Science communication in a hands-on way

Because of its benefits to researchers and society, funders are increasingly asking for science to be communicated to the public. Early-career researchers are well placed to do this, but they need both training and hands-on opportunities. Here we learn how the University of Zurich provides these.
Science communication in a hands-on way

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The University of Zurich’s service unit for early-career researcher, the Graduate Campus, has always emphasized outreach and science communication. We believe that it is essential to train young researchers in the art of communicating science. It can start with small actions like social media posts and can be as elaborate as participating in an exhibit dedicated to science. These different ways of science communication have in common that they ask scientists to break down complex knowledge into bits that are easily understood by the larger public.

In our course program for transversal skills, we offer training that range from honing presentation skills to storytelling and narration, as well as to more innovative approaches like improvisational skills. We believe that doctoral programs and graduate schools should require their PhD students to engage in some of these science communication trainings. But for the young scientists to actually learn hands-on how to engage with the broad public, we also make available opportunities like science fairs, long nights of research events, three-minute thesis competitions or science-and-art exhibitions for early-career researchers. The University of Zurich organized several exhibitions and cooperated with local art institutions to showcase research being conducted on different topics. Early-career researchers who participated in these exhibitions received special training and coaching, so that they were better prepared to break down their research into pieces that society at large could grasp.

Bright poster in pink and yellow colours, with white lettering advertising the 100 Ways of Thinking exhibition at the local museum of contemporary art
Poster advertising the exhibition at the local museum of contemporary art

Reframing research

In our experience, young scientists benefitted a great deal from actively engaging in a science-and-art cooperation, like the University of Zurich’s cooperation with the local Museum of Design “Planet Digital”, or “100 Ways of Thinking”, which was a cooperation with the local Museum of Contemporary Art. They learned a great deal on how to interact and cooperate with artists or designers, thus giving the participants a hands-on opportunity to engage in transdisciplinary work. It also gave scientists an entirely new setting in which to present their research. Thus, early-career researchers were able to hone their communication skills by acting in new settings, engaging with artists and designers, and finally having to think outside their usual frame of talking about science, in order to produce something worthy of being shown in a museum. It is true that this kind of work is time- and resource-intensive, but it is worth it in terms of sparking creativity and being a novel way of engaging with the public, as well as in terms of learning curve of early-career researchers.

Photo of speaker and attendees at a lecture, taken from behind the speaker, showing a full room. The event took place during the long night of museums at the exhibition “100 Ways of Thinking". Photo credit to Frank Bruederli
Event during the long night of museums at the exhibition “100 Ways of Thinking,” showing that even lectures drew a large crowd of museum visitors. Photo: Frank Bruederli

During events that we organized around the cooperation with the local art or design museums, early-career researchers also had the opportunity to participate with their own ideas. Science dinners, science trails, workshops, and painting sessions were organized, as well as more traditional frontal formats like lectures and talks. These events were mostly targeted at a large general public, and young researchers learned hands-on how to create a format that is appealing to the large public and how to transmit their knowledge in an interesting way.

Photo showing attendees inside the video installation Triggered by Motion, which is a curved structure with screens embedded in it. The installation was displayed at the exhibition “Planet Digital”, which was a cooperation with the local Museum of Design. Photo credit to Frank Bruederli
Inside the video installation Triggered by Motion at the exhibition “Planet Digital”, which was a cooperation with the local Museum of Design. Photo: Frank Bruederli

Skills with broad applications

Increasingly, researchers in general, including early-career researchers, need to show that they are competent in communicating their research to a broad public and that they are engaging in outreach and with the public at large. The European Research Council explicitly encourages its grantees to communicate their research to inform taxpayers and society in general about the relevance of research funded by the ERC. Other granting bodies also require their applicants to show how their research will have a broader impact on society. Communicating one’s research is not only important to gain greater exposure but also to forge new collaborations and broaden one’s network. By mastering diverse communication skills, early-career researchers are better prepared for career opportunities in different sectors of the economy.

To summarize, early-career researchers benefit greatly from getting training in science communication and being offered platforms and opportunities to engage with the public at large. They learn key skills, which they can use to foster dialogue with society and thus enhance society’s trust in science, and they can directly use these skills to get career opportunities in different sectors. It is important that universities realize the importance of training doctoral researchers in a variety of ways and also offer their early-career researchers an opportunity to engage with the public and use their acquired skillset hands-on.

Top image by Frank Bruederli

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