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'M*A*S*H' star Alan Alda is helping scientists to make science more accessible using improv

'I think good communication is very important, not just about science and not just about medicine, but good communication makes the wheels turn,' he said.

'M*A*S*H' star Alan Alda is helping scientists to make science more accessible using improv
Image Source: Getty Images/John Lamparski

Scientists often use complex language to discuss important matters of public interest. This makes it difficult for common people to comprehend simple concepts of science and makes valuable information inaccessible to them. "M*A*S*H" star Alan Alda is working to change this by equipping scientists with the skills to communicate their field of expertise in ways that everyone can understand. Natalie, a climate scientist and teacher at George Mason University, told Great Big Story: "Often with my class, I have students' attention for only a few minutes, so it becomes very important for me to think, 'How can I become a more effective communicator?'"



 


Alda is solving this dilemma for scientists through improv. Every profession tends to have some unique jargon that individuals use to communicate with their peers in the same field. However, such jargon can prove a hindrance to those unfamiliar with the terms. Speaking to Cornell scientists in 2013, Alda said: "I come from show biz... We have a private language, too." 

According to Cornell Chronicle, the actor visited the Cornell campus with his staff from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University to offer science communication workshops to about 50 faculty members so that they may help the public understand science. During the sessions, Alda urged the scientists to avoid jargon in favor of telling stories and making genuine, emotional connections.



 

He said, "We’re not turning scientists into actors and certainly not into comedians. The thing that improvising does for them is it enables them to become accustomed to, and happy about, making personal contact with the people they’re playing these improvised exercises and games with."

The actor and his organization provide improvisation training tailored specifically for scientists so as to enhance skills like "paying attention to other people, anticipating and meeting their needs, reading their reactions, and taking responsibility for delivering a clear message." Over the years, they've trained people from NASA, the Parks Department, physicians, and medical researchers. Over 14,000 people have attended the workshops since the center was founded in 2009. 



 

During the Cornell University workshops, Lydia Franco-Hodges and Valeri Lantz-Gefroh from Stony Brook University-led groups through activities that required the scientists to gesture broadly, role-play, and share tales from their own lives. Alda said at the end of the workshops: "This is a beautiful moment. You kept pushing for ways [to explain] that were common to all of us–imagery, words, affect. You let emotion come in... Keep in mind how hard it was to do this... and how much it was worth doing."

Speaking to Great Big Story three years ago, he said, "I think good communication is very important, not just about science and not just about medicine, but good communication makes the wheels turn. We need it in every activity of our lives."



 

Scientists and academics are benefitting a lot from these workshops. Natalie, who took the classes, has been able to connect with her students in a unique way now. She said that after taking the workshops, she started asking herself questions like, "Would I have known this word when I was a first-year university student? Would I have been as comfortable with this concept?" Doing so "makes me empathize more and clearly articulate the concepts and the step-by-step process," she explained.

Several scientists like Natalie are grateful to Alda's efforts in highlighting how communication is an important factor in helping scientists relay accurate and clear information.

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