Practical Science Communication: A Case Study

File_001(1)“Science isn’t that scary,” a geology student told me today. This was her answer when asked what message she wanted to convey in an artistic rendition created by her and her classmates of their recently completed geologic research. I was conducting an independent study in the communication of scientific information and ideas between different groups of people, and she was just finishing a class in geophysics. The piece we were discussing, which was on display at a gallery on the Colorado College campus in Colorado College, consisted of a colored map representing the values of geologic magnetism measurements taken at a field site near Lake George, Colorado, late last week. Beneath the paper on which the map was printed, the students had placed magnets under the places on the map where, in the field, their equipment had detected stronger magnetic forces. By picking up any of the small metal objects that were part of the display, bystanders could experience the magnetism themselves, as things like nails and paper clips would stick to some parts of the map and not others. Of course, the magnetism of the ground could only be detected using very sensitive sensors, but the idea was conveyed clearly in the piece: some places were more magnetic than others. This happened because some types of rocks were more magnetic than others. “It really is that simple,” the geology student explained. And by looking at the patterns made in the colors that showed different levels of magnetism, you could “see” patterns in the underlying rock types.

This art project was part of a larger group project between two college classes, one in geology (geophysics, to be exact) and the other in photography. The project required the two classes to work together over the course of a few days to develop a gallery display showing the results of the geology students’ field work through photography and other creative mediums. The hands-on magnetism exhibit was one of several others that were shown alongside each other in the gallery, each communicating a different aspect of the field research results. Overall, they showed a fascinating interdisciplinary way of thinking about both art and science – what they did not reveal, though, was that their creation had required the students to work across a cultural divide between the two disciplines. It was this aspect of their project that I was most interested in.

As part of an independent study this semester, I have been studying science communications, which means essentially that I have been looking at ways that scientific research or knowledge about science can be communicated more, or less, effectively to a wide range of people. This includes examining how scientists and non-scientists approach the cultural divide between disciplines. Scientists are part of a culture in and of itself, which means they have distinctive means of communication (through use of certain terminology and publications or forums), social structures (including authority ranking systems and ways and places though which scientists meet and interact), and customs and technologies (such as specialized skills and equipment) (Stocklmayer et al. 2001). The students at the gallery have presented an interesting study for me as I learn more about the communication of science and what it takes to cross the cultural divide. I have had the fascinating opportunity to study questions such as: how do geology students think about the material differently from photography students? What has been achieved through their interaction? Where do the students successfully make progress to cross the cultural divide, and what connections are still lacking? I have been speaking with students from both classes since their first meeting on a field trip, and from that time through the gallery opening, I have noticed both fascinating and unexpected results. But before I venture too far into explaining what I found, perhaps I should provide some context.

There are many reasons why communicating with scientists and participating in scientific culture may be challenging for non-scientists. Language can be a major barrier, especially because scientists tend to use lots of words specific to their field that others might not have even hear before, such as the names of equipment or techniques. There are, however, other more elusive challenges. Scientists may be unsure of how much background knowledge to assume their audience has, especially about common topics such as magnetism. Some guides, such as Bowater and Yeoman’s 2013 “Practical Guide for Scientists” suggest guideline such as writing “for an audience with a reading age of an average 12-year-old,” though what an average 12-year-old’s reading capability is remains unclear. Scientific methods and approaches also may become so common-sense for scientists that they simply don’t realize that they might need explaining, or they aren’t sure how to explain them without relying on other scientific knowledge. Additionally, for those outside of science, they might not know what questions to ask to further their understanding of what scientists are saying. Any of these communication barriers and more can easily prevent scientists and non-scientists from engaging in productive cross-cultural dialogue.

To look more closely at how the geology and photography students were engaging (or failing to engage) in mutual understanding, I collected interview data and written surveys from the students at three different times starting with their first day working together in the field, then mid-way through their development of their gallery projects, and finally again during the gallery opening. I evaluated this data using standard qualitative research methods, which include “coding” for different ideas in the interviews and counting or describing how many times different ideas surfaced. For instance, I counted certain geological science words as “advanced vocabulary,” then looked at how frequently those words were used by students in each class at different times throughout the project to see how well they were sharing knowledge. I also looked at what concepts students in both classes referenced most frequently as indicators of what each class was taking away from their conversations. You can see all of my “codes” in the table below.

