The previous chapter provided an overview of the role that chemists can personally and professionally play in communication. In developing the framework, the committee needed to increase its knowledge of the types of activities described as “communicating chemistry.” This chapter offers a characterization of current activities.
The landscape study commissioned by the committee and performed by Grunwald Associates and the Education Development Center included
- a literature review;
- interviews with National Science Foundation (NSF) program officers and other experts in chemistry communication;
- descriptions of NSF projects related to communicating chemistry (not including projects where communication activities were solely part of the Broader Impacts requirement);
- web searches for chemistry in science media; and
- a semistructured, multiweek discussion with the 1,800-member NSF Media and Informal Science Learning group on the LinkedIn social network site.1
Although necessarily limited in scope and focus, the landscape study provides the best available snapshot of current chemistry communication activities in the United States. This chapter draws heavily on the landscape study and contains many passages from the report.
The landscape study uncovered a wide range of communication events, conducted in a variety of settings for different participants. These events include science museums designing exhibits for all ages; university-based chemists engaging in lectures and community events; science journalism appearing in popular media (print, radio, or television); entertainment media featuring chemistry (e.g., Breaking Bad and CSI); blogs and online media addressing particular issues and interests; informal science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
programs engaging young people in investigations; and nonprofits offering adult classes about chemistry in everyday lives. The types of event format range from traditional lectures and demonstrations to newer formats, such as flash mobs and science pubs. There also has been considerable growth of chemistry communication on the Internet through videos, science blogs, podcasts, and social media.
Although it is impossible to discover and describe all chemistry communication activities, it is valuable to be aware of their diversity. Given the goal of promoting a more systematic design of these activities, it is useful to categorize them. The landscape study therefore identified key categories that describe this diversity. Understanding the general dimensions of chemistry communication activities—and the ways in which they vary—was key to developing the framework presented in this report.
A common refrain among chemists and other experts is that “chemistry is everywhere” (Grunwald Associates and Education Development Center, 2013). However, when it comes to communication activities, chemistry is less common than either biology or physics2—though chemistry activities are arguably more diverse. For example, chemistry plays a role in topics like antibiotic resistance, nanomaterials, and gems and crystals, but discussions of these topics may not mention molecular interactions, reactivity, crystal structures, or other chemistry concepts.
Chemistry was just one of many topics in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics that organizations in the landscape study addressed in their educational programming. In many cases, the inclusion of chemistry depended on the training and background of an organization’s leadership staff: if someone on staff had expertise in chemistry, chemistry was much more likely to be included.
Professional organizations such as the American Chemical Society focus explicitly on chemistry, and many long-standing institutions of science communication include chemistry in their programming. For example, the “Marvelous Molecules” exhibit at the New York Hall of Science showed visitors the chemistry of living things. PBS’s science program Nova produced a 2-hour special called “Hunting the Elements,” originally aired in April 2012, which explored the periodic table. Other organizations facilitate activities, including science cafés and lecture series, on a chemistry topic of interest, such as the chemistry of beer or facts about pesticides.
2 For example, a search of the informalscience.org database using Boolean terms physio*, biolo*, and chemi* returned 442 physics-related projects, 314 biology-related projects, and 117 chemistry-related projects, as of January 26, 2016.
Although the landscape study found that some chemistry communication activities are designated as such, chemistry is often integrated with and presented as part of another science field. An activity may include chemistry concepts but is not described to participants as chemistry. Based on original research and reviews of the literature, the landscape study presented four categories that describe how chemistry content is most frequently treated in communication activities. This set of categories is not exhaustive.
- Chemistry: The term “chemistry” describes communication efforts that explicitly involve the core principles and applications of major branches of chemistry (e.g., organic, inorganic, analytical, physical, and atmospheric) or of chemical engineering. The communication efforts in the landscape study mostly related to biochemistry and materials chemistry, though it is likely that there are communication activities in the United States about all areas of chemistry.
- Everyday chemistry: Everyday chemistry activities investigate the role of chemistry in the things we do, see, or use every day. Topics addressed in everyday chemistry activities include food and cooking, health and medicine, gardening and agriculture, and products such as cosmetics, fabrics, plastics, and cleaners.
- Environmental science: Many chemistry communication efforts involve issues of the environment. Examples in the landscape study included activities responding to current events, such as oil spills, and explaining concepts such as the carbon cycle. Other activities address climate change and global warming, natural and alternative resources, and energy.
- Chemistry in other disciplines: Some communication efforts include chemistry within another science discipline. These activities refer to the role that chemistry has in areas like astrophysics, biotechnology, medicine, nanoscience, and forensic science.
In this report the committee defines events as one-time activities and ongoing programs; it defines activities as one-time communication or learning experiences that bring together one or more experts and a group of participants. The traditional public lecture, in which one or more experts make a presentation to the community, has long been a form of chemistry communication. Articles in newspapers or magazines are also considered activities. Other
common examples include demonstrations in malls or other settings, formal or informal talks to community groups, science fairs (at which chemists volunteer or mentor), and activities for student or youth groups. More recently, the public lecture has been transformed into more-informal opportunities for chemists to share their knowledge and respond to participant questions; the committee’s research uncovered a variety of such activities, including pub nights and food demonstrations. Activities also include science festivals, which are growing in number around the country, and performances in which chemistry concepts are communicated through theater, music, or art.
Some chemists are involved in long-running programs, but usually chemists participate in only one (or more) session of a program. Programs fall into two categories: those that serve youth and families, and those that serve adults. After-school programs expand science learning for students. Adult programs, such as evening classes taken out of personal interest or because of a hobby, have become a forum for science learning. Citizen science initiatives are considered programs because they often include structured and ongoing activities.
