How to make your science meaningful and accessible to any audience

Are you hesitant to do outreach because you don’t really know how to convey your message to an audience that isn’t as fascinated by your field as you are and doesn’t have at least some background knowledge? Then here is a tool that will help you make your science meaningful and accessible to any audience!

First: There is a need for science communication and we all know it. The obvious reason is because these days, pretty much all funding agencies require some form of science outreach or dissemination. Other reasons for wanting to do some form of science communication are that tax payers are funding a lot of the basic research going on and that they therefore have a right to know what they are paying for; and that the knowledge we create mainly gets locked up in scientific journals or presented at scientific conferences, but it doesn’t reach relevant audiences by itself.

And then you have a mountain of information in your head that you have accumulated over years or decades by studying and doing research on your topic. How do you find the message the audience should hear? What is critical? What really matters? And who is your relevant audience? Journalists, policy makers, citizens? School children? Anyone else?

There is a great tool that can help you with all of those questions, developed by COMPASS (and they have successfully trained thousands of scientists!): The #COMPASSMessageBox. It helps you break down your message by giving you step-by-step instructions and guidelines on how to do it:

First by dividing your overall message into different parts:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What is the overarching topic you are working on?
  • Why should your audience care? “So what?”
  • What is the problem you are addressing?
  • What solutions are you providing?
  • What are the benefits if this problem was addressed?

In addition, you are given a couple of guidelines (and the scientific reasons behind those):

  • “The public” doesn’t have your background knowledge, therefore boil your message down to 5 new facts max!
  • More knowledge doesn’t change attitudes, so don’t just lecture your audience, listen to them and interact!
  • We have all been trained to communicate to a scientific audience, using specific norms. The public, however, is used to and interested in a different kind of communication than scientific community, so adapt the way you structure your information!
  • Last, not least: No jargon! Don’t “waste” one or more of your five facts on introducing jargon!

So here we are, scientists! Make funding agencies happy! Become visible as experts! Gain recognition! Contribute to the democratisation of science! But also: Enjoy interacting with new people who will get excited about your science even though it is something they maybe thought they would never be interested in! Feel a new sense of purpose! And have fun being creative and coming up with new and different opportunities for communication! :-)

P.S.: Below you see one example of the #COMPASSMessageBox, filled with the stuff I wanted to write about in this blog post. Give it a try, it’s a really useful tool!


Reflections on reflections

When we think about reflections in water, we usually think of calm lakes and trees on the shore opposite to us. Or clouds. Or at least that’s what I think of: Everything is so far away, that it seems to be reflected at an axis that is a horizontal line far away from us.

Then the other day I walked along Kiel Fjord and it hit me that I had never actually consciously observed reflection of things that are located close to my position, and especially things who are not pretty much equidistant to me, but where one end is a lot closer than another one. Consider the picture below: Do you notice something that looks kinda odd to you (while at the same time looking super familiar)?


If you are wondering what I mean, I marked it in red in the picture below: The rope and its reflection! It’s embarrassing to say that (as someone who has been sailing A LOT since the age of 7) this was the first time I really noticed, but it struck me how the maximum of the parable of the reflected rope isn’t right below the minimum of the parable of the rope, but seems shifted to the left. Of course this is exactly how it should be if we think about the optics, but I was really shocked that I had never noticed before and never thought about it before! I bet if I had had to draw the reflection I would have done it wrong and probably not even noticed…


Here is another picture to show you what I mean. This is what it looks like:


Below I’ve drawn in the original objects in blue, the axis of reflection in red and then the reflection in green:


So far, so good, everything looking the way it’s supposed to look. Right? Then look at the picture below:

Sorry if this seems obvious to you, but I’m fascinated with this right now :-)

But it leads to another interesting thought: Asking people to draw stuff in order to both check their understanding and also make them reflect on their understanding. I recently had the opportunity to observe a class of master students draw the SST of the mean state of the Pacific Ocean (which was an exercise that I had suggested in connection with a class on El Nino. I thought it would be neat to have them draw the mean state and then later the anomalies of El Nino and La Nina to activate prior knowledge) and it was surprising how difficult that was even though I’m sure they would all have claimed to know what the mean state looks like. Having to draw stuff really confronts us with how sure we are of things we just assumed we knew…

And then I’m pretty sure that once we’ve drawn something that we have constructed ourselves from what we knew (rather than just copied a drawing from the blackboard or a book, although I think that also helps a lot), we are a lot less likely to forget it again.

