When I was in middle school, my science class would occasionally watch Bill Nye, the Science Guy. As an adult, I imagine it was probably because the teachers were unwilling or unprepared for the scheduled lesson. Regardless of the motivation, I always loved it because it was a break from the routine and the experiments in the show were relatable.
Later in the day or week, I would think about the zany experiments that Nye did. He bridges the gap between education and entertainment better than anyone. For the most part, scientists are terrible at making science relatable. What can we learn from Bill Nye to make the scientific fields fun?
Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Booker T. Washington and others gained popularity because they were inventing things, solving problems and encouraging science. They were famous in popular culture in the same way athletes or musicians are today. Today, scientists have more opportunity to spread their message with social media, but it doesn’t always get out effectively.
I recently watched a documentary on Nye, called, appropriately, “Bill Nye: The Science Guy.” The movie follows the career of Nye, from becoming a mechanical engineer to media stardom explaining science to kids. The parallel Nye has with people like Thomas Edison is that he understands and excels in self-promotion. Is that a bad thing?
In 2017, there was a moment where a scientist named Dani Rabaiotti took a jab at Bill Nye by starting a hashtag on twitter #BillMeetScienceTwitter. According to Forbes.com, the goal was to open up the publicity to more scientists, “Why can't the ‘dude in a lab coat’ on TV share his spotlight with a more real-life, diverse swath of science experts?”
I believe both of these things are true: Nye can use his platform to elevate other scientists, and scientists should also do a better job of promoting their work to the general public instead of waiting for Nye to acknowledge them. There is room for more than one popular science show on TV.
Generally speaking, all scientists should be required to pursue a minor in marketing while in school. Research and recommendations are lost if someone can’t explain why the average person should care. As an example, the scientific community knew smoking tobacco was bad for people a long time ago. However, the tobacco companies’ PR efforts mopped the floor with scientists for decades.
A false sense of doubt was created around sound scientific research and the “debate” was continued, mostly because scientists are terrible communicators. For every Bill Nye, there are millions of accomplished scientists who have never explained their life’s work beyond a close group of colleagues.
Likewise, can you name one plumbing or heating professional who is a true household name?
At different points in my life, I have explained what I do for work reasonably well and terribly. I talked about radiant with too much jargon, without disclosing any tangible benefit to people, and watched them completely tune out, bored by the details. Other times, I briefly described problems I helped identify and address. The average person doesn’t want to hear about data collection or standard deviation. They want to know how science can solve their problems.
People know Elon Musk as a famous scientist. You may not like Tesla cars or care about Space X launches, but you know Musk’s name because he is a master of self-promotion. He has a track record of breaking out of the nerd mold, as evidenced by his 28 million followers on Twitter.
Meanwhile, none of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize in Physics winners are on Twitter at all. While respect shouldn’t be based on followers on social media, it is an integral part of communicating the value of research to the public.
Relate to people
“I have discussed weather and climate issues from the White House to the Waffle House,” says Marshall Shepherd at Forbes.com. “Guess what? The message delivery should vary depending on audience. Based on my nearly 25 years of experience at NASA, the University of Georgia and The Weather Channel, I offer nine tips for communicating science to nonscientists: know your audience, don’t use jargon, get to the point, use analogies and metaphors, use three points to keep it short, own your expertise, use social media, look for a broad audience and relate to people.”
Regardless of your education, I would argue that any person using the scientific method should take this communication advice. At the simplest, the scientific method is just what good troubleshooters do every day: ask a question, explore the idea, make a model or test, analyze the results and reach a conclusion that you can explain or share. If you are following these steps, you will build credibility in any aspect of your career.
Whatever your role is in the PHCP fields, it would be great to follow Shepherd’s advice. If you are an engineer, share your case studies and show how your designs improved something for the occupants. If you are a manufacturer, focus on the features designed to help the installers, not the specification sheet info. If you are an installer, work on analogies and metaphors. I have seen a well-timed car analogy clear up all sorts of homeowner confusion.
To date at REHAU, the most difficult presentations I have prepared were for Bring Your Kids to Work Day. The task was simple: Entertain a group of middle and high school kids with science for an hour or so. This task is easier said than done. How do you explain hydronics or plumbing to kids? My approach has been to grab a thermal camera and talk about heat transfer. It is tactile, visual, verifiable and, I hope, entertaining. All the best trainings I have been to in my life had those attributes.
We can make building science fun by better communicating the problems that we solve. Kids want to be doctors and scientists because they understand at a young age the importance of the contributions those professions have. The plumbing and heating world has been too quiet about the incredible challenges we can solve.
Who are your favorite scientists? How do they effectively explain their work?
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