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USU Faculty Members Learn 'How to Communicate Science' from TV Actor

Thursday, Jul. 07, 2011

USU faculty members Keith Gibson and Chuck Hawkins

USU faculty members Keith Gibson, left, and Chuck Hawkins, who are collaborating on a National Science Foundation proposal, recently attended a science communication conference led by actor Alan Alda.

actor Alan Alda

Though best known for his popular TV and movie roles, actor Alan Alda is a longtime host of PBS science programming and serves on the advisory board of the State University of New York at Stony Brook's Center for Communicating Science.

He’s probably best known for his role as the feisty Hawkeye Pierce in the popular M*A*S*H television series, but these days, actor Alan Alda is a prominent advocate for increased public understanding of science.

Alda, who hosted the award-winning PBS series Scientific American Frontiers from 1993 to 2005, says his efforts to promote scientific communication are “to help the public get beyond a blind date with science.”

Utah State University faculty members Chuck Hawkins and Keith Gibson recently crossed paths with Alda, who serves as a visiting professor at the State University of New York at Stony Book’s School of Journalism. Alda is a member of the advisory board of the university’s Center for Communicating Science, where Hawkins and Gibson attended the 2011 Communicating Science Summer Institute.

“Alda presented the keynote address, in which he talked about ways to get in touch with your audience,” says Chuck Hawkins, professor in USU’s Department of Watershed Science. “He told stories about his experiences as host of Scientific American Frontiers, during which he interviewed hundreds of scientists.”

The popular actor’s advice to scientists trying to communicate with the public? Be yourself. Be spontaneous. Seek a personal connection with your listeners.

“Knowing your audience — that’s certainly a valuable skill,” says Hawkins who, for more than 20 years, has taught a scientific communication course for graduate students. “Alda talked about how scientists tend to slip into ‘lecture mode’ and speak on a level their listeners can’t understand.”

Hawkins and Gibson, an assistant professor in USU’s Department of English who serves as chair of the department’s Theory and Practice of Professional Communication doctoral program, are collaborating on a proposal to the National Science Foundation to establish a multi-university, USU-based Science and Technology Center. The proposed center focuses on aquatic biodiversity, Hawkins’ area of research expertise, and includes a strong science communication component in its education plan.

“We’ve submitted a pre-proposal to this very competitive program,” Hawkins says. “It’s a long shot. But we have some good ideas and expertise to offer. If we make it to the next round, our plan is to continue to build support for the center and seek collaborators.”

At Stony Brook, Hawkins and Gibson participated in improvisational theater exercises to help them learn, through experience and practice, how to pay close attention to the reactions of their listeners.

“Some of these exercises were definitely out of our comfort zone,” Hawkins says. “The exercises were meant to break down communications barriers and help us learn how to adjust our messages to be more effective with our communication.”

Gibson, whose research focuses on interactions between scientific rhetoric and public policy, says scientific literacy is critical as the public faces important policy decisions on issues ranging from climate change to medical research to space exploration.

“The public is bombarded with information and misinformation,” he says. “It’s important for the scientific community to have a voice and to be able to communicate clearly with the public.”

Related links:

Contact: Charles “Chuck” Hawkins, 435-797-2280,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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