Anyway, this is a type of exercise I will use — and recommend — a lot more in the future!

How you can bring students into the right mindset and get them curious about your topic before your class even starts.

How you can bring students into the right mindset and get them curious about your topic before your class even starts.

Do you remember the awkward feeling when you sit in class a couple of minutes before class starts, the instructor is nervously shuffling some papers, students fill the room but there is an awkward silence because nobody knows anybody else? Or, as the instructor, do you sometimes wish you had started an interaction with the first student who got through the door, because now everybody is just doing their thing, waiting for the class to start, and approaching someone to chat with would be embarrassing for you and them? Or do you sometimes stand in front of a class that is busy chatting about anything — sports, their weekend, what’s on the menu at the cafeteria — and you know it is going to be really difficult to get them thinking about your topic of the day?

Well, here is something you might want to try (and what I am about to suggest is a modification of the first activity in yesterday’s Faculty Focus post by Barbi Honeycutt (link here)): Have a slide show of a handful of interesting slides in an endless loop!

Here are a couple of examples of slides one might use.

For example, after having spent the last lecture on hydrostatics and when wanting to continue talking about the topic in more depth, one might show the slide below. This will get students thinking about hydrostatics, and you can later on take up this slide again and have students check their answers and reasoning.

Example slide for an endless slide loop before the lecture starts

(More about that question here and here)

Or if one wanted to talk about different wave phenomena, one could provide pictures of lakes or the sea and ask students to spot and name as many different phenomena as possible, and then later during the lecture come back to the picture and “solve” the mystery.

Example slide for an endless slide loop before the lecture starts

You could, of course, also mix in slides with important equations or definitions, with the homework assignment students were supposed to finish for this class, with interesting trivia related to the topic you are teaching, or with any other information you want to share but not spend any class time on.

Yes, preparing the slide deck takes some thought and effort. And many students might come to class so promptly (or even late) that they don’t even get to see your slides*. But especially if you return to the same slides later on during your class**, the effort isn’t that large but potentially has several benefits, for example:

So what do you think, will you give this a try?

*which is something that might change once your slides have become popular! :-)

**and please don’t use too many slides! As a rule of thumb, I would go with five slides and show each forat least 20 seconds or so, so students have the chance to read it and look at it carefully.

Ask your students to take a picture to help them connect theoretical lecture content to the reality of their everyday life

Collection of hydraulic jumps. By Mirjam S. Glessmer

“Ask your students to take a picture to help them connect theoretical lecture content to the reality of their everyday life”! This is the title of a post I wrote for an issue on current technologies and their integration into teaching of the journal “Teaching in the Academy” that is being distributed to everybody who has an email address at a university or college in Israel — about 15,000 people! The article was translated to Hebrew (link here), but you can find the original text here.

Using twitter as a tool to let students discover that the topics of their courses are EVERYWHERE

This is a method that I have been excited about ever since learning about #birdclass in the “Evidence-based undergraduate STEM teaching” MOOC last year: Help students discover that the content of your class is not restricted to your class, but actually occurs everywhere! All the time! In their own lives!

The idea is that students take pictures or describe their observations related to course materials in short messages, which are posted somewhere so every participant of the class can see them.

One example where I would use this: Hydraulic jumps. As I said on Tuesday, hydraulic jumps are often taught in a way that students have a hard time realizing that they can actually observe them all the time. Most students have observed the phenomenon, maybe even consciously, yet are not able to put it together with the theory they hear about during their lectures. So why not, in your class on hydrodynamics, ask students to send in pictures of all the hydraulic jumps they happen to see in their everyday life? The collection that soon builds will likely look something like the image below: Lots of sinks, some shots of people hosing their decks or cars, lots of rivers. But does it matter if students send in the 15th picture of a sink? No, because they still looked at the sink, recognized that what they saw was a hydraulic jump, and took a picture. Even if all of this only takes 30 seconds, that’s probably 30 extra seconds a student thought about your content, that otherwise he or she would have only thought about doing their dishes or cleaning their deck or their car.

A collection of images, all showing hydraulic jumps of some kind.

And even if you do this with hydraulic jumps, and not with Taylor columns or whatever comes next in your class, once students start looking at the world through the kind of glasses that let them spot the hydraulic jumps, they are also going to look at waves on a puddle and tell you whether those are shallow water or deep water waves, and they are going to see refraction of waves around pylons. In short: They have learned to actually observe the kind of content you care about in class, but in their own world.

