How Can Educational Research Inform Science Communication?

How Can Educational Research Inform Science Communication?

Science communication and science engagement are rapidly growing fields – if you search the hashtags #scicomm and #sciengage on Twitter you’ll find an active community of professionals working hard to improve dialogue between scientists and the public. Strangely, these fields are often seen as distinct from science education, though many of the same principles for effective engagement apply across a variety of formal and informal learning contexts.

This past semester, I had the privilege of welcoming fellow educators into the conversation through a module I designed and taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Education titled Cultivating Public Engagement with Science: Challenges and Opportunities for Educators. Over the course of six weeks, I worked with a class of 19 graduate students to explore some of the cognitive, developmental, and sociocultural factors that influence how individuals think about, and engage with, scientific information and ideas. Together, we considered how existing social science research might inform the design of effective science communication and engagement initiatives.

Each student applied these research principles to the development of a science communication prototype – such as a podcast, ad campaign, set of lesson plans, etc. – which they shared at an exhibition session hosted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in conjunction with their Public Face of Science project. Many students designed projects dealing with complicated scientific topics including evolution, climate change, mental health, and the relationship between technology and ethics. Navigating these topics involves understanding the lenses of personal ideology, cultural beliefs, and identity through which people experience and make sense of scientific information.

In my experience teaching this module, I discovered that for a group of educators, who deeply respect knowledge and value the process of sharing information, one of the most challenging and disheartening realizations was the idea that providing an audience with more facts often does not lead to improved comprehension. All too often, scientists and science communicators operate under the assumption that hearts and minds could be changed about complex scientific issues – such as evolution, climate change, or vaccines – if only the public had access to more, and better, information. Yet evidence indicates that this assumption, known in the science communication literature as the “deficit model,” is simply not true. On the contrary, research on the phenomenon of motivated reasoning suggests that having access to additional information actually increases one’s tendency to adhere to their pre-existing beliefs, particularly in contexts where our interpretation is tied to our personal identity or worldview.

Fortunately, there is a rich body of literature from educational research available to help us move beyond the deficit model. As a class, we relied on this research to develop a toolbox of strategies that would inform the design of effective science communication initiatives. Here are three approaches that my students drew on in the development of their projects:

1. First, familiarize yourself with the learning trajectory you expect your audience members to experience. What understandings are they starting with? How far from those initial understandings do you want them to travel, and where should they ultimately end up as a result of your intervention? As researchers note, science educators should seek to understand learners’ intuitive beliefs about the world, to reinforce those that align with accepted scientific explanations, and to confront those that conflict. Educators should also use metacognitive strategies to help learners become increasingly aware of changes in their thinking. As one helpful resource, several chapters in this book address the importance of understanding learners’ epistemological stances in the context of teaching evolution.

The process of revising or replacing your existing mental model in light of new information is referred to in the cognitive science literature as conceptual change. In our course, I asked students to map out the “conceptual change journey” that they hoped their learners would take as a result of their initiatives. Some students chose to make this journey visible to their audience through metacognitive activities that enabled participants to reflect on their changing ideas.

2. Second, examine the relationship between your own motivation(s) for communicating science and your audiences’ motivation(s) for engaging. In their report on Encountering Science in America, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences lays out possible motivations for engagement on both ends and how these may align or diverge. For instance, as a designer, you may be looking to increase awareness, facilitate a perspective shift, or encourage behavioral change. Meanwhile, people who are deciding whether or not to participate in your initiative may be seeking to satisfy their general curiosity, gather targeted information, connect socially with others, have fun with their families, and so on.

During the course, students considered what would happen if these objectives are mismatched. Would it be possible to encourage their audiences to be motivated to engage in the ways they were hoping for? Or might they need to adjust their expectations to meet participants where they are? Several students sought a middle ground by creating buy-in for participants through features that targeted their initial motivation (e.g., creating an atmosphere that enabled users on an app to connect socially) and then worked to motivate the behaviors they ultimately hoped to encourage as designers (e.g., by embedding relevant just-in-time information about low-lift actions the users could take).

3. Finally, leverage your participants’ existing curiosity and emotional engagement. This is especially relevant for scientific topics that are often met with resistance, because these tend to be areas where emotions run high. Moreover, recent research suggests that appealing to an individual’s natural curiosity may combat the effects of motivated reasoning described above. One way to do this is through a design that is intended to evoke epistemic emotions, or emotions involved in the process of learning, such as surprise, curiosity, and wonder. An emotion especially well-suited to this is awe, because it tends to be triggered by events that violate our expectations, and may encourage learners to attend to gaps in their existing knowledge. As my colleague Sara Gottlieb, who conducts research in this area, noted in a prior post on this blog, awe is also an emotion that is commonly elicited in both science and religion and can serve as a bridge between these domains. My own dissertation research investigating the awe experiences of professional scientists (forthcoming; a brief summary is available here) further supports the idea that awe is deeply associated with learning and curiosity in the context of science.

Many students leaned on the power of emotional provocation in their projects, with several choosing to leverage awe and other associated emotions as a way to draw connections between science and other ways of knowing. A number of students noted that they were especially struck by an assigned reading from Carl Sagan’s 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, in which he describes science as “a profound source of spirituality.” One student, Anna Akullian, applied this concept to the development of a podcast on beauty and the brain. As Anna told me, “I realized that by providing explanations to what we already grasp on an intuitive level, like the importance of beauty in our everyday lives, science can add another dimension of depth, meaning, and richness to our experience of the world.”

These approaches are just the tip of the iceberg – there is a rich body of scholarship on learning and engagement that can and should inform the work of science communication. The experience of designing and teaching this course has reinforced my belief that educational research has much to offer this field, and I am hopeful that educators will feel increasingly empowered to join the conversation.


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