Geo #1 Percent Photo #1 Percent Geo #2 Percent Photo #2 Percent Geo #1 Word Count Photo #1 Word Count Geo #2 Word Count Photo #2 Word Count
“Composition” 3 6 0 6
“compression” 2 0 1 1
“Makeup” 0 3 1 2
“proton” 0 1 0 2
“sediments” 0 2 0 3
Advanced vocabulary 36 8 40 5
Attempt to explain methods 27.3 45.5 16.7 41.7 3 5 2 5
“bedrock” 0.0 0.0 0.0 16.7 0 0 0 2
contributes to broader geologic knowledge 54.5 27.3 58.3 25.0 6 3 7 3
Educational value 45.5 0.0 58.3 33.3 5 0 7 4
Explaining unusual features at site 0.0 18.2 0.0 16.7 0 2 0 2
Site specific relevance 72.7 54.5 33.3 50.0 8 6 4 6
States all 3 methods 90.9 81.8 100.0 58.3 10 9 12 7
Surface observations 18.2 0.0 33.3 0.0 2 0 4 0

The Geologic Research

The geologists’ field research consisted of taking measurements across a large field in the mountains near Colorado Springs. They used three different tools to “show” them what materials (rocks, water, loose dirt, etc.) were beneath the surface. One showed how magnetic rocks underground were. This very sensitive meter called a magnetometer could detect tiny magnetic forces produced by different types of rocks. The second used seismic waves to get an idea of where different materials were located underground and what they might be. Seismic waves are essentially vibrations in the earth. Sometimes you can feel them (such as in an earthquake) but most of the times you cannot. Hitting the ground with a hammer, for instance, produces seismic waves. Using a very sensitive “seismometer,” geology students could test how quickly the vibrations traveled through the ground. Some materials allow the vibrations to travel more quickly than others, thus, you begin to get an idea of what materials exist where. Finally, the electrical resistivity of the materials in the ground was measured. Resistivity is a measure of how “resistive” a material is to an electric current passing through it. You may have heard, for instance, don’t touch tall metal objects during a lightning storm. That’s because metal has a very low resistivity, and if lightning strikes it, you will get electrocuted because the electricity will travel through the metal to you. Another way to think about resistivity is the opposite of “conductivity.” If something is very conductive, is has low resistivity. In geology, by sending an electrical current into the ground and measuring how it travels, you can determine what types of materials are underground in that location. This is because different materials have a different resistivity, and for common types of rocks, these values are already known.

A student using a magnetometer to measure the magnetic qualities of materials underground


How can Science Communication be studied?

I conducted my first interviews with photography students when they first got to the field site to meet the geology students. At that point, the photography students had been instructed to photograph the geology students as they were working, and they knew little else about what would ultimately be asked of them over the course of the project. Similarly, the geology students simply were continuing research they had started two days earlier, and their priorities were set more on finishing their work within their limited time they had access to their field site than on interacting with the photography students. At the end of that day, after the two classes had worked side by side all day with varying levels of conversation between them, asked them to answer, in writing, three basic questions:

  1. What was the purpose of the research the geologists were doing in the field?
  2. How were they working to achieve this goal? Or, in other words, what methods were they using?
  3. Why was this research important? What was its broader significance?

After filling out this survey, I informed them about what I had been learning about science communication, and as a group, we discussed some strategies for improving communication between scientists and non-scientists. Then, following one more day in the field and one additional half day spent working together in the classroom, I asked the students to answer the same three questions again. Comparing the results, I wanted to see whether the way that the classes thought about or described the scientific concepts had changed after working together. I then provided them with advice for improving their final presentations based on the results of the first survey. Finally, I was able to visit and observe their gallery opening and see what they were able to create in the end. Through all these interviews and discussions, here is what I found. Because I indicated to the students that I would not share their survey answers, I will not post the actual text here, but I will summarize the important trends and patterns.