The “classic” method uses twitter to share pictures and observations, which apparently works very well. And of course you can either make it voluntary or compulsory to send in pictures, or give bonus points, and specify what kind and quality of text should come with the picture.

You, as the instructor, can also use the pictures in class as examples. Actually, I would recommend picking one or two occasionally and discussing for a minute or two why they are great examples and what is interesting about them. You can do this as introduction to that day’s topic or as a random anecdote to engage students. But acknowledging the students’ pictures and expanding on their thoughts is really useful to keep them engaged in the topic and make them excited to submit more and better pictures (hence to find better examples in their lives, which means to think more about your course’s topic!).

And you don’t even have to use twitter. Whatever learning management system you might be using might work, too, and there are many other platforms. I recently gave a workshop for instructors at TU Dresden and talked about how awesome it would be if they made their students take pictures of everything related to their class. They were (legitimately!) a bit reluctant at first, because you cannot actually see the topic of the course, measuring and automation technology (MAT), just the fridge or camera or whatever gadget that uses MAT. But still, going about your everyday life thinking about which of the technical instruments around you might be using MAT, and discovering that most of them do, is pretty awesome, isn’t it? And documenting those thoughts might already be a step towards thinking more about MAT. At least that is what I claimed, and it seems to have worked out pretty well.

We are about to try this for a course on ceramics (and I imagine we’ll see tons of false teeth, maybe some knees, some fuses, many sinks and coffee cups and flower pots, maybe the occasional piece of jewelry ), and I am hoping they will relate what they take pictures of to processes explained in class (like sintering, which seems to be THE process in that class ;-))

I am going to try to implement it in other courses, too. Because this is one of the most important motivators, isn’t it? The recognition that what that one person talks about in front of the class all the time is actually occurring in – and relevant to – my own life. How awesome is that? :-)

Have you tried something similar? How did it work out?

Student poster presentations: the cheap and easy way

Sometimes we really want our students to practice presenting posters, but we can’t afford printing all those nice A0-posters for everybody in our large class, or we don’t want them spending time on design but focus on content, or both. What then?

Well, instead of having them design A0 posters, just give them a template for 6 A4 (or letter, if you are in the US) pages (or 9, if you want more categories than I did in the example below), let them fill those with content, print them, and then either tape or pin them to a wall. Instant poster session!

A cheap and easy way to have students practice poster presentations

You could of course also hand them the sheets of paper that already contain the heading, or give them blank papers and let them write the titles themselves. As long as you are not interested in the design-part of creating a poster, this is a really cheap and easy way!

The Marshmallow Challenge

My colleague Caroline and I recently ran a training course for student tutors and we started it out with the Marshmallow Challenge, that Siska had suggested, both as an ice breaker, team building task and to have participants gain experiences together that we could refer to later on during the workshop.

So, Marshmallow Challenge. Except that we modified it and used a kind of pasta that was a lot more bendy than typical spaghetti — we are working with future engineers, after all!

So this is what we started out from: Every group got

  • 20 “spaghetti”
  • 1m of tape
  • 1m of string
  • 1 marshmallow

They were then asked to build the highest possible, free-standing tower with a marshmallow on top in 18 minutes.


Some groups started sketching out solutions, others started experimenting. Lots to talk about later on: How did the design process go? How did you assign roles to different participants? Was there conflict? How did you solve it?

IMG_3127Everybody was busy and 18 minutes flew past! When looking at the schedule for the workshop, it seemed like a lot of time out of the half day to spend on, basically, a game. But there was so much going on!

In some of the constructions looked very sophisticated, and all of them looked very different from all the others. And the design and prototyping and construction process went very differently from team to team, too.

This is at the very end of the 18 minutes, when all the hands had to be off the towers. As you see, some had difficulties staying upright.


The Marshmellow Challenge definitely worked well for our purposes, and it was fun!

After the Marshmallow Challenge, we went on for the more conventional part of the workshop, and this is when we talked for example about group development.


I like giving workshops! :-)

How to support group processes as a tutor

In my last post, I talked about a model for stages of group development. Today I want to talk about how you can use this model when you are trying to make a group work together well.

First, it is important to recognize that every team will go through most of the phases. Except for the ones that get stuck in the storming phase, but then once we recognize that we are stuck in the storming phase (rather than despair that the group just won’t work well together ever), we can support them to get to the next stage.

So what kind of support might the groups need from their tutor at different stages?

