About the instructor: Dr. Tijana Prodanovic is a Full Professor at the Department of Physics at the University of Novi Sad. She holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree in astrophysics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. Tijana was the winner of the national FameLab contest in 2008 for the best young science communicator, and first runner up at the International FameLab contest 2008 held at the Cheltenham Science Festival in Great Britain. She has spoken at TEDx events, is the author of a paper titled “Ten Commandments for Presentations,” and has published at Communicating Astronomy with the Public Journal (2009). She completed a number of international masterclasses in presentation and science communication skills and organized a number of them for researchers and university lecturers all over Europe.
Today, our world has technology the likes of which we have never seen before and new breakthroughs are happening every year. The Information Age has given us an abundance of knowledge at our fingertips and, while this is a good thing, it can be hard to spot what is genuine and what is not. This is a challenge, because a key facet of a functioning society is a populace that can think critically, especially when there is so much false information. It also presents a challenge to scientists who want to spread their ideas, but fall short of the mark when talking to people outside of the scientific community. Knowing a given topic in depth is one thing; communicating it is quite another.
Dr. Prodanovic taught a course at this year’s Independent Studies Period (ISP) titled “Science Communication Crash Course.” The course program was organized in collaboration with Assistant Professor Zeljko Tekic of Skoltech’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI).
The idea behind it is to teach students some of the best methods for communicating ideas and research – an essential tool for successful science marketing – whether it is simply for the purposes of attracting funding or raising awareness in general society. The course combines lectures with practical work, where students learn to communicate their selected ideas effectively. They learn how to make a good presentation for the right occasion (public lecture, science lecture or pitch), communicate science to the general public in short lectures, communicate science in media (TV, radio, newspapers), and communicate science through online media. They also use other formats of science communication such as art, tours, memes, etc.
While students are taught the essentials of making a good presentation, they are expected to adapt it to their own specific style.
“There are nuances to this. If you are comfortable talking at a slow and steady pace, that’s fine; you don’t have to be over-the-top enthusiastic if that’s not who you are. The main thing is that you catch the audience’s attention and convey your message,” said Tijana.
The main benefits of the 3-minute presentation is receiving constructive feedback on how to improve. The challenge for the presenters was not just coming up with an idea, but also getting the right balance of information suitable for the time-frame that would not confuse the listeners.
Anna Alekbarova, an MSc Petroleum Engineering student whose undergraduate background is in biology, talked about her presentation experience and where she felt she could improve.
“Even though I am doing petroleum engineering, my presentation was related to biology and was titled ‘Molecule Interaction.’ Based on the feedback and on the content, it might have been more appropriate to call it ‘Antibody & Antigen Interaction.’ That way the listeners would know what to expect.”
The feedback was generally positive, but one of the main criticisms was, as Anna mentioned, regarding the title in relation to the actual content.
Asked about what drove her into science communication, Tijana described her memory of the total solar eclipse of August 11, 1999.
“I was an undergrad student of astrophysics in Belgrade and I remember how shocked I was when the government issued a press release telling people to stay home, pull down the blinds, and avoid going outside. They had listed some bizarre medical consequences that they said could result from being exposed to a solar eclipse, so the streets were empty of people,” she said.
How was it possible that on the brink of the new millennium people could know so little about solar eclipses? “When I thought about that particular event, I realized that part of the reason people behaved like that was largely our own fault as scientists,” said Tijana. That was the catalyst that drove her into science communication.
Tijana mentioned the late Stephen Hawking as an example of a great scientific communicator whose work she read when she was still in high school.
“He covers such difficult topics like black holes