Chemistry communication takes place in many venues. Each venue has benefits and limitations that affect every aspect of the event, from design to delivery to evaluation.
Many events take place in spaces that are designed for other purposes, such as shopping malls, libraries, community centers, pubs, coffee shops, and the meeting spaces of social organizations or clubs (e.g., Rotary Club, Boys & Girls Club). In these venues, the physical conditions that can affect a chemistry event—particularly space and ventilation—are as variable as the venues themselves.
Some venues are intentionally designed to support science learning (NRC, 2009). These include museums of science and technology, science and nature centers, and zoos and aquariums. These designed spaces typically provide a range of exhibits and activities that require little guidance and allow for multiple points of entry (conceptually) to accommodate a wide variety of participants. Chemistry communication events held in designed spaces often use the existing exhibits, activities, and public spaces.
Finally, media stories, which are considered chemistry communication events, can be consumed anywhere: in designed spaces, in spaces used for other purposes, or in the spaces of everyday life—at home, on the bus, or in the park.
The term “general public” is often used to describe participants with nonscientific backgrounds. Neither in the literature nor among respondents to the landscape study, however, is the public considered monolithic, and the different needs and perspectives that can be present
in a given set of participants are recognized. Thus, some social science scholars have adopted the term publics as a reminder that participants are almost always diverse subsets of society (McCallie et al., 2009). Dimensions were identified to classify these participants (e.g., Burns et al., 2003; Grunwald Associates and Education Development Center, 2013). As explained in the following section, participants can be described by demographics, by traits such as interest or investment, or by role in society.
Many of the communication efforts examined in the landscape study were for general publics, that is, aimed at everyone. There was no qualification to participate, and no group of participants was targeted. However, variations in publics are important to consider when pondering the most likely consumers of chemistry communication. The “interested public” are the people who self-select to participate in events, even if they are not well informed about science. The “attentive public” are people who are already informed about and invested in science, such as science students who elect to participate in a community event. The “issue public” is the segment of the public that participates because of a particular concern, such as a local environmental or health-related topic (Hartings and Fahy, 2011).
Many events target specific groups of people. For example, some are designed for children and families; they may target youth in kindergarten through eighth grade, adolescents or high school students, or families, which typically means children of all ages and their parents.
The landscape study uncovered many examples of events that targeted groups with other demographic characteristics, such as low-income families, seniors, and minorities. Experts interviewed in the study noted that efforts to broaden participation generally address a specific demographic that is underrepresented in chemistry or science.
In the literature and in the interviews of the landscape study, there were a few cases in which participants held certain positions, including mediators (individuals responsible for communicating science to others), decision makers (e.g., policy makers or leaders of institutions), and community leaders or other influential voices. The discussion related to communication with a goal of reaching such an audience, however, was not as rich or consistent as was the discussion related to communication for the other participants described in this section. These examples will not be discussed in detail as a result.
The chemistry community shares information and engages with publics through a wide range of media channels, including print, radio, television, and online platforms. Members of the public are increasingly seeking their news from online sources (American Press Institute, 2014). Research has established that public opinions and attitudes about science can be shaped by information encountered in these different media platforms (Anderson et al., 2012; Scheufele, 2013; Yeo et al., 2014). Thus, the use of various types of media—and particularly online and social media—offers many opportunities for communicating chemistry.
Many chemistry demonstrations that cannot be done in an exhibit or event space can be shared using animations, simulations, or other technology. Technology allows chemists to present potentially hazardous demonstrations safely. The Chemical Heritage Foundation, for example, produced an interactive chemistry-set app that can be used on an iPad.3 Uploading such demonstrations to popular media sources, such as YouTube, could broaden their reach.4 Uploaded to the web, demonstrations can be viewed and reviewed by home users as suits their interests and needs.
A number of experts interviewed in the landscape study questioned whether the chemistry community is taking full advantage of technology and media for creating and disseminating communications. In addition, there is concern that visual aids may not be done well (Eilks et al., 2009). Online content runs into other problems as well. For example, a study published in Science found that the online “life” of content influences readers’ perceptions of that content (Brossard and Scheufele, 2013). For example, negative or rude comments following a science blog post impact readers’ responses to the post itself. This raises questions about how one shapes and uses online media environments for the most effective science communication, and how scientists view communicating online and how it affects public engagement (Besley, 2014).
Scientists’ use of social media and its effectiveness for science communication are an active area of research, though most research focuses on science broadly rather than on chemistry. However, discipline-specific variations are beginning to emerge, for example, emerging research on how large, public events and announcements (such as Nobel Prize press releases) provide science communication opportunities and how the outcomes differ across disciplines (Baram-Tsabari, 2013).
The dissemination of information has changed dramatically in recent years with the increasingly active online communities. For example, research and events associated with informal science learning and science communication are regularly shared and discussed via Twitter under the hashtags #informalscience and #scicomm. Although the primary posters are
4 A January 2016 search of YouTube for the term “chem*demonstration” resulted in approximately 171,000 video results.
usually practitioners in those disciplines, the discussions are open and searchable by the public. Social media has also generated a broad interest in science and created excitement within the scientific community to share messages. Using Twitter once again as an example, the 2015 hashtags #IAmAScientistBecause and #IAmAChemistBecause provided motivation for individuals to share material with their contacts. Twitter is also a space where public commentary on science regularly occurs, whether as comments on social justice concerns in science or the sharing of information about articles and events (see, for example, #science). The study of the relationship between social media mentions and the consumption of traditional media is still in its infancy, but it is clear that social media platforms present an important tool in both engagement and dissemination, although the most effective ways to use them to achieve specific goals on specific topics are still under development.
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