1. Forming

During the forming stage, since participants don’t know each other, it is important that the tutor provides the structure in which the team will operate, and helps participants feel comfortable in the situation. It is helpful to make sure participants getting to know each other. Depending on how long the team will work together, how well participants know each other already, on group size and on personal preferences, a tutor might want to do sociometry or some other game to introduce participants to each other. Pretty similar to what you might want to do at any first day of class.

Group stage no 1: Forming.

2. Storming

This is the most difficult phase, both for the tutor and for participants. Since there is so much conflict on so many different levels, it is very important that the the tutor models the behavior he or she wants. Be trustworthy, communicate openly, above all, stay constructive and positive.

Also, let participants know that this is an important phase. It is necessary to openly talk about conflicting interests, different preferences in how a group works, or different ideas of what the goal should be.

If there is conflict but it isn’t really clear what it is about, it is important to figure out whether it is something personal or where it is coming from, and then address it.

If this phase is skipped, even though the team might have a nicely structured hierarchy with clear roles, not everybody might be happy with his or her role, meaning that the conflict is going to erupt at some later stage and become destructive if not addressed properly.

It is helpful to remember – and to remind participants of – the rules for good feedback to solve the conflict constructively.

Group stage no 2: Storming.

3. Norming

When a group reaches this phase, the tutor can start to withdraw and only intervene occasionally, or, of course, provide support on the topic or methodological advice. But the group process is on a good way now and it is important that they find rules that work for them. If they think it’s cool to work all night once a week and then not at all over the next week, the tutor should let them be. They need to take ownership of how their group works and what their goal is, otherwise they won’t be as invested.

Group stage no 3: Norming.

4. Performing

Now the tutor should leave the team to work as independently as possible, only giving advice (advice! Not the solution!) when asked.

Except for when the tutor notices conflict – maybe the group has slipped back into the storming stage. Then it is important to address the conflict and go through a new norming phase, too, before continuing working on the task. Ignoring that a group has slipped back into the storming phase will only prolong that unproductive phase and maybe let a relatively minor conflict blow out of proportion just because nobody addressed it.

Group stage no 4.: Performing.

5. Adjourning

Here the tutor can participate in celebrations and even initiate them. But it is important to recognize that participants might be very sad to be leaving a team that worked well together and where they had a lot of fun together. So it is always helpful to have a couple of ideas at hand how either this team can come back together to work on new tasks, or where similar experiences can be had with other teams.

Group stage no 5.: Adjourning

Happy group working! :-)

And even more on motivation

Last week we talked about motivation quite a bit: First about why do students engage in academic tasks?, then about how motivation is proportional to the expectation of achieving a goal. Today I want to bring it all together a bit more, by presenting two other theories (both also described in the Torres-Ayala and Herman (2012) paper, which — should you not have read it yet — I strongly recommend you look into!).

The self-determination theory describes three components of motivation: Autonomy (i.e. being able to determine what you learn, when you learn it and how you learn it), competence (feeling like what you are learning is giving you (more) options to achieve what you want to achieve) and relatedness (feeling connected to a group).

Self-determination theory

Those are all components that you, the instructor, do have some influence on. For example a feeling of autonomy can be fostered as easily as giving students the choice of three problem sets and asking them to choose the one they want to work on. Or to let them choose the group they want to work with rather than prescribing groups yourself. Or even only letting them determine the order in which you talk about homework questions.

A feeling of competence is a little more difficult for you to influence, but can be achieved by giving problem sets that gradually become more difficult, instead of giving them really challenging problems right away.

And a feeling of relatedness can be achieved for example by letting students choose who they want to work with, and by making sure you observe the group processes and intervene when necessary.

So far, so good.

There is a fourth theory in the paper, that I also drew little pictures for, but which when preparing for my upcoming workshop for TU Dresden, I chose to drop for now. After all, there is only so much theory one can take in at a time, and I know that what the participants of the workshop come for are methods, methods, methods. Which I might actually give them!

Anyway, I still want to look at the expectancy-value theory here.

Expectancy-value theory basically connects motivational beliefs with achievement behavior.

If you believe you can achieve your goal (expectancy) and reaching that goal is important to you (value), this will modify your behavior. For example, you will likely choose to practice more, and on harder problems than people who don’t have the same beliefs. You will likely be more persistent in pursuing your goal. The quality of your effort will be higher, your cognitive engagement will be higher, and your actual performance will also be better.