Photography and geology students collaborating during the field trip

Differences and trends in vocabulary

I coded for the use of several different words that are most commonly used only in the field of geology and were applicable to this project, appearing frequently in the geologists’ descriptions of their work. They included geophysical, resistivity, magnetometer/magnetometry, subsurface, feldspar, schist, and metamorphic. I called these words collectively “jargon” (though jargon in geology includes many more words than this, I coded only for these). I expected that jargon would be used most often by the geology class, and less often by the photography class. This was indeed true, but even more pronounced than I expected.

This devide is a magnetometer, displayed during the gallery opening

In their answers to the first written survey, the geology class collectively used jargon 36 times. The photography class used jargon only 8 times. In the second survey, however, the geology class collectively used jargon a whopping 40 times, whereas the photography students used only 5 jargon words. On average, geology students used jargon words between 3 and 4 times for each answer, while most photography students used none. Also, it is interesting to note that the jargon used by the photography class declined in the second survey while that used by the geology students increased, suggesting that the photography students did not retain jargon as they interacted with geology students.

Avoiding jargon is advice commonly given to science communicators, but these results clearly state why this advice is so important. Whether or not the photography students would have known the meanings of any of those words if I asked them, it is clear that these words did not resonate. Thispossibleibly because there are, simply, other, more familiar words that can be used to describe the same thing. For example, the word “subsurface” means below the surface, or underground. Throughout both surveys, on average, each geology student used the word subsurface at least once in their answers. Photo students hardly used it at all. Instead they used more common words to say the same thing. Words like “underground,” “underneath,” and “below” were all common among photography students answers in both essays, and almost nonexistent in the geology class’s answers. Similarly, while nearly every geology student discussed a unique geologic feature found at the field site called a “shear zone,” zero students from the photography class used the word “shear” in their answers. However, many photography students did note that the other class was attempting to explain unusual features observed at the field site.

Telling Versus Explaining

When asked what methods were used, throughout both surveys, geology students tended to simply state the names of the three methods. A greater number of photography students, however, included an attempt at explaining what type of information was produced by at least one survey. If I were grading a quiz (which, of course, I wasn’t, because I didn’t ask for any certain quality of information in these surveys), I might say that the photography students gave more complete answers, but something else is at play here. Why would photo students give more “complete answers” about the other class’s work?

Explaining or telling? A student describes how to read the geologic data presented at the gallery

The answer is possibly related to a common piece of advice given to science communicators is to consistently define any scientific terminology used (Bowater and Yeoman, 2013). This is what the photography students have done. a o scientist, methods are commonly understood processes; a “measuring” would be a widely understood concept in the geology world that conjures an image of the process involved because it is one with which many geologists are experienced. But for the rest of us, we don’t have that fundamental background knowledge. Saying that the geology students “measured resistivity” doesn’t really explain anything at all from this perspective. Thus, if I ask a photography student what methods were used, they will be more likely than geology students to give me more than the names of the methods.


Understanding of Scientific Purpose

In their answers to the first survey, photography students seemed unsure about why the study was being conducted. Common answers were along the lines of “to find out what is under the ground” in terms of rock types, sediments, etc. These answers were not incorrect about the purpose of the measurement being taken, but geology students tended to attach more relevance to their answers. In the first survey, nearly every photography student said that the project either contributed to broader geologic knowledge or was important to their education. In the second survey as well, geology students expressed one or both of these ideas. In the first survey however, zero photography students recognized educational value, and only about one-quarter said that it contributed to broader geologic knowledge. In the second survey, more photography students recognized educational value, but still only one quarter addressed broader relevance.

The why of science is another aspect of the process that is so intuitive to scientists that they might forget, or feel that they do not need to explain it. In many cases it is obvious – scientific studies that address specific problems are easy to grasp and explain. If, for example, a construction project was proposed at the field site, we would say that we wanted to know the geologic structure of the ground and where important features such as the water table were located before building a foundation there. Science just for its own sake, though, it less tangible. Many geology students indicated, for instance, that the information they were gathering could in theory contribute to how a broader group of scientists understands the geology and formation of the Rocky Mountain region.

