In response to a request from the National Science Foundation, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the Academies) convened an ad hoc committee to characterize current efforts at communicating chemistry, to synthesize existing social science research on effective communication, and to develop a framework that lays out evidence-based strategies to design chemistry communication activities. Part A of this report provides the framework, as well as a synthesis of the research (drawn from a variety of social science disciplines) that supports the development of the steps described in the framework. Part B of the report is a guide for chemists titled Communicating Chemistry: A Framework for Sharing Science, which is also provided as a separate, stand-alone document. In the guide, the committee summarizes the framework in practical terms to support chemists and organizations working with chemists in creating effective communication and learning activities in settings outside of formal schools. Although this report and the guide focus specifically on chemistry, the communication strategies could be applied more generally and serve as a model for other scientific disciplines.
The topic of communicating chemistry is both important and timely. The digital or communication age has dramatically expanded the number of people with access to topics that were once the purview of a few experts. This, among other things, has changed the traditional pact between the scientific community and the public. No longer is scientific research being conducted with little need or opportunity to explain the reason for the research or its results, outside of the science community. In addition, chemistry plays critical roles in people’s daily lives, in topics such as energy and its impacts, global climate change, medicine and health, national security, and the environment, and in many of the consumer products that people rely on. Better public understanding of chemistry could lead to improved policy and decision making and to more-informed consumer choices. Finally, the chemistry community is in need of guidance on communicating chemistry to the public. Undergraduate and graduate schools
often do not prepare chemists to communicate their work to members of the public, and there are few options for communication training for professional scientists.
In drafting this document, committee members heard from experts in learning outside of school (often referred to as informal learning or informal education), science communication across various formats, formal chemistry education, marketing, and evaluation of informal learning. The committee surveyed the growing research on informal learning, science communication, and chemical education. Much of that research has been amalgamated in previous Academies reports, including Learning Science in Informal Environments (NRC, 2009), Discipline-Based Education Research (NRC, 2012), and How People Learn (NRC, 2000), as well as in two Sackler Colloquia on The Science of Science Communication and the Chemical Sciences Roundtable’s workshop, Chemistry in Primetime and Online (NRC, 2011). The committee also commissioned two reports: a landscape study (Grunwald Associates and Education Development Center) that examined the current state of the art with regard to communicating chemistry in informal settings and a white paper on evaluation.
Based on the research and a review of effective practices, the committee created a five-element framework, the Framework for Effective Chemistry Communication. The framework emphasizes the importance of focusing on the needs and interests of the participants in both planning and implementation. The framework also stresses the importance of evaluation, begun at the outset of communication planning and development, in making communication activities more effective at meeting their intended goals. The five elements of the framework are
Element 1. Set communication goals and outcomes appropriate for the target participants.
Element 2. Familiarize yourself with your resources.
Element 3. Design the communication activity and how it will be evaluated.
Element 4. Communicate!
Element 5. Assess, reflect, and follow up.
The framework is not a one-size-fits-all prescription—judgment must be used to scale activities to the available resources and evaluation capabilities. For example, the framework clearly stresses the importance of evaluation, but the committee recognizes that most chemists are not well versed in evaluation techniques and often may not have the time, resources, or incentives to conduct extensive evaluation of the effectiveness of their activity. For this reason,
the report encourages scaling the evaluation as appropriate to the activity and, where extensive evaluation is appropriate, partnering with experts in evaluation. Even simple evaluation can prove valuable.
The guide, Communicating Chemistry: A Framework for Sharing Science, is intended as a practical aid to chemists in designing effective informal communication activities for nonexpert participants. It is based on the committee’s five-element framework, and its explanatory text and examples are geared toward chemists. The guide leads users through a series of questions to help them consider what is important for communication. The guide is flexible enough to accommodate the broad range of activities captured under the heading of “communicating chemistry.”
As part of its task, the committee was asked to consider options for future research and to make recommendations to advance the understanding and effectiveness of informal chemistry communication. In considering the research that led to the five-element framework, the committee identified the following areas as research gaps:
- research on informal learning and science communication specific to the field of chemistry, including public perceptions and understanding of chemistry;
- research on digital media for chemistry communication; and
- research on how current policies guiding chemistry education and training, research work, and funding influence the extent and quality of chemistry communication activities, and how these policies might be changed to provide more support for communication activities.
The committee also noted opportunities for collaboration across organizations and institutions to support the implementation of the framework. In light of these findings, the committee makes the following recommendations:
Recommendation 1: Chemists should apply the Framework for Effective Chemistry Communication to guide the design, implementation, and evaluation of chemistry communication experiences. In using the framework, chemists are encouraged to collaborate with experts of empirically based approaches to science communication, informal learning, and chemistry education.
Recommendation 2: Chemistry professional and industrial societies should encourage the use of the recommended framework by their members. These organizations should also facilitate or create avenues for the aggregation, synthesis, translation, and dissemination of research on the evaluation of and effective practices for communicating chemistry.
Recommendation 3: The National Science Foundation and other sponsor organizations should support research that examines the specific relationship between science communication, informal learning, and chemistry education through programs such as the Advancing Informal STEM Learning program (NSF, 2014). Such support should focus on areas where research is most needed to enhance the effectiveness of chemistry communication, including
- public perceptions and understanding of chemistry;
- digital media for chemistry communication; and
- chemistry research and education policy, including professional development opportunities.
Recommendation 4: Chemists and experts in empirical approaches to science communication, informal learning, and chemistry education should collaborate to study chemistry communication in informal settings. Research collaborations should focus in particular on the priority areas listed in Recommendation 3.
NRC (National Research Council). 2000. How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school: Expanded edition. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
NRC. 2009. Learning science in informal environments: People, places, and pursuits, edited by P. Bell, B. Lewenstein, A.W. Shouse, and M.A. Feder. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
NRC. 2011. Chemistry in primetime and online: Communicating chemistry in informal environments: Workshop summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
NRC. 2012. Discipline-based education research: Understanding and improving learning in undergraduate science and engineering, edited by S.R. Singer, N.R. Nielsen, and H.A. Schweingruber. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
NSF (National Science Foundation). 2014. Advancing informal STEM learning, program solicitation. Available at http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2014/nsf14555/nsf14555.pdf [accessed September 2014].