Ocean 180: Challenging Scientists to Explain their Research

1 July 2014 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Photo credit: Edgar Jiménez, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Edgar Jiménez, via Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Mallory Watson, a scientist with the Florida Center for Ocean Science Education Excellence. Watson is also part of the Ocean 180 Video Challenge, which aims to help scientists improve their science communication skills by creating short videos that explain scientific research and its relevance. This post offers an overview of Ocean 180, how it came into being, and how marine scientists can participate. I suspect this may be of interest to folks in other disciplines as well.

During my first year of graduate school, I learned just how important science communication is. I found that my research depended on it.

My work involved interviews with fishermen in Miami and the Florida Keys about derelict fishing gear. Effectively communicating science would make or break my research.

Being able to explain my research to those fishermen, while building trust with that community to get the information I needed for my thesis, proved a delicate dance. Through trial and error I learned that distrust of science could derail even the most well-intentioned efforts.

Photo courtesy of Mallory Watson.

Photo courtesy of Mallory Watson.

I was constantly aware of every aspect of my communication style, from vocabulary to presence. It was also the height of their fishing season, and my discussions needed to be succinct, clear, and an effective use of everyone’s valuable time.

While it was ultimately a success story, it was not an easily won victory. The experience was my wake-up call to the necessity of effective science communication. With so many communities directly impacted by scientific research, building trust among them can provide your research with support and information that can enhance the future of your work.

Since then, I’ve found myself implementing those science communication lessons on a daily basis. Working with the Florida Center for Ocean Science Education Excellence (COSEE Florida), I’ve been a part of the team leading the Ocean 180 Video Challenge – an initiative aimed at building communication skills in ocean scientists.

The Ocean 180 Video Challenge was born from the same communication lessons I learned in grad school: the ability to communicate research to non-specialist audiences is a critical skill for scientists. Of course, this is something many of us already know. Science communication is becoming more integrated into how we train students and in what we expect from practicing scientists.

Ocean 180 wanted to offer an opportunity for scientists to practice those skills. We challenged ocean scientists to explain the message, importance, and findings of their recently published research in 3-minute videos.

Explain a publication in 180 seconds. Sound easy? Of course it’s not! That’s why it’s a challenge. Ocean 180 aims to build the capacity in scientists to communicate highly technical and important information to any audience, regardless of their background or experiences. With only 3 minutes, scientists needed to carefully asses which portions of their research are most impactful and relevant to a broader audience.

In our first year,  Ocean 180 offered $6,000 in cash prizes to the scientists who could best communicate the findings and importance of their research in those 3 minutes. To select the winners, we turned to middle school students, one of the most critical audiences out there. While the entries were narrowed to the top 10 by a team of science and communication experts, we relied on the student judging team to determine which scientists would take top honors.

Over 30,000 students in 13 countries participated in the first year. Their comments reflected an audience craving more insight into the world of scientists. Their biggest criticisms were that they didn’t “see enough of the scientists” and some videos “didn’t explain why the research was important.” Students looked for videos that made science relevant to their lives and made them feel like scientists “were talking to us, not lecturing at us.”

Image courtesy of Ocean 180.

Image courtesy of Ocean 180.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the Challenge was how the students voted. With entries highlighting the research of internal waves and carbon sequestration taking the top prizes, it was very clear that students took their job as judges seriously. The videos with the coolest titles and cutest animals on screen lost to the videos that did the best job of explaining their research and its significance.

We tend to think of science communication as an outward process, as though the people we should be focused on explaining research to are “non-scientists.” While there are plenty of self-identified non-scientists who could benefit from increased exposure and access to scientific information, including students participating in Ocean 180, what about other scientists?

Have you ever attended a talk at a conference and after 15 minutes, had no idea what the presenter was talking about? (It’s okay, I won’t tell anyone.) Effective communication skills are important across the board. While the message and style of presentation may alter depending on your audience, the ability to develop concise, effective, and powerful messages about your research can be applied in any setting.

From scientific presentations to community meetings and lectures, being able to engage your audience and connect them to the significance of your work is a powerful tool. Ocean 180 is excited to be a part of developing these skills in scientists who want to continue improving their ability to present scientific information.

With the winners from the 2014 Ocean 180 Video Challenge crowned and summer in full swing, Ocean180 is already gearing up for its second year. Thanks to feedback from last year’s participants, we’ve been able to make improvements to the format of Ocean 180, including additional prize money and allowing more ocean scientists to participate. These details are now available in our updated guidelines.

Entries to the 2015 Ocean 180 Video Challenge can be submitted through our website from October 1-December 1, 2014. Given the range of topics and styles entered last year, we’re looking forward to seeing what 2015 has in store!

Sharing your research with a broader audience is not just about teaching and explaining. It’s about building scientific understanding and developing connections to those outside of your field. Whether it’s through Ocean 180 or another outlet, we encourage scientists at all career stages to take on the challenge and share your research with a broader audience.

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