo shows the backs of three people's heads as they watch two young women acting out a scene in a classroom. One, dressed in a red sweatshirt and a head covering, has a hand behind her back as if in pain. The other, in jeans and a blue t-shirt, is leaning toward her solicitously.
Graduate students watch their classmates improvise a scene in their communicating science course. (photo credit: Lauren Holt)

Plenty, as actor Alan Alda and others—including a growing program here at Virginia Tech—have shown over the past decade.

Alda discovered while hosting PBS's "Scientific American Frontiers" that when researchers go into lecture mode their vocabulary, body language, and even tone of voice can serve to confuse and exclude public audiences. He began approaching university presidents with the idea that theatre training could be used to help scientists learn how to communicate their research to non-scientists.

In 2009, Stony Brook University established what is now known as the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. The center uses improv exercises and other tools from the theatre arts with science, engineering, and medical researchers at all stages of their careers to help them learn to connect with their audiences.

Science departments were initially skeptical, according to an administrator associated with the Alan Alda Center. But in the years since the Alda Center's inception, the program has taken off. Hundreds of graduate and professional students at Stony Brook have taken communicating science courses, and Alda Communication Training Company LLC, a public-private partner with the Stony Brook Center, offers workshops around the world.

Shortly after the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science began its work at Stony Brook, Virginia Tech Dean of the Graduate School Karen DePauw learned about Alda's project and asked Patty Raun, then director of the VT School of Performing Arts, to participate in the Alda Center's first summer institute for university faculty and administrators. Already well versed in theatre and improvisation, Patty brought the program back to Virginia Tech, where we are now in our ninth year of offering a graduate level Communicating Science course. In addition, we've provided workshop experiences for thousands of participants—faculty, graduate students, undergraduate students, industry partners, and community members—since 2011.

Offered each spring semester beginning in 2012, Virginia Tech's two-credit workshop-format Communicating Science course in 2016 added sections in response to student demand, with four sections now offered per year. In 2013, biologist and writer Carrie Kroehler began co-teaching with Patty, and in 2015 Carrie also attended an Alda Center summer institute at Stony Brook for additional training. 

The Virginia Tech course, offered through the Graduate School as a part of its Transformative Graduate Education certificate program, helps participants to gain a greater awareness of the everyday tools of human interaction and provides opportunities for them to think, speak, and write about their research in a variety of ways. Graduate students from every college have completed the course.

In completing the Communicating Science course, graduate students have communicated their research to members of the surrounding community. For the first several years the course was offered, students gave presentations to public audiences assembled at Warm Hearth Retirement Village's Tall Oaks Hall. In 2016 we added an outreach event at Giles County's Eastern Elementary/Middle School, with graduate students presenting their research to six classrooms full of 6th and 7th graders. In 2017 we started a kindergarten visits project through which women scientists share their research with kindergarten children. Graduate students also have given presentations and facilitated workshops for undergraduate students, distilled their research to 90 seconds to compete in our annual Nutshell Games, given short talks for Blacksburg's Sustainability Week, presented at our New River Valley Science on Tap, and more. In addition, course participants write science news stories about one another's research and collaborate with undergraduate students enrolled in a science writing course. You can find some of these stories on our center website.

The increased interest from graduate students wanting to take the Communicating Science course, from faculty and graduate students requesting workshops, from the Preparing the Future Professoriate program in the Graduate School, from the College of Natural Resources Executive Master of Natural Resources program, and from others led us to see that a Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech could serve to expand and coordinate opportunities and resources on campus and beyond. With input from Karen DePauw in the Graduate School, Karen Roberto, director of the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment (ISCE), and many others, we wrote a White Paper describing our mission and goals, drew up a Center Charter, submitted it to the university, and received approval for launching the Center for Communicating Science: The Art of Connecting Across Difference. Housed in the top floor of ISCE's old brick house on the hill near Hillcrest Hall, and administratively within ISCE as well, the center became an official university entity in the fall of 2016.

Our "grand opening" the following spring was lots of fun! Graduate students gave 90-second research talks in the first annual Nutshell Games, NPR's Joe Palca shared his experiences as a science correspondent, and Virginia Tech President Tim Sands, Dean of the Graduate School Karen DePauw, and Director of ISCE Karen Roberto each offered their own 90 seconds of wisdom at our center opening events March 2, 2017.

Nearly 60 graduate students responded to the campus-wide call for participants in the Nutshell Games, and the first 28 prepared and presented  90-second talks about their research to an audience of more than 100 people gathered at the Graduate Life Center.

By the time Joe Palca spoke, a crowd of about 250 was on hand to hear him congratulate the graduate student speakers for their courage. As he put it the next morning, when he spoke on our local NPR station, ".  . . that was amazing bravery, because appearing in public is stressful . And some of them were just absolutely fantastic!"

Palca and assistant producer Madeline Sofia met with graduate students earlier in the day, speaking at two seminars about the importance of sharing research with the general public, telling engaging stories about science, and building a network of science communication across the country.

Listening, Palca emphasized, is a critical part of communication that scientists may not think about when they imagine communicating their research.

"Don't lecture them," he said. "Don't tell them what they ought to think. Find out what they are interested in."

The Nutshell Games, judged by Palca and Sofia along with President Tim Sands, Dr. Laura Sands, Dr. Karen Roberto, Dr. Karen DePauw, and Dr. Katie Burke, digital editor at American Scientist, resulted in a three-way tie for first place, each speaker receiving $500.

Caitlin Colleary, geosciences, told the story of her biomolecular paleontological research with a talk titled "Why is There an Alligator in my Freezer?"

Anza Mitchell, science education, relayed her studies on how school kids engage with engineering in her Nutshell talk "That's Engineering?!"

Max Ragozzino, entomology, used images from the film Alien to describe his work in his talk, "Emerald Ash Borer, and How We're Stopping it with the Chestbuster from Alien."

President Sands told the Nutshell Games speakers and the rest of the audience about an earlier job with Bell Communication Research and the value of having been required there to write summaries of his research that would make sense to non-scientists. That skill has served him well, he said, and is even more essential today.

"There's never been a time in my lifetime when communicating science concisely, efficiently, and in an engaging way has been more important," he said.  

Other events associated with the opening of the center included a two-part communicating science workshop for the Virginia chapter of the Wildlife Society the week before, a workshop for Virginia Tech faculty who are affiliated with the Global Change Center, and a workshop for graduate students to help them prepare for the Nutshell Games.  

 You can see the winning Nutshell Talks (and others) here!

During her many years of teaching introductory acting courses, Patty noticed that students from a wide variety of  majors were taking the course and applying it to their lives, studies, and careers. The exercises and games used in the graduate level course and in workshops help participants learn to communicate across difference, whether that difference be education level, socioeconomic status, race, gender, or research specialization. With these observations in hand, she developed an undergraduate Pathways course aimed at non-theatre majors from any field, Introduction to Applied Collaborative Techniques (TA 2404), which provides students with the tools they need to communicate and collaborate across difference while in college as well as in their future lives and jobs. 

We agonized over what to name the new center, as we wanted both to link it to the exciting work being done at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University and its many affiliates—but also to communicate that we believe the tools from the arts that we use in our courses and workshops apply to communication and connection across all differences. Hence our subtitle: "The Art of Connecting Across Difference." 

We see the Center as providing opportunities in three arenas: 

  1. Communicating science and scholarship, with a focus on helping researchers, medical professionals, and others learn to be more direct, personal, spontaneous, and responsive in their communication; on public engagement; and on connecting scholars and researchers.
  2. Innovation, with a focus on team creativity, new ways of thinking, new ways of expressing, new ways of doing, practicing risk/fail/risk, and entrepreneurship.
  3. Collaboration, with a focus on trans- (and cross-, inter-, and intra-) disciplinary research, empathy and understanding "other," trust, inclusion, communicating across difference, and narrative.
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