"To the World, with Love"
by Vanessa Falcao
We science-educated folks often have such a hard time trying to express our knowledge to the public. Sometimes my elementary school kids come to me with that curiosity about the world, and I try to explain to them what atoms are, and their eyes almost pop from their sockets and within a minute, they could care less for what I was saying. Or when my husband got his results of high cholesterol, and I am there explaining the differences between LDL vs HDL and butter versus margarine, and I can tell that he feels like I am speaking in another language.
We forget what it is to not be immersed in our world. However, it is in these little conversations that we have the opportunity to digest, process and explain material that is so obvious to us. There is no magic recipe as you can imagine. There is a lot of trial and error and recognizing when we capture the attention of someone. There is explaining multiple times until something is clear. So the next time you know what works.
Sometimes it may feel like being an educator is a gift, especially when you see people who do it so well, but practice is what is important. Like anything in life, practice is the key. Experimenting with your words, trying to imagine or access what the other party already knows, and taking it from there.
For this reason, the most valuable tools are to be personal, and to use “we” and “I” when writing to show that you care and that you are a part of it. Secondly, what helps for so many people is an image or an analogy, since our brain builds knowledge based on correlations. Get something abstract that they cannot understand and compare it to something else they already know. For example, for my kids, the analogy I used is that atoms are like Lego blocks we use to build things.
Many people need an image to understand. For my husband I could have used simple drawings of saturated and unsaturated fats like those shown here to visually understand packing and density. As you can see in the highlighted red circles, the packing of cis unsaturated fats is not ideal, hence it does not happen as in the image, which makes cis fat have a lower density and be usually in the liquid state.
Again, I could use an analogy like how you can organize bowls and they all fit nicely in each other but if you add a plate in the middle, the “nice fit” changes. That is probably not the best analogy as plates can pack well with each other and cis fats do not pack well with each other, but here is an example of trying to find something relatable to the listener or reader.
Whenever we write anything, we need to read and re-read and make sure there is a story, and the story needs to make sense. People learn and listen by relating to what they already know, so don’t be afraid to create analogies even if they do not work perfectly. When writing to the general public, explore the other senses. Invite them to form a relationship with your words and images. Make it personal and fun if you can. In summary, we can just keep trying our best to educate the world and immerse people in our love for science.