RELATE: A Model for Successful Science Communication Training Programs

Sunday, February 14, 2016
Katherine E. Prater, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
Scientific agencies increasingly recognize the need for effective community engagement from scientists: many have called for the proliferation of resources and training to facilitate this engagement. We have implemented a training program for graduate students in STEM fields to teach effective lay-audience communication practices and facilitate participation in community engagement activities. Our training workshop is predominantly practice-based, following best practices in the education literature for skill-building. During the workshop, participants develop skills that include defining audiences, understanding language and audience, developing and using effective narrative structures designing appropriate visual aids, and becoming adept in a range of engagement practices.  There is a strong emphasis on practicing and developing oral communication skills within and following the workshop. Workshop participants develop a number of deliverables as part of their training, including a videotaped elevator pitch and a 10-15 minute lay-audience appropriate talk, which they both video and present in-person at a local community engagement event. Since the RELATE workshop was founded in 2013, 65 graduate students have been enrolled from over 22 different STEM graduate programs, with an 85% completion rate. We have established two science café style event series, and we have hosted 15 events with 44 individual speakers. We have also developed a successful partnership with our local Nerd Nite organization, where an additional 12 speakers have presented. The workshop has shown that instruction on narrative, language, and visual aids is particularly crucial to enhancing the ability of young scientists to engage with lay-audiences. However, there is an upper limit to the number of science-themed events suited to practice-based learning that a community can sustain. One of our goals moving forward is to explore a more scalable model of what has so far been an extremely successful initiative. We are updating our curriculum to accommodate further demand (over 200 students attended information sessions in 2015 to learn about the workshop), and are considering alternative formats for the program which retain the proven content and focus on practice. The RELATE program indicates that providing training in science communication for graduate students, especially around narrative and language, is an effective approach to increasing ability and opportunity for scientists to engage with non-scientist communities.