A “Sip of Science” in Minnesota

Being a native of Wisconsin — land of beer, brats, and polkas — I’ve always dreamed of delivering a science presentation with a drink in my hand. I’d like to tell you that the realization of that dream was the whole reason I volunteered for a Science Café, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. The real reason has more to do with a serendipity: the email announcing the Ecological Society of America’s sponsorship of a Science Café in conjunction with the 2013 Annual Meeting showed up in my in-box just as I was embarking on a new journey as a Leopold Leadership Fellow.

What’s a Science Café, you ask? Science Cafés are popping up all over the world as a means of encouraging greater dialog between scientists and society. The bar or café setting provides a more informal, personal atmosphere, helping both parties relate to each other as human beings. They may be known by different names in different places; for example, the usual name for the Science Café series I was a part of is “Sip of Science,” a collaboration between the Aster Café in Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota’s National Center for Earth Surface Dynamics. Elsewhere, they are known as “Science on Tap” or “Pecha Cucha,” but the idea is the same: as a society, we’re dealing with a lot of complex problems that science and scientists could help solve. People are not going to turn to science, however, if the investigations we conduct are inaccessible to them. Furthermore, people are more likely to trust the results of a scientific study, and to use the results in their decision making, if they know a scientist. The aim of Science Cafés is simply to lower, if not eliminate, such cultural barriers.

"Sip of Science" at the Aster Cafe in Minneapolis

“Sip of Science” at the Aster Café in Minneapolis

Translating scientific knowledge into societal action also happens to be the primary goal of the Leopold Leadership Program at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment. Founded over a decade ago, the program seeks to equip midcareer environmental scientists with better communication and leadership skills. While well equipped to weigh in on contentious environmental issues, highly knowledgeable environmental scientists have historically not been well trained to make science accessible. Formal educational programs tend to be highly focused on helping students learn the foundations of our fields, rigorous scientific processes, and communication to other scientists — and rightly so, because students need to be adept at these things to find employment in competitive fields. Also, the reward structure for tenure and promotion at many institutions does not prioritize outreach and engagement. My experience has been that, while many students voice interest in receiving training on outreach and engagement, these skills get pushed to the back burner and sometimes off the range as funding, usually in short supply to begin with, runs out.

I applied to the Leopold Leadership Program because I recognized this deficit in my own training. As a landscape ecologist at Iowa State University, I study the causes, consequences, and design of land-use change in the U.S. Corn Belt. This region faces several environmental problems important to society, including how to maintain the region’s historically high agricultural productivity in light of ongoing soil degradation, how to improve the safety of recreational and drinking water supplies, and how to evaluate the sustainability of different renewable energy pathways. Basically, the region is facing issues regarding food, water, and energy: those fundamental to our human endeavor. I have knowledge and skills that can help inform discussions and decisions on these topics, but my time is limited. How do I find and engage with communities that are committed to environmental progress? How do I make my efforts most impactful? How do I make my messages stick?

I applied to the Leopold Leadership Program to learn the answers to these questions — and as a member of the 2013 Leopold Leadership cohort, did I ever. In a weeklong session at the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, I and 19 other fellows received intense, in-depth training in strategic thinking (thank you, Barefoot Thinking) and communications (thank you, COMPASS). I applied for ESA’s Science Café because I knew it would offer a great venue to put these new found skills to use. Here are a few of the newly learned elements that I specifically incorporated into the presentation:

  • Use a Message Box: One of the tools we learned from the COMPASS group during the Leopold training was the Message Box, which helps eliminate a lot of unnecessary detail and complexity for communicating with a lay audience. Here’s what mine looked like as I started preparing my Science Café presentation:Schulte-Moore_SciCafe_msg_box
  • Tell a story: Humans evolved under an oral tradition, not a written or electronic one. While technology offers an amazing tool set to enhance communication, we still respond most positively to stories. We also remember them a lot better than bar charts and p-values.
  • Visuals still matter…a lot: According to Todd Reubold, Communications Director at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, people remember only 10% of what they hear, but 65% of what they hear and see. One simple, stunning picture that clearly demonstrates your point has more impact than 1000 words or any number of complex tables and graphs. More great advice from Mr. Reubold can be found here.

Was I successful at using these in my Science Café? I’m not sure, but my father-in-law, who by any Wisconsinite’s standards is a typical, hard-to-thaw Minnesotan, was pretty enthused. I’ll also say I found the preparation and delivery to be fun and enlightening…and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Especially if I can have a beer in hand.

Lisa Schulte Moore, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an Associate Professor of Natural Resource Ecology and ManagementIowa State University. Read her prize-winning pitch for the ESA Science Café spot and listen to a podcast on topics she discussed in her Science Café presentation.

2 thoughts on “A “Sip of Science” in Minnesota

  1. I would like to strongly agree on the value of pub talks as venues for outreach. I have done two Science Pubs now on GMO issues and they were both fun and very well received. They are also taped and marketed by my university (Oregon State), which is part of a regional network of science pubs. They are great places for trying new, more evocative approaches in a fun and low risk environment. Examples include more story telling and personalizing issues. And having a beer while you speak ain’t too rough.
    You can see examples of some tactics I tried in my recent talk on GMOs in agriculture here.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DuJov0Qs2Q&list=SP2699F9D5548A330E&index=21

    Steve Strauss, ALLP Class of 2008

  2. Nice job Lisa- all very eloquently (and accessibly) said! I too had a similar experience last spring prior to our training- gave a talk at Tallahassee’s ‘Green Drinks’ series. It was a lot of fun and interestingly- one of the hardest talks I’ve ever had to prepare. My presentation was given after I had attended a Randy Olson et al. workshop (https://www.sciencemag.org/content/342/6163/1168.1.full.pdf) at the New Orleans ASLO meeting . I used lessons learned from the workshop to build a ‘story’ with a narrative arc for the talk- with a little improv comedy bit thrown in to break the ice…completely out of my comfort zone. All the struggle was worth it though-It was well received, lots of questions and interest that that the talk may not have generated otherwise. But with post-Leopold training rear-view mirror reflection…I can see it still had more jargon than it should have. Luckily- I’ve had some other opportunities to fine tune it and apply what we learned in WI. And yes- you can’t beat having to give a talk with a local micro-brew draft in your hand!

    Thanks so much for sharing and broadcasting your experience and helpful hints.

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