Watch: The Science of Communication

The thought of giving three-minute presentations on special relativity roiled the nerves of the first-year physics students. But they took solace in having notes to refer to — until they didn’t.

“Once they all started pulling out their pieces of paper, I stopped them,” says Tristan Smith, visiting assistant professor of Physics & Astronomy. “‘Nope, use your mind. You know what you’re talking about.’”

Panic lit the students’ faces, but the exercise forced them to distill essentials.

“It freed them, really,” says Smith. “When you’re bound to the text, you’re not as dynamic, which means you’re not reaching your full potential.”

That was the key takeaway of an interdisciplinary workshop held earlier this month that used the techniques of improvisational theater to help students improve their communication skills. It taught them how to be a scientist among other people, says Kira Simpson ’18, of Bluff, Utah. [See some students describe time dilation at right.]

“I tend to forget that not everyone cares as much about physics as I do,” she says. “Trying to escape that mindset and remember what made me so excited about physics in the first place was how I approached [the workshop]. It helped me work through how to include an audience in my presentation.”

Adds Katie Clark of the College's Center for Innovation & Leadership (CIL), which supported the workshop: “It was an opportunity to take complex ideas from a theoretical level up at 30,000 feet and bring it down to where family and friends can understand it in a way that matters to them.”

With the CIL’s support, Smith had attended a similar workshop at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Amazed by how much more comfortable he felt explaining technical elements of his research, he met with Clark and Liz Braun, dean of students, about trying the approach at Swarthmore.

“It seemed like a chance for students to express their creativity, which is not tapped into as much as it can be in the sciences,” says Smith. “That’s a very exciting opportunity.”

Smith collaborated with Assistant Professor of Theater Elizabeth Stevens to devise a workshop for his “Introduction to Physics” class. Stevens frequently teaches acting techniques to Swatties seeking to break out of their comfort zones, stressing the shedding of self-consciousness.

“Easier said than done, of course,” she says, “but there are goofy games you can play and warm-ups you can do to help stimulate clarity of expression.”

Another lesson she imparted to the physics students may seem paradoxical: Listening is integral to speaking.

“You have to pick up on the vibe of the audience,” she says. “Paying attention to them is often more important than paying attention to what you’re saying. Look at them, make sure they’re getting it, and, if not, find other ways to communicate it.”

At the workshop, students made presentations to and critiqued one another in groups of four. Faculty and staff offered feedback, too, as acting coaches outlined the finer points of engaging an audience.

“They helped us get out of our heads and start playing around with the space that we had,” says Simpson. “Once I figured that out, I definitely felt more at ease in speaking in front of everyone.”

“Practicing the presentation over and over, the students were able to hone in on its key elements,” adds Clark. “I really enjoyed hearing their progress throughout the session.”

Asked what he hopes students took away from the workshop, Smith says it is that learning how to communicate your scientific research with the outside world is not a side project but an equally important process. Since that applies to many other realms of the College, don’t be surprised if you hear or see more about the program soon.

“This is exactly the type of innovative and cross-disciplinary thinking and collaboration that we hoped the Center for Innovation and Leadership would help generate,” says Braun. “I actually think the tag line for the CIL should be ‘I've got this great idea,’ because we envision it as a place for students, staff, and faculty to bring their great ideas, and for us to help them figure out what it would take for them to become a reality.”