Talking outside the tower

EECS Communication Lab teams up with MIT Libraries to broadcast free “Science Snippets” to the world.

Jane Halpern | Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Walking into MIT can feel like entering a foreign country — one with a number for every building and an unwieldy acronym for every organization. Deeper conversations are even more opaque, as fields and sub-fields command their own complex scientific argot. But if the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that bridging the gap between scientists and their wider society is more important than ever. The School of Engineering's EECS Communication Lab, in partnership with the MIT Libraries, is working to bridge that communications gap and help research scientists translate their findings for lay audiences in a series of talks called “Science Snippets.”

“A lot of our work is scientist-to-scientist communication, such as invited talks, poster presentation, thesis defenses, etc., but I also have experience in teaching researchers to communicate with lay audiences,” says Deanna Montgomery, the manager of the EECS Communication Lab and the mastermind behind the Science Snippets talks and related Independent Activities Period (IAP) workshop. “There are skills that overlap, but we wanted to focus on outreach: How do we get outside MIT and the ivory tower?”

For the lab’s first major venture in teaching outside-of-field communications, Montgomery decided to implement a subset of a larger curriculum designed at the University of Michigan by an organization called RELATE. “The workshop was the Communication Lab’s first real venture into teaching researchers how to communicate with people outside their field,” says Montgomery, who co-taught the series with Rachel Yang, an electrical engineering and computer science PhD student, and Jim Clark, a recent PhD graduate in aeronautics and astronautics.

But where to find a willing audience? Montgomery approached Phoebe Ayers, MIT's librarian for electrical engineering and computer science and mathematics, who looped in Nina Davis-Millis, the MIT Libraries director of community engagement. Davis-Millis had an immediate idea: “I have a master’s degree in gifted education, so when we were thinking about an audience, I thought immediately about AP high school students with a hunger for science.” Davis-Millis envisioned finding an audience of students who might not have access to high-quality science labs or expensive learning equipment. “I got all fired up about this and then got off the Zoom and thought, 'What did I just do? Now I am on the hook to find these people!'”

By posting to websites aimed at gifted students and their families, Davis-Millis was able to find not only AP students enrolled in schools down the Eastern Seaboard, but also several home-schooled students who were interested in learning about science from current MIT students. “I felt that this was a program where we provided the right kind of audience for the people who took that workshop, and it was a win-win all around,” says Davis-Millis.

The two sets of mini-lectures, given over Zoom on March 2 and March 9, gave a tantalizing hint of the breadth and depth of research occurring at MIT. “We’re just beginning to introduce the idea of using bacteria to digest plastic, which is not as easy as it sounds, because bacteria have very hyper-specific types of enzymes that are only prepared to digest certain kinds of molecular structures, much like a key can only fit into one kind of lock,” said biological engineering graduate student Mirna Kheir Gouda, deploying a carefully chosen metaphor in her talk on new ideas in plastic waste management. The metaphor was specifically crafted for her high school-aged audience. “These speakers were not just repurposing a conference talk,” points out Montgomery. “They needed to choose language appropriately to reduce jargon, think intentionally about the analogies and metaphors they would use, and choose words carefully for the audience.”

That careful consideration was on display when postdoc Ahmed Alade “Tia” Tiamiyu titled his talk “Bounce, stick, bury: different behaviors when tiny particles take a hit.” By classifying the behaviors of microscopic particles being sprayed at a substrate with familiar playground terms like “splat” and “stickiness”, Tiamiyu made mindbogglingly tiny particles — which, he reminded his audience, were seven times smaller than the width of an average human hair — feel familiar. “Given the depth and complexity of the topics, I was very impressed at how well they avoided jargon and assumptions of previous knowledge,” says Davis-Millis. “That’s hard to do!”

The success of the talks was partially rooted in the diverse backgrounds of students enrolled in Montgomery’s IAP course. “Our discussion- and activity-based curriculum worked really well because we had people from a variety of disciplines. Say you have an aero-astro student working with a bioengineering student,” says Montgomery. “Both might be engineers, but they don’t know each other’s field jargon, so they make good stand-ins for a lay audience.”

The course’s diversity mirrors the EECS Communication Lab’s open-door policy. “Anyone affiliated with Course 6 in any way can make a one-on-one appointment to get coaching on any communications task,” stresses Montgomery. “You don’t have to be a Course 6 major! You could be a minor, or your advisor could be a Course 6 faculty member. We seriously help with anything: writing, speaking, grad school applications, conference talks, posters, graphics, all the kinds of communications which MIT students have to do.”

Davis-Millis reported that the MIT Libraries share the Communication Lab’s desire to help MIT students tackle any challenge: “I wish people would feel more comfortable about asking librarians to find information. If you learn nothing else from me, remember this: Don’t ever pay for information. We will get it for you. It’s pretty rare that in your MIT career, you don’t need help in something, and there’s an awful lot of help available, whether it’s mental health support or grant application support, or spiritual support, or library support, and I wish more students felt entitled to ask for the support and resources that we are all eager to give them.”

Now those resources include training to share science — its possibility and its excitement — with the world beyond MIT.

Originally appeared in MIT News, April 12, 2021.



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