Simple model showing how the Rocky Mountain region might have been formed. Source:

Not to say that this understanding has any immediate application, but as one geology student put it, there is some “intrinsic value” to understanding as much about what lies beneath the ground as we can. In a broader picture, most everything we know about geology today has been the result of researchers’ efforts to learn for the sake of learning. By interpreting significant geologic events such as the formation of the Rocky Mountains, we can begin to understand how the earth might have looked at the time that event took place, millions of years ago, and how it was changing. This might inform discussions about prehistoric climates and prehistoric life. These sorts of findings aren’t the work of one or two researchers, they are the product of efforts from hundreds of people, each exploring small and sometimes seemingly insignificant parts of the puzzle. Even if that just means explaining what geologic features lie beneath a field in Colorado.


Part of the reason that such a discussion of significance might be lost in conversation between scientists and non-scientists is that scientists do not want to over-inflate the importance of their work. For instance, throughout both surveys, geology students repeatedly remarked that they were studying a specific field site and that the information they gathered really only applied to their small field research area. Of course, conclusions from that research might inform broader conversations, but they weren’t actually studying the formation of the Rocky Mountains.

This conversation isn’t to say that non-scientists don’t understand why scientists do what they do, it’s just to say that these different groups think about this topic differently. Geology students seem more likely to find their research inherently valuable, while photography students did not convey that importance in their answers.

Changes Over Time

Between the two surveys, it did seem that some of the geologists’ interpretations were rubbing off on the photography students. For instance, a few new words appeared in the photography students’ vocabulary. These included “compression,” and “bedrock.” Also, both photography and geology students discussed the applications of this research to understand the location of the water table in the second survey, but not so much in the first. Geology students’ use of technical language also increased somewhat. What these results seem to show is that the two classes were learning simultaneously about their field research area, probably with instruction from the geology professor.

The problem with “composition”

A prominent but hard to explain trend appears in the use of the word “composition.” In the first survey, the word was used twice as many times by photography students as photo students. In the second, the difference was even more pronounced. Zero geology students mentioned the concept at all, while the usage did not change for photography students. Why did photography students continue to use the word “composition” even though geology students did not? In geology terms, “composition” is no less of a jargon term than “subsurface,” though geology students overwhelmingly used “subsurface” more than photo students.

Composition in photography can refer to how a photo is centered or laid out in the frame. Source: 

Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that “composition” is also a familiar term in photography, though with a slightly different meaning. Composition in geology usually refers to what rocks themselves are made of, their mineral makeup so to speak. In photography, composition refers more to how a photo is organized. Despite these differences, could it be that photography students simply continued to use the word composition because it was familiar? This idea is both promising and dangerous in science communication. Promising, because it suggests that explaining scientific ideas using language that is familiar to non-scientists might help them relate better to the information. It is also dangerous because, when the same word has different meanings in different contexts, miscommunication can easily arise. Although photography students were using the word “composition” in the context of geology, were they still thinking about it in the context of photography?

Composition in geology usually refers to the minnerals that make up rocks. Source: 

In any communication of scientific information, it is extremely important for communicators to anticipate such misconceptions by defining each and every term with meaning specific to that scientific field. Stocklmayer et al. (2001) devote a significant discussion in their book to such “alternative conceptions” in science because they are “remarkably tenacious.” Once people form beliefs about the meaning of a concept, those beliefs appear quite resistant to change.



Conclusion: From the Field to the Gallery

The final gallery opening was an impressive sight. Contraptions and geologic equipment were scattered around the room, and the walls were lined with vibrant and creative photographs and multi-media pieces.

Overall, it was obvious that the students had come a long way in their understanding of the material from their first day in the field. Photography students were confidently explaining the geologic features shown in their photographs, and geology students seemed excited to see their work portrayed in an interactive and visual format. When I spoke to photography students on their first day working with the geology class, the most common phrase I heard seemed to be “I don’t know.” They didn’t know what their final projects might look like, didn’t know what the geology students were measuring, didn’t know what the equipment was… for many of the photography students, at least that much had changed and they had become familiar with one or more of the geologists’ techniques and could explain basically what the data showed. I wasn’t able to speak with all students and I cannot generalize this conclusion to include everyone, but overall, I was impressed by the partnership.


