Hey Alan Alda: How do you think the Alda Center became to be so successful? Video by Giovanni Ortiz.
By Giovanni Ortiz
Alan Alda, actor, director, science advocate and visiting professor at Stony Brook University, shared his passion for communicating science on Thursday, Feb. 19, in the Student Activities Center auditorium.
“Our goal as an organization is to make communication a part of graduate science education in this country… We’ll change the culture little by little by changing the way scientists are educated,” Christine O’Connell, workshop coordinator at the Alda Center, said.
Alda — who was described as the “national leader in the way science is communicated” by the Dean of the School of Journalism, Howard Schneider — captivated the audience with his speech, keeping them quiet and entranced of with periods side-slitting laughter at every chance he had.
But throughout the night, the message was clear — communicating science is a must. And the packed audience of students, faculty and members of the community listened.
“[Communication] is not something that scientists are traditionally trained to do,” Matthew Reuter, an assistant professor for applied mathematics and statistics, said.
Alda said people who work in the humanity field are often “on a blind date with science,” and they are uncertain of what science really is and whether it should be trusted. He found a passion in wanting to help scientists learn how to share their ideas better so that others can understand science without “dumbing it down,” Alda added.
“Science is everything. It’s how we move; it’s how we digest food; it’s how we breathe air; and it’s how the world around us works,” Louisa Johnson, an improv instructor at the Alda Center, said.
Named after the speaker, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science is a program that teaches graduate students in the sciences through accredited courses and workshops that aim to improve the way they talk about their scientific studies. The Alda Center uses theater techniques like improv to help scientists talk without needing a paper in front of them.
The program focuses on graduate students because of the academic position they are in — making speeches, becoming teaching assistants, writing journals and sharing scientific ideas with the science community. It also offers writing courses so it is not just verbal communication skills scientists are learning, but also their written communication skills. The program has risen to national recognition, often holding workshops in other states and universities. The success of the Alan Alda Center of Communicating Science is accredited to their methods and technique for learning skills in communicating. The program runs a contest called “the Flame Challenge” where they ask scientists to explain a scientific concept, getting a chance to win $1,000.
“We’ve kind of developed methods that were unusual and really seemed to work with people,” Elizabeth Bass, the director of the Alda Center, said. “We focus on changing people’s mindsets, as opposed to just giving them a formula. It is a flexible approach. It’s more of who the audience is.”
The Alda Center’s goal is to bridge the gap between science and the humanities, hoping to revolutionize the culture of science education and the way science is communicated to those who are not interested or have no background in science.