Thursday, March 22, 2012

Falling into Jargon

Last week was spring break and I took the opportunity to take visit two universities in Colorado, CU Boulder and Colorado School of Mines, which I am interested in for graduate school.  Because I value her opinion above all others (in many cases my own), my fiance came along for the ride. I had an amazing time, meeting with two professors who apparently went to graduate school together and are approaching very similar problems in fairly different ways. I learned a lot about planetary geology and what would be expected of me in my next step.

However, when we were driving back my fiance told me that when we were talking to the two professors that she felt stupid and couldn't understand what we were talking about. Now she is an elementary education major, not a science major, and she hasn't taken any high level science classes; however, I view her as representative of the interested public, and that started me thinking about the nature of science communication, but first a tangent.

I believe in science outreach, and have started trying to reach out to the community around me. This started about two years ago when my RA friend told me about a program one of the dorms was about to put on which was going to include an astronomy portion. However, she was only going to tell stories about constellations, so I volunteered and buffed up on astronomy and went over to talk to college students. I gave a quick little presentation about the solar system, and then answered questions for about 45 minutes mostly relating to common misconceptions and some controversies (i.e. Pluto's status). This was my first attempt at outreach, which was in a field I'm interested in, but cannot actually study yet (my school only offers one astronomy class), and even though my information came largely through popular science books, blogs, and miscellaneous articles, my friend felt the need to "translate" me into normal speak.

That time I couldn't even recognize the jargon I used, and couldn't understand why college aged students couldn't follow what I was saying (to be fair, most of my school isn't exactly known for academic rigor, and these were mostly art and music majors). This last week, though, I could understand what caused my fiance's difficulty in understanding our conversations in which we used terms like astrobiology, geochemistry, geophyics, obscure mineral names, and talked about the mundane in highly technical terms. For example, instead of water studies we said hydrology, these are words that come from common terms, but used in highly precise terms which are daunting to the uninitiated. Most people will associate "hydro" with water and "ology" usually indicates a science of some sort (barring astrology) thus many people can hazard a guess that hydrology is a "water science" but they will also not know what this "water science" entails.

I don't fault the professors for this.  They weren't trying to communicate to my fiance.  They were telling me what they did and giving me the information I needed and wanted to make an informed decision about their program. However, this is something we have to take into account when communicating to those uninitiated into the terminology of science; just because a word has become second nature to you, where you can't even remember where you learned it, doesn't mean anyone outside your field understands it. For example, last summer when you collected undergraduates from different STEM fields and we talked about what we were doing, everyone had to stop and explain the more technical terms. I explained what calderas and maar's were and I learned about mechanical engineering and chemical analysis.

My suggestion is if you are talking to people who are in high school or older, identify where you are going to use jargon and make sure you explain it, but please make sure you use it so that those who are not in your field can learn about the terms and become familiar with it. Give plenty of time for questions (I think Q&A sessions are more important than the lectures in these situations) and make sure that you are yourself. If you have decided to go out of your way to talk to somebody unfamiliar with your work about the basics, you have to love it and that translates really well.

I enjoy outreach, my day job is currently a science tutor at my college and most of the people who come to my sessions don't like the subject they are learning, and I try to fix that. I've gotten so excited about talking about evolution that my coworkers had to ask me to shut up (my voice kind of carries). My family loves to ask me questions (during winter break I explained how the periodic table is set up and what that can tell us to my dad) and my fiance loves to test me by asking about various science topics when we go to different places (like how ocean waves work when we were at the beach and where does the wind come from during an especially windy drive home). I even had the amazing opportunity to explain what NASA is doing in the future to a bunch of elementary school kids, and I really encourage anyone in the STEM fields to talk to kids; they are a trip.

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