Translating Research to Practice in the Alda Method

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Photo by Megan Bean

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science continues to expand its evidence-based approach to science communication training with the launch of a new research study to further understand the Alda Method’s impact on scientists’ communication behaviors. The study, which launched in August 2018, represents a concerted effort to elevate the Alda Center’s ability to work collaboratively in support of scientists to advance the public’s awareness of science in the US. Through partnerships with ScienceCounts, Research!America, Mississippi State University, and George Mason University, this project enables the Alda Center to translate key research findings into practice, and assess changes in scientists’ communication with various audiences. Through this process the Alda Center is able to evolve curricula to ensure that the needs of its diverse audiences are always at the forefront. Findings derived from this project will provide previously untapped insights for the science communication field and continue to showcase the Alda Center as not only a leader in science communication training but also research.

The Alda-Kavli Leadership Workshop hosted at Mississippi State University on August 28-30, 2018 marked the launch of the Alda Center’s new research initiative — to take a 360 approach to comprehensively examine scientists’ communication behaviors. The multi-pronged approach not only examines scientists’ self-reported indicators but also incorporates measures of actual communication behavior, and the general public’s perceptions of scientists’ communication. With the launch of this longitudinal project, data was collected from 64 faculty, staff, and key leaders who participated in the multi-day workshop which featured bonus sessions on negotiation and media interviews.

Alan Alda was in attendance to deliver an opening address to workshop participants as well as the greater campus community entitled, Getting Beyond a Blind Date with Science. MSU’s President Mark Keenum welcomed Alda to the stage with a story about MSU’s unique connection to another M*A*S*H cast member and explained how this gave the Alda Center’s visit to MSU a deeper and more personal meaning. Following his talk, the President presented Mr. Alda with a special, engraved version of MSU’s famous cowbell. Also in attendance were Chris Volpe, Executive Director of ScienceCounts, Mary Wooley, President of Research!America, and Eric Marshall, Vice President of Public Engagement of The Kavli Foundation.

As part of the launch of the new research initiative, this workshop highlighted a new partnership with ScienceCounts, a non-profit dedicated to increasing America’s awareness of and support for scientific research. On the first day of the workshop, Dr. Volpe, of ScienceCounts, presented new data on the public’s understanding of science, which complemented the curriculum’s focus on Knowing Your Audience. Participants referenced the data throughout the workshop to help make sense of the training’s diverse applications. Partnerships such as this enable the Alda Center to further integrate new research findings into the training curriculum to ensure that it remains relevant to scientists’ dynamic needs when it comes to communicating science to the general public.

The workshop also highlighted a research collaboration with the Message Design Laboratory in MSU’s Social Science Research Center. Dr. Holli Seitz opened her lab to assist the Alda Center in collecting standardized, high quality pre and post videos of participants describing their work to a general public audience. Researchers at George Mason University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison also assisted in the research process to provide an additional level of external evaluation on the Alda Center’s training method. Research collaborations such as these bring together experts from a range of different fields to ensure high quality, comprehensive measures are taken to address research questions. The Alda Center continues to collect data from participants at a variety of institutions and will use such data contribute new knowledge to the field of science communication training, as well as to make improvements to the Alda training curriculum.