STEM Presents: Tamara Poles, Science Communicator

No jargon, “in the ballpark” is okay, and use fun activities — these are the foundations for effectively communicating scientific research to diverse audiences, according to Tamara Poles, creator of a program to train scientists to effectively communicate their work to the public and last Thursday’ STEM Presents series speaker. “It’s not about dumbing down the research,” she said, “It’s about making it accessible… finding the thread in your research that people can relate to… and using that.”


Poles is the community engagement specialist for the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She also created the IMPACTS (Inspiring Meaningful Programs and Communication through Science) program, through which she trains 50 scientists a year to communicate their work.  
On Thursday, Poles took her own advice and used a fun activity with the students and faculty gathered in the Court Conference Room.

“[This] is one of the first activities that scientists do in my trainings,” said Poles. “I try to put them in the shoes of their visitors, their students.” Working in groups of three, participants  were asked to choose one person to play the role of scientist while the other two were the visitors. Each “scientists” was then given the same line-drawing and asked to describe it so that their visitors could draw it. The visitors were not allowed to ask questions and the scientist could only use words — no gestures or asking for feedback. This was done three different times with varied levels of interaction between scientist and visitors.
 
The Foxcroft audience was surprised by how difficult it was to describe the line-drawings and get the desired result. The use of comparisons, scale, orientation, and watching for nonverbal cues, they noted, were key to knowing whether to try a different approach or continue with the one they were using. There was also discussion around being okay with the drawings being “in the ballpark” rather than exact replicas. Poles then discussed how these are the exact same skills that scientists need to develop in order to effectively communicate with the non-scientific public.
 
Poles closed the session by talking about her career path, “… it's a winding road when you're on it, but you look back and [it] ends up being a straight line because science communication has always been my passion.” She encouraged the girls to explore different things, make new friends, create a network, and find a mentor; then use those resources to navigate their own path.

A special thank you to Foxcroft Residential Life and Athletic Assistant Peachie Robinson for recommending Poles as the final speaker in our inaugural STEM Presents series.
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