Expectancy-value theory

There are a lot of studies that link student beliefs with their behavior, and I find this super interesting. I’ll definitely get back to reading and writing about this very soon!

Ana T. Torres-Ayala, & Geoffrey L. Herman (2012). Motivating Learners: A Primer for Engineering Teaching Assistants American Society for Engineering Education

Oceanography PBL workshop and case

My awesome colleague Marisa ran another workshop on Problem-Based Learning (PBL) in which I was lucky enough to assist. For the last workshop for people who are planning to use PBL in their teaching, we used the solar eclipse to build a case around. Since this time we weren’t as lucky to have a solar eclipse happening on our second workshop day again, we were in need of a new case. We wanted something that was interesting and challenging enough to our audience of engineers to realize that PBL is a method that can definitely be used for hard science and engineering stuff, too, and that was obscure enough that none of the participants would know all the answers right away, but that on the other hand was solvable with only about an hour of individual research in step 6 between the first and second workshop day. So we were pretty much looking for a magic unicorn.

Enter the oceanography case!

Paul: People always say that Arctic melting is a positive feedback loop. But I don’t think that’s true, that’s all part of the big climate conspiracy! When the ice melts, this decreases the salinity of the sea ice. If there is less salt in the water, though, the ice melts less fast. This means that the process stabilizes itself!


Marie: Come on, Paul, don’t believe everything people tell you! As a scientist you should really be less gullible. The melting of the Arctic is influenced by so many other processes, for example the different albedos of ice and open water. That must be at least as important as the salinity!


Now Paul starts looking for scientific proof for his theory. Marie starts researching as well, she tries to find something Paul can observe himself so her argument doesn’t rely on papers Paul might not trust.

Even more so than in the previous PBL workshop, it was absolutely fascinating how the discussion evolved. Also, this time people were talking about my favorite topic and it was super interesting to see what a crowd of PhD students and PostDocs in engineering knew – and didn’t know – about the climate system.

Steps 1-4 went uneventfully, as described in this post. In step 5, we ended up with four questions that the participants wanted to do research on during step 6, namely

  • How does the albedo influence melting of Arctic sea ice?
  • How is the salinity of Arctic sea water influenced by the melting of Arctic sea ice?
  • How does the salinity of the water surrounding the ice influence the ice’s melting?
  • How does atmospheric CO2 influence Arctic melting?

Faithful readers of my blog will have recognized from the case already where the whole PBL session was heading: I wanted them to do my favorite experiment! Just by doing the experiment they could have shown Paul that more salt in sea water doesn’t mean that ice floating in it will melt faster. Luckily they were all good sports and came up with more research questions than just that one, but after discussing their answers to their research questions, we obviously had to do the experiment.

Marisa uses food dye as a tracer for melt water

As always, participants did the experiment in groups of 2 or 3. My ice cubes had suffered quite a bit during the day, so the experiment was quite quick. Usually I bring ice cubes in a huge thermos, but this time a) that thermos was at work and my ice cubes were at home on the day of, and b) I only needed so few ice cubes that I thought a thermo mug would do fine. Yeah. Suffice to say, next time I’ll use the thermos again.

And what would happen if we stirred?

In the previous PBL session on this case, there had been quite a long discussion about temperature gradients and stirring, so obviously we had to conclude the experimental part by stirring.

So that was that. How did PBL work for an oceanography case? I really loved it. The first session was really exhausting (as all first PBL sessions are, at least in my limited experience). There were a lot of discussions that went fairly deep into the topic of climate change, and also a broad range of topics related to the melting Arctic was covered. I was actually pretty surprised how far people went into formulating models and how much they knew about different aspects, yet how difficult it was to put everything together. When writing the case, I had expected a lot less of an in-depth discussion of the issue, especially since none of the participants had an explicit ocean/climate background. So really positive surprise here how well it went!

The second session, where everybody brought their results together was great fun, and not only for me (or at least that’s what I think). The goal of our workshop was to have instructors, who will likely use PBL in their own teaching soon, experience the method in a student’s role. Therefore we couldn’t solve all the burning questions of ocean and climate during that second session and had to focus on reflection and the how-tos of the PBL method. But I would definitely use this (or a slightly modified) case in oceanography teaching! And I would also use this case for the same purpose again, although then I would probably make it a little bit more confined in order to leave more time for the meta-aspects of the workshop.

Thanks, Marisa, for another great workshop, I always learn SO MUCH from watching you lead discussions! :-)