Oroville Mercury-Register

Science experts hope discussion will boost communicat­ion skills

Knowing a subject doesn’t make it easy to tell others about it, hosts say

- By Ed Booth ebooth@chicoer.com

How can a person who’s knowledgea­ble in science, or any subject, effectivel­y communicat­e with those who are curious about the subject, but who may not know or understand technical language?

Showing students how to be solid communicat­ors is the basis for today’s seminar, “Communicat­ing Physics,” slated for 11 a.m. to noon in the fourth floor lobby of the Science Building, on the east side of Ivy Street and just south of Big Chico Creek. Professors Joe and Hyewon Pechkis will host the event, chatting with science educator, journalist and radio and podcast host Dave Schlom.

The discussion is part of the weekly seminar series in the Physics Department. It’s open to anyone who’s interested, but mainly is targeted toward upper-division physics students.

“We’re helping students work on their communicat­ion skills,” Pechkis said, “as they prepare for submission­s to peer-reviewed journals, or the public, or experts in their field.”

This is important, Schlom explained, because it’s one thing to know a topic thoroughly — but quite another to be able to express thoughts to people who know little about a topic, but are curious.

“We’re going to talk about my career as a science communicat­or,” Schlom said. “We’ll interact with students and give them advice on interviewi­ng — both sides of it, as interviewe­r as well as interviewe­e.

“At some time they may be called upon by someone seeking informatio­n. They might run into a Nobel laureate at a conference, for example,” he added. “It would be a wonderful opportunit­y, but they need to know how to do this.”

Schlom can certainly back up what he’s going to discuss. He hosts the radio show and podcast “Blue Dot” on North State Public Radio, covering topics such as surfing, interstell­ar space, rock guitars and the oceans.

“It’s a radio show that’s distribute­d through PRX (Public Radio Exchange) to other stations. We also edit it down and crank it out as a podcast,” Schlom said.

He emphasized that interviewi­ng people in these and other fields requires a solid knowledge of communicat­ion skills on top of researchin­g a subject before going on the air.

Pechkis agreed with those assessment­s.

“We (as scientists) are pretty good about communicat­ion to other experts who have baseline knowledge,” he said, “but we want to do a better job of communicat­ing to the public.

“We want to ask ourselves, ‘Why is science important for them?’ Just about anything we do in society, from climate change to general technology, is important to the public.”

Pechkis said the event “will be open to questions — we really want the audience to lead the discussion. Dave wants conversati­on, not question-and-answer. We’d like our conversati­on to follow: Where does that conversati­on go, and where do the audience members take it?”

Schlom said he’ll discuss “how to talk about science to everyone from your grandmothe­r to an 8-yearold.

“It’s all about knowing your audience,” he said. “You want to respect everyone’s intelligen­ce. Use some analogies, but don’t dumb things down. People are smart; treat them that way. Help them understand and have a simple ‘elevator speech’ — you should be able to explain what you’re working on in a minute without a lot of technical jargon.

“You should also be able to use technical language, but be ready to explain what that means. I’m a big believer in analogies because it’s great way to explain science.”

Pechkis and his wife also have excellent research background, as they performed their postdoctor­al research at the University of Maryland and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersbu­rg, Maryland. They also worked in the research firm for William Phillips, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997 along with Steven Chu and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji.

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