Who We Are

In a world increasingly dependent on–– but skeptical of–– science and technology, Sagan’s vision for public understanding of science is even more poignant today than it was three decades ago. Importantly, the weak link in the interface between science and the public is usually scientists themselves, because they typically do not receive training in effectively conveying their work to the public. UW Engage traces its origins to 2010, when an interdisciplinary collaboration formed by UW graduate students from physical, environmental, and life sciences sought to address this critical need for training scientists capable of engaging the public.

Since 2010, Engage has been responsible for an annual course that brings together emerging scientists from various UW departments to learn science communication skills through the Engage curriculum. In 2012, Engage found an academic home in the College of the Environment and a lasting course (CENV 500) was established. Throughout the course, graduate students apply the theory of science communication to develop and refine presentations about their own research. Through a close partnership with Town Hall Seattle, the Engage course culminates in students presenting their work to the public. Over the years, as demand for training in effective science communication has grown, we have made the Engage curriculum available to other institutions and represented UW at various regional and national conferences. We have also contributed to scholarship in science communication, recently publishing a study of the effectiveness of the Engage curriculum in the Journal of Science Communication (Clarkson et al., 2018). We have also shared our expertise by facilitating workshops focusing on topics in science communication for diverse groups ranging from the Clean Energy Institute to the UW Institute for Translational Health Sciences.

Although our organization has evolved since 2010, we are still driven by committed graduate students drawn from science departments and programs across campus. Our work has been made possible by close partnerships with stakeholders at UW like the College of the Environment, which has provided financial support and a home for the Engage course, and community organizations like Town Hall Seattle. As we now look forward, we are excited by opportunities to find new partners both at UW and in our community to continue our work strengthening the link between scientists and the public. 

Who We Serve

From 2010 to 2019, 129 graduate students from a wide range of scientific disciplines and departments completed the Engage curriculum. Students from the College of the Environment have continued to make up the largest group in each cohort; other well represented departments include the School of Public Health, the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Medicine, and the College of Engineering (Figure 1). We serve students at all levels in their graduate careers, though we tend to recruit students that have 2+ years of graduate education and a more focused research plan than first-year students generally possess.

There are currently sixteen graduate students serving on the Engage Board of Directors (Figure 2). Like the students, the directors represent a range of disciplines; three current directors are graduate students in the College of the Environment. Directors continue to build their skills as science communicators by supporting new cohorts and instructors, representing Engage at national conferences, and offering science communication workshops.

Since 2015, Engage has led fourteen science communication workshops for local academic groups including the Institute of Translational Health Sciences and the Clean Energy Institute. In these workshops, participants discuss and practice effective communication skills such as forming a narrative, distilling information with analogies, and developing a strong stage presence. While these workshops are all tailored to the needs of each group, participants generally create, present, and receive feedback on a short elevator pitch. Hundreds of people have participated in these workshops. The majority of participants have been graduate students, though we have reached people at various stages of their careers, from undergraduates to senior faculty members. Post-workshop evaluations have been overwhelmingly positive, and Engage’s involvement in the Clean Energy Institute’s Onboard Day has been the attendees’ favorite segment for the past three years.

Our Impact

Although science communication encompasses a wide range of activities, speaking with the public is the most common way for scientists to share their research outside the academy. This type of science communication is generally most successful when it takes into account the differences in knowledge, values, and perspectives held by the public (Nisbet and Scheufele, 2009). Research has shown that the framing used when verbally communicating climate change research can significantly impact the public’s understanding of the science and its importance (Spence and Pidgeon, 2010). Yet most scientists receive no formal training on the skills necessary to communicate their science to the public.

Effective oral communication of scientific research is also essential for career success. A 2014 online survey of employers and college students found that employers hiring recent graduates care most about an applicant’s communication skills -– even more than their ability to solve complex problems (Hart Research Associates, 2015). However, traditional disciplinary training focuses on discipline-specific scientific knowledge and lacks effective training on good communication. As a result, students typically overestimate how prepared they are -– sixty-five percent of recent college graduates think they are well-prepared in communication, but only twenty-seven percent of employers agree (Hart Research Associates, 2015)

The training provided by the Engage seminar has had a tangible impact on the communication skills of graduate student scientists who have completed the course. Assessments of communication skills by external reviewers showed statistically significant improvement during a short “pitch” in four categories: audience consideration, distillation, communicating significance, and storytelling (Clarkson et al., 2018). Additionally, the course bolstered students’ confidence in their ability to communicate their research, as was apparent from significantly higher self-assessments in the same areas (Clarkson et al., 2018).

Surveys of alumni of the Engage seminar indicated that the course helped them find opportunities for employment, public speaking, outreach, and interdisciplinary collaboration (Clarkson et al., 2018). Notably, almost all alumni reported an increase in public speaking and outreach activities. Arjun Khakhar, who is now a Postdoctoral Associate in Plant Biology at the University of Minnesota, noted that “the course gave me the tools I needed to communicate my work in genetic engineering to a broad audience. This has made writing grants and giving talks a lot easier and more productive, as I am now more easily able to navigate the instinctive negative emotions some people have on hearing the term GMO.” Andrew Sawers offered a similar sentiment. Now an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Illinois, he stated that taking the Engage course had “a huge impact on how I present my science and how I train my students to present their science… The impact was so large that I have started my own course for grad students here at the University of Illinois at Chicago.”

Figure 1. A time series of all students that have completed the  Engage  course categorized by academic discipline and gender identity.

Figure 1. A time series of all students that have completed the Engage course categorized by academic discipline and gender identity.

Figure 2. The academic discipline of graduate students presently serving on the  Engage  Board of Directors.

Figure 2. The academic discipline of graduate students presently serving on the Engage Board of Directors.