Monday, March 30, 2015

Sharing Science with the World: 7 Tips for Presenters

Despite the chilly weather, my husband and I strolled the sidewalks of Atlanta on Saturday for the final day of the Atlanta Science Festival, admiring the blooming cherry trees and the crowds of excited children. The organizers of the event did an excellent job providing interesting booths featuring science of all kinds and promoting the event to the multitude of families who attended, and at no charge as well. I was very impressed with how well the event got kids interested in science. We skipped most of the booths because the sheer numbers of children crowding around them, and we wanted the kids to have priority.

I would love to attend an event like this in Orlando or the Space Coast. I’m amazed that an equivalent doesn’t exist even at a smaller level. I attempted to organize a much smaller version of this kind of event two years ago, but I didn’t have the resources. It would be fantastic if an existing educational or outreach entity organized a mass science or space festival for families and the community in our area.

My favorite booth was the demonstration on cosmic rays by Georgia Tech. They featured a small cosmic ray detector called a spark chamber that uses photomultomultiplier tubes to convert the high-energy cosmic radiation into electric charge. Sparks illuminated the detection box every few seconds like lightning and just as quick. I captured a video of a spark and took a screenshot. Cosmic rays impact the surface of the Earth frequently at all times, and we don’t even notice unless we purposely look for them.

That great physics demo made up for the disappointing astronomy presentation at another booth. The presenter resorted to deflecting questions and making stuff up when he didn’t know the answer to questions he wasn’t prepared for. One thing we learn as scientists and throughout life: it’s okay to admit you don’t know. I would have far more respect for a man who had admitted not knowing because this isn’t his field rather than letting pride get in the way.

I’ve just volunteered to be a judge for my undergraduate university’s science and engineering design showcase for the third year. It wasn’t too long ago that I was on the other side of that uncomfortable situation, cramming last-minute knowledge about my project and nervous about what the judges may ask. It's not always a fun experience to prepare for and go through.

As a judge, I’ve gotten a new appreciation for the difficulty of presenting science to anyone, let alone someone who may not have a science or technical background. But I do have some tips for students who need to present information to an audience. This is not an extensive list, but it's the top 7 that comes to my mind from college and high school science fair judging.

7 Tips for Presenters

1. Enjoy what you’re talking about. If you’re not interested in the material you’re presenting, don’t expect your audience to be interested, either. Years ago I attended a talk by a former grad school classmate who looked absolutely bored and I remember thinking that he must be miserable in his work. If you want your audience to think that you’re doing something exciting and meaningful, then you need to believe that yourself and beam those vibes to the world. Also, if you're excited, you'll naturally speak loudly and clearly for all to hear.

2. Take the time to be there. If you can hang around your poster or hang out after your talk to discuss your work further, it appears that you’re really invested in what you’re doing. People may be interested in your work or may just want to be around you to get to know you better.

3. Start from the beginning and work your way deeper. I’m an almost-PhD in physics with two physics-related degrees, but I don’t remember every topic that I was taught in a class I took a decade ago and I may need a refresher on what you’re talking about. Take care not to give lip service to Step A then jump straight to Steps X, Y, and Z, ignoring the in-between. Go in logical, methodical order, even if it means sacrificing some details at the end.

4. What do you want your audience to take away? Why should we care? We may only remember one sentence of what you said. Say it at the start, repeat it at the end, and use much of the middle to explain how you got there. I will not remember your 20 conclusions, but I may remember your big conclusion if you present it well.

5. Know what you’re talking about. If you’ve spent an entire year studying a subject, I’m going to presume that you can answer basic questions about that subject. If you know only about what’s on your poster or in your talk and you know none of the related material that puts your research into context or perspective, then I’m going to assume that someone else did your research and you only pushed a button or assembled a spreadsheet. If you want to be seen as more than a mindless data collector, then know your stuff.

6. It’s okay to admit that you don’t know. Students don’t know the breath and depth of their field. College students should know more than high school students and graduate students should know better than undergrads, but not even experts in the field can answer all of the questions or know everything. Most of the time I ask questions, it’s not to test someone’s knowledge, it’s because I’m curious and want to learn more. The student presenter may not be the best resource to answer my questions and I respect a firm, “I don’t know. Good question.”Even better if you can help me to find the answer.

7. Keep learning.  A student who will take what was learned in this project and apply it to whatever comes next, even if totally unrelated, earns more respect in my book than a student who signed up for this research to get credit and doesn’t really care. I never wanted to be a chemical engineer, it was just a temporary work experience, but I look fondly on my three months as a chemical engineer at NASA MSFC because it was really neat and eye-opening, even if I don't want to do that again. We can learn from any situation and any experience if we choose to.

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