Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Preventing Failures In Communication

In our formal education as astronomers, we take courses on physics. We take courses on astronomy. We learn to perform research at the heels of our advisers. We devise and execute a research project. Then we are awarded our doctorate and unleashed on the world, supposedly ready to study the deepest secrets of the universe.

But there are some things we aren't taught or trained in, and yet are expected to be able to do, and be able to do well as professional astronomers. We are expected to be able to share our research with other astronomers in both written and verbal format, and we are expected to be able to teach university classes, which are usually filled with non-scientists who either need to fill a science requirement for graduation or who think the class might be interesting.

It therefore should be no surprise that so many astronomy classes are poorly taught, or that so many astronomy colloquia and seminars are dreadfully dull and unenlightening? Excellent researchers can take exciting topics and produce a lecture so boring that you wish for some minor disaster, like a fire alarm or tornado warning, to come along and give you a reason to flee the lecture hall.

I think that many of us astronomers have come to realize the importance of communications skills in astronomy, but so much of what we do is still just mimicking the teaching, lecturing, and writing styles of our peers and elders. Today I made an effort to try and engage the minds of younger astronomers (grad students and postdocs) on some of these issues. I led a discussion on giving effective scientific presentations.

I'd been thinking about this for a while, but was galvanized into action when one of my friends independently brought up the issue of presentations on the AstroBetter blog. I've been tinkering with my presentation style for some years, ever since stumbling across the Beyond Bullet Points website (a site based on one of many books on how to create better Powerpoint presentations) about 5 years ago. While I am far from an expert on effective communication, I wanted to spark discussion on the topic before we all get too set in our ways to change.

So, about one and a half dozen grad students and postdocs got together this afternoon, and we had some nice discussions on topics that, in retrospect, seem like no-brainers to consider: the audience, the goal of the talk, the venue, and style. I think that the wheels in people's heads started turning. And that was my goal, to get astronomers thinking about more than just their science when they go to prepare a colloquium or other presentation.

Now if we could just get more astronomers interested in learning about advances in education....

1 comment:

  1. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, much effort has been put forthin trying to improve astronomy classes. In spite of entrenched opposition, a group is forming that focuses on astronomy education research. There's already a grad student whose thesis will be in astronomy education. Professor Doug Duncan (dduncan@colorado.edu) is really the leader of the pack, and has written several books on the subject of student engagement.
    I should know, I'm an undergrad in the astronomy program :-)
    Just thought you'd like to know that people are seriously considering how to improve education and outreach in a scientifically-backed sort of way.
    Deno Stelter, undergraduate extraordinaire