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The Sounds of Science: VT's New Center for the Communication of Science

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Virginia Tech
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In our increasingly technological society, science is a major source of new information, especially in a place like Blacksburg, where Virginia Tech is coming up with scientific discoveries all the time.  But if all that new knowledge is not communicated clearly, does it make an impact?  

Sometimes it seems like science and technology are a world unto themselves, where experts speak a language outsiders can’t understand. That’s why Virginia Tech recently opened a new center to teach people the ‘art’ of communicating science.

Patricia Raun is its Director. “I feel like my whole life has led to this time and the opening of the Center for Communicating Science. I was the black sheep of a scientific family," Raun admits. "I wanted to be an actor and went into theater against my family’s wishes.”

But Raun followed her passion anyway, teaching theater and performance at a university known as “Tech.”  For 15 years she was director of its school of the Performing Arts. That could have felt like a small island of the humanities in a sea of science. But instead of swimming against the current, Raun teamed up with Biologist, Carrie Kroehler. They began teaching courses that use the tools of the arts, which are all about engaging audiences, to help scientists learn to communicate more clearly with the general public.

Kroehler says, “We borrowed this phrase from Alan Alda, who may have borrowed it from someone else, ‘the curse of knowledge;’ when we know a lot about something, science or engineering or anything, and we forget that no one else knows what we know.”

The actor, Alan  Alda helped found the first  institute in the country for communication of science at Stoney Brook University in New York, Kroehler explains, they did so for the same reasons they opened one here.

“I think science is beautiful and if scientists could communicate that to other they would really be sharing a lot. In addition to, that most of our world problems could be solved, I think, if we had a little better communication between scientists and policy makers, scientists and the general population and politicians,” Kroehler says.

In a classroom, a couple of dozen science students, Fulbright Scholars, are visiting from Germany for what they thought would be a typical summer course in communications. They take turns making sounds in no known language and instead use their bodies and eye contact to communicate.  It’s way out of their comfort zone and that’s exactly the idea, says Patricia Raun.

“A lot of the exercises we do are very physically active, very participatory and they’re more used to sitting at a desk and taking notes, as our most students. That’s the way we teach now but that’s not the way we learn.  So, we are teaching through play.”

Marvin Koerner, who studies economics and IT in Germany says, “It was a contrast, I have to confess, but after getting into it, after just a couple of days, it was so much fun.  We have a lot of presentations at our universities, so it was very useful because ‘self-confidence’ was also a crucial part of this class and it’s needed in our daily lives.”

Mailin Vonpiedrowski, who studies media design, thinks that for her classmates and for herself, it was good to have a look ‘within.’ This will help enable them to ‘tell the world’ much more about their work. “I’m glad that we had the chance to do some of these weird, but amazing things.”

Christina Greafenstein studies information design. “It was such a good surprise to me because I never had a chance to do, sort of, acting classes. I really, really loved it!"

Director Raun says, “One of the things that we try to help scientists and engineers do, is not just share their data. In fact, the first thing they need to share is their joy, to share their awe, to share the things that motivated them to do that work.   And then they can share the data later."

The public is invited to watch as 30 graduate students deliver engaging 90-second presentations about their research for fun and prizes in the “Nutshell Games.”  The event begins at  4 p.m. Saturday, November 4, in the Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre at the Moss Arts Center.  The event is open to the public free of charge.