Display showing all of the geologists’ research results together. The display was colorful and engaging to look at, but difficult to understand without explanation. 

I was, however, surprised by some of the shortcomings of both classes’ communication with other visitors. From the very beginning, I had been advising them to be careful with the use of technical language. Define all technical terms, avoid jargon… Still, there was lots of variability in how well students followed these guidelines. Some students did better than others, yet some students would also carefully define some terms but not others.


What this observation indicated to me is a persistent problem in everyday science communication. As one student said, they intuitively knew they needed to be thoughtful about language when communicating with non-scientists, but it is an easy thing to forget. Some geology students seemed to most often consider effective communication techniques as an afterthought. This to me is a problem, because communicating science requires practice and attentiveness. If I have learned nothing else in my study of science communication, it is that communicating science isn’t easy and, when you’re first learning how to do it, it takes a while. For every word, every idea, you must think about your assumptions, your background knowledge, and how that concept might come across to other people. But the more I practice, the more natural these thoughts become. If the only time that scientists every think about science communication is when they are standing face to face with an audience, they will be quite unprepared. Instead, scientists who plan to engage with the public should constantly be reflecting on how they work, how they talk, and how they think in order to be able to explain those things to a wider audience when the time comes.

The gallery


I also would have recommended that the students take more care to explain the big picture of their research. As mentioned above, the bigger picture can be elusive for non-scientists. Why do we do geologic research? Where is this field area in relation to familiar places, like highways or cities? How large is the field research area? In my opinion, the answers to these questions should have been obvious as soon as visitors walk in the door in order to give context to the technicalities of the art and research. However, it was almost nonexistent.

My biggest piece of advice for the students would have been to set goals and work to achieve them. I asked many students the same question, “what message do you want people to take away from this exhibit?” and I was surprised how many had not thought of that question before. As Burns et al. (2003) wrote, “for science communication to be effective… it must always have predetermined and appropriate aims.” This is largely because, if you haven’t set a goal, you can’t assess whether your communication was effective or not. Thus, I could hardly say whether the students’ projects were “effective” or not because their goals were unclear. This lack of planning was apparent in the projects as well because, as a viewer, I wasn’t sure what I should be gathering from the displays. Visitors are less likely to be engaged if they aren’t sure what they are engaging with. Once the students explained how they had combined art and science to show various aspects of geologic research or knowledge, the purpose became more clear, but I still believe that advanced planning and goal setting would have made the displays much stronger.


Example of student photography work showing geologists working in the field


Nonetheless, I think that in many other ways the projects were successful. Many geology students expressed excitement at seeing their work portrayed visually. As one student described, it was always difficult to explain what they did in geology classes to their families because they rarely had tangible products to show them. Instead they had lengthy and dense reports with daunting graphs and charts that did little to help a non-scientist understand the topic. By using photography to turn geologic data into visually engaging pieces, it became much easier to share with others. For many photography students, this was their first experience with a realistic photo assignment. As their professor explained, many college-level photography classes are open-ended and creative, but in the real world, professional photographers are often hired to show very specific things in their work. This was a unique experience to have in a class.

Following these two classes as they learned to communicate with each other and with the world was fascinating and informative for me. This is a case study in imperfect, rough-around-the-edges, practical science communication. These students weren’t publishing polished reports or sharing years of research. Instead, these two classes were trying to operate within each other’s’ cultures and accomplish a common goal. It shows both how difficult and rewarding communication between art and science can be, and I was excited to have the unique opportunity to study and learn from the experiences of these students.




Science Communication in Theory and Practice by Susan M. Stocklmayer, Michael M. Gore, and Chris Bryant, 2001

Science and Society by Peter A. Daempfle, 2014

Science Communication: A practical guide for scientists by Laura Bowater and Kay Yeoman, 2013

Burns, Terry W., D. John O’Connor, and Susan M. Stocklmayer. “Science communication: a contemporary definition.” Public understanding of science 12, no. 2 (2003): 183-202.