Communication Barriers

Last weekend, I visited the mobile exhibits set up at one of our shopping malls. It was an event organized in conjunction with the Singapore Science Festival. It was really a credible effort put up by the organizers in bringing science closer to the public. This time round, I visited the mobile exhibits with a different lens – that of a science communication student.

At our first booth, we were greeted by an enthusiastic young scientist who quickly, without much realization, sank into his jargon. His phrases which included “cathode”, “anode”, “electrons through the external circuit” caught my 10- and 13-years-olds by surprise. I politely interrupted him and asked how he could explain the science behind his exhibit in a language that my girls could appreciate. Pause… Deep thought… He tried again, using the same jargon as before… and before I realized it, I was the only one still listening to him, out of courtesy (of course)! My 2 girls had left. There was no chance to even ignite a spark in them! It was the same experience at another booth where a more senior investigator overwhelmed us with terminologies like “target DNA” and “primer”. My 10-year-old was busy fiddling with the set-up. Was she listening? Nope! Did she make any connection? I’m not too sure at all!

Then, I noticed sparks were ignited at one of the exhibits that had simple gadgets demonstrating concepts like resonance and static electricity. No jargon was used throughout the explanation. Teenagers couldn’t wait to try out the experiments. Parents couldn’t get their little ones to leave the exhibit. Amidst the action and noise, did they learn anything? I think they did because my 2 daughters unanimously voted this exhibit as their favourite and my elder one commented (on our way home): “That’s a cool way to demonstrate centripetal force.” Yup, I think she had made the connection.

TMartin places great emphasis in asking the question “Who is my audience?” before each of his outreach programmes. With his audience ranging from kindergarten kids to people in academia, he switches his language of presentation to captivate his audience, rather than keeping them captive!


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