Communicating science. Though improv.

A surprising source of help with communicating science.

A great story in The Chronicle of Higher Education on an accolade for Alan Alda for his contribution to helping scientists communicate

In New York City this week, Mr. Alda is being honored at the university’s celebrity fund-raising gala for his central role in creating Stony Brook’s Center for Communicating Science. Its program, based on improvisational theater techniques, has trained people at about 60 universities across the country, and some of those people are using the techniques to train others at their own institutions. The idea “just caught fire,” Mr. Alda says.

Best known as the star of the M*A*S*H television series, Mr. Alda later was host of a science interview program on PBS for 13 years. Many of his guests, he observed, had trouble explaining their ideas to a general audience.


A solution, he thought, might be to teach scientists some basic improvisational skills. Though improv is commonly associated with comedy theater, it is, more fundamentally, the skill of listening to an audience and making corresponding adjustments in the delivery of a message.

During the film festival, Mr. Alda was seated next to Shirley Strum Kenny, then president of Stony Brook. As he had done at other universities across the country, he brought up his idea. Ms. Kenny, an English scholar, was immediately receptive. She says she had long wanted the institution to do more to prepare its students to explain scientific concepts to people who know less than they do, a skill they would surely need once they entered the work force.

It’s a really fascinating development and terrific to see how the approach is spreading across the US. This video about the Centre explains a bit more about its work:

Suspect we could learn a thing or two in the UK about the technique.