Talking About Science
October 27, 2013
A dozen teenagers from Greenland, Denmark, and the U.S. are twirling across the rolling tundra on the edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet laughing, looking as though they're just fooling around. But Dartmouth graduate students Julia Bradley-Cook and Ruth Heindel are leading them in a "carbon cycle dance" as a way to understand photosynthesis and other biological processes important to global warming.
Julia and Ruth are two of 24 Dartmouth doctoral students in earth sciences, ecology and evolutionary biology, and engineering who are fellows in the Integrated Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. The Dartmouth IGERT, run by the Institute of Arctic Studies at the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth, is a program in polar environmental change. While it is fundamentally an interdisciplinary curriculum in science, engineering, and the human dimensions of changing climate it also emphasizes science communication. What Julia and Ruth are doing with their students on the tundra may look silly, but their intent is serious—they are practicing one of the primary goals of the Dartmouth IGERT: to make science understandable, even fun, to yet another challenging audience.
"While dancing we talk about the added complexities of permafrost, a warming climate, and human consumption of fossil fuels," Ruth explains. "We also want to give the students a feeling for the work that we do each day in the field."
People often pick up science information from the media, not from the researchers who study the issues. But increasingly, scientists and engineers are being called upon to share their knowledge directly with policymakers and the public. Effective science communication is important to increasing the public's understanding of critical issues such as climate change, biodiversity, and energy policy.
For the past four years IGERT graduate students have been communicating with all sorts of unlikely audiences explaining properties of snow and ice, changes to the Greenland Ice Sheet, the composition of ice cores, the history of the earth's climate, threats to coastal communities from melting ice, and complex Arctic policy issues as well basic science concepts, in the hope that science, engineering, environmental change, and the research process will be more understandable.