Connect the dots
Researchers learn to share science with empathy
June 25, 2014
By Joyce P. Brayboy, U.S. Army Research Laboratory
Champ was the majestic canine in the picture sitting, his dark ears erect, and eyes focused on his master, awaiting the next command.
The vivid image that Stephen Lee presented of the dog that saved his friend's life was the driving force behind his exploring enhancements for Military Working Dogs supporting Soldiers in harm's way.
In Valeri Lantz-Gefroh's improvisation class, she taught techniques that Lee, who is the chief scientist at the Army Research Office, could use to talk more effectively about science. Lantz-Gefroh held the half-day session as part of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science workshop at U.S. Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Md.
"The goal of teaching scientists improv is to free them to talk about their work, to pay attention to their listeners and to connect with their audience," said Lantz-Gefroh.
"We feel honored as listeners when someone shares a big moment with us," she said. Lantz-Gefroh's 25 years as a theater professional have taught people how to connect with experiences through the feeling they experience with others. Her trainees are often overwhelmed by the thought of connecting with an entire room of people. But, "finding connection with a couple of people in the room can bring the entire room together," she said.
The interpersonal connection is critical as ARL moves toward bringing person-to-person collaborations between Army researchers and partners from academia, other government agencies, industry and nontraditional innovators to the laboratory in a shared physical space.
"We have to communicate the value of our basic and applied research to our partners and other audiences," said Thomas A. Moyer, ARL's public affairs director. "ARL's scientists and engineers have the ability to find the far-reaching technologies that define the Army of the future, and also ensure our continued military superiority. We have a very important story to tell."
"Trust between Soldiers, leaders and the American people is key," Moyer said.
About 20 scientists explained what they call "far-reaching" ideas to three critics at the workshop. This first exercise started a series that brought experts from the safety and comfort of their seats behind long tables, to the center of the floor to "mirror," "pitch" and "zap" into a new way of thinking about communication. Communicating science with clarity can help scientists make their work better understood by the audiences they serve, according to the Alda Center website.
"The interactive session was about keeping the participants available, aware and connected, and remembering that communication is a two-way street," said Jenna Brady, ARL public affairs specialist, who coordinated the workshop visit.
"The laboratory had never had a workshop like this before, so the participants did not know what to expect," Brady said. "Instead of the familiar lecture, the group experienced games like Zip-Zap-Zop."
"It was a comfortable atmosphere. When the scientists did not feel the need to be so technical in speaking, it helped us understand underlying meaning behind their research. After a few exercises, participants let their guards down and spoke candidly about the science behind our troops."
"Competence, character and commitment shine through when our workforce feels free to be authentic," Moyer said. On June 14, the nation's leaders established the Continental Army, which commemorates the total force — Active, Guard, Reserve, Civilians and Families — and their continued commitment to serve this nation.
Celebrating the Army's 239th birthday this month will be "our opportunity to reflect on the past professionals who have shaped Defense science and technology, and to become more comfortable with telling future stories about science in straight-forward language," Moyer said.
Like Lee's Military Working Dog picture, the goal of a good science story is to begin with the person behind the research.
Lee recently mentored students, who developed a new bite sleeve that mimics the tactile sensation and puncture resistance of skin for Military Working Dog bite training. The Bite Sleeve team won Best Overall Project at Senior Design Day up against 84 other engineering teams that vied in the North Carolina State University competition.
When Lee simulated petting a dog as a gesture of great significance for him, it was more than an improvisation exercise.
It was another step he took toward helping him help people understand why the Army would study Military Working Dogs.
The U.S. Army Research Laboratory public affairs office will host workshops quarterly. We welcome your feedback about communicating Army science, email firstname.lastname@example.org.