Johns Hopkins Gazette | March 9, 2009
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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University March 9, 2009 | Vol. 38 No. 25
Taking Important Scientific Research to the General Public

At the Maryland Science Center, a Johns Hopkins presentation called 'Dark Matters' is projected behind Peter Yancone, director of education at the center.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

By Lisa De Nike

Scientists are adept at talking about their research with peers. But ask them to explain what they do (and why it's important) to the cashier at the local grocery store or the mother of four who lives across the street and they admit to feeling, well, less than competent.

"The truth is that some of us are better than others at talking to the general public about our research," said Jonathan A. Bagger, vice provost for graduate and postdoctoral programs and special projects and a professor in the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins' Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. "Being able to communicate is important, and it's something we need to work on, for sure."

That's why Bagger was among a handful of Johns Hopkins scientists and graduate students who recently collaborated with curators at the Maryland Science Center to create two exhibits and a demonstration that elucidate their research to the general public.

The work was done under the terms of a National Science Foundation grant called Internship in Public Science Education, or IPSE for short.

"The objective of the grant is to help researchers learn how to clearly communicate their science to a general public audience," said Louise Pasternack, a senior lecturer in the Department of Chemistry and coordinator of the IPSE grant. "A secondary purpose is to create a model for a sustainable and enduring partnership between Johns Hopkins and the Maryland Science Center so that scientists can continue to work on outreach to the public."

Involved in the grant on Johns Hopkins' end were Professors Bagger; Alexander Szalay, also from Physics and Astronomy; and Gerald Meyer, of the Department of Chemistry. Physics and Astronomy grad students Sam Carlisle and Christopher Wells assisted Szalay and Bagger; Amanda Fond worked with Meyer. Jordan Raddick, an instructional designer in Physics and Astronomy, also worked with Szalay.

Peter Yancone, director of education for the Maryland Science Center, spearheaded the effort for the museum.

"Our role was obviously not to do the actual research but to be interpreters who helped the Johns Hopkins scientists bring that research to a more general audience," said Yancone, who graduated from JHU with a degree in earth and planetary sciences in 1976.

The first meetings between the Johns Hopkins and Maryland Science Center teams included lengthy discussions about each research project and various ideas exploring the best ways to communicate those projects. According to JHU's Pasternack, her team quickly learned that "the Science Center team was better at coming up with designs that were appropriate for the museum than we were! All of us scientists wanted to explain things in too much detail to be accommodated by the noise and distractions at the busy Science Center."

Yancone agrees.

"The collaborative process was about editing and trust," he said. "The researchers had to learn to trust us to know the audience at the Maryland Science Center. So they learned that if we said that visitors found a certain approach too complicated, they learned to trust that that was true," he said. "It helped to bring researchers and grad students from Johns Hopkins here to look at who the audience is and to see that they would be talking to schoolchildren or moms pushing strollers. Once they were here, it was easy for them to quickly see that the goal of an exhibit or a demonstration is to capture people's attention, teach them something and inspire them to learn more in any manner they choose."

The end results of the many months of meetings and mutual give-and-take are two exhibits about astrophysics — a smart-board presentation called "Mapping the History of the Universe," featuring Szalay's work with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the Galaxy Zoo, and "Dark Matters," a planetarium show that capitalizes on Bagger's research into particle physics and the astronomical topics of dark matter and dark energy — as well as a demonstration about nanotechnology that includes information about Meyer's work on nanowires and their possible use in medical science. The demonstration includes video clips from Johns Hopkins showing magnetized wires being used to manipulate and organize cells.

"It's fun to observe kids and families as they watch the demonstration and it dawns on them that there is this whole nanoscale world where things don't behave in the same way that they behave in our world," Yancone said.

Both exhibits and the demonstration are available to audiences at the Maryland Science Center, and the center is working to export the planetarium show to other museums, science centers and some colleges as well, Yancone said.


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