This photo shows four young adults seated in chairs in a small group discussion configuration. Behind them can be seen two other similar groups.
Participants in ComSciCon-Va Tech 2019 develop their collaboration skills by playing "What I Like About That Is. . ." (photo credit: Alexandra Freeze)

The arts tools and practices used in performance training have profoundly positive application in the realms of collaboration and innovation. Social science research confirms that innovation is foundationally a result of collaboration.  New ideas, new approaches, and new products are born of collaborative human interaction and creative teams.  As a university and as a society we are increasingly aware of the fact that the most urgent challenges facing us are unfathomably complex, large, and interconnected. These challenges cannot be addressed by individuals or by traditional competitive means. They require collaborative skills that allow new approaches and new systems to be developed; collaboration helps individuals and societies to create new paradigms rather than revisiting old and failing structures.  Modern theatre performance training has evolved over hundreds of years. It has been tested and refined to grow individual and group skills in collaboration—the very skills needed by those who would meet the challenges we face.

Although many Americans respect scientists and engineers, their information about science and technology comes primarily from the Internet (NSF, 2019). Most of our country's population has very little formal training in science (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019), making effective communication of research findings both important and challenging. But just as important is helping scientists realize that those who aren't scientists are expert in something else. That expertise is ready and waiting to be tapped for collaborative problem solving, and diverse perspectives strengthen such collaborations.

Our work builds skills of deep listening, respect for and attentiveness to communication partners, and appreciation for the skills and knowledge held by those in all research fields and all walks of life. It helps researchers understand how much they can learn from their stakeholders, neighbors, families, and other collaborators and how important it is to find a common language.

We want the work of the Center for Communicating Science to be filled with joy and discovery.  We want to help specialists discover the excitement and adventure of transcending disciplinary boundaries and the satisfaction of climbing over the walls of the academy. We know that solving the most urgent concerns of our world will require investment and innovation from all sectors—and that this requires a culture of exploration, collaboration, and respect for the contributions that each individual can make.

Scientists and scholars have a responsibility to communicate their work with non-specialists, whether that be family members, friends, neighbors, community groups, large audiences, or other researchers and scholars outside their specialties. Although a land grant university can use its extension branch for the dissemination of research-derived knowledge, we see Virginia Tech's motto "Ut prosim" (That I May Serve) as a directive to individual researchers to contribute to narrowing the gap of understanding between the university and the rest of the world. The opportunities supported by the center enhance the capabilities of Virginia Tech's faculty, students, and stakeholders to build trust, engage public audiences, and bridge the gap of understanding.

One of the benefits of arts and performance practices is a deeper understanding of what it means to be fully expressive and fully connected to others. We have found that through these practices participants begin to reconnect with the human dimensions of their research and with their responsibility to the public. With a focus on deep listening, the games and exercises used in this approach to communication and collaboration promote and encourage cross-cultural understanding and an inclusive climate. Central to the center’s mission is the intention to deepen human interaction, strengthen empathy and awareness of others, and develop collaborative team and leadership capacities in students, faculty, and scholars. This work also benefits individual participants, as these skills help people to teach more effectively, take risks, solve problems, collaborate within and across disciplines, secure funding, compete for positions, and advance their careers.

The communication skills gained through this approach transfer to collaborative innovation and creative problem-solving, with many "side benefits" along the way.

For example, researchers who are effective at connecting across differences can help build diversity in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) workforce. Building collaborative skills in undergraduate and graduate students results in cohorts of graduates who are able to work with others effectively across a variety of types of "difference": research specialty, gender, race, ethnicity, age, and more.

Researchers who can communicate about their research with non-specialist audiences have the potential to create a more scientifically literate society, affect policy decisions, and share the beauty and wonder of science with others.

Partnering with elementary, middle, and high schools in communicating science programs, as the graduate course at Virginia Tech does, increases the numbers of public school children being introduced to "real scientists" on a regular basis. Graduate students who are able to connect and communicate effectively with others help to make research seem accessible and careers in science attainable.

Creative practice exercises and games develop listening skills, body language and environment awareness, and empathy, all useful for fully communicating and connecting with others--including, or perhaps especially, those who are different from one another in various ways.

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“Every scientist should...regard it as his duty to tell the public, in a generally intelligible way, about what he is doing." 

--Konrad Z. Lorenz, King Solomon's Ring

"Mistrust and misunderstanding of science is a threat to our economic future, the welfare of our citizens, and to democracy itself...We need to do a better job of equipping the public to appreciate scientific evidence. And do a better job of explaining what science is--not a set of conclusions, but a method of searching for the truth." 

--Rush Holt, American Association for the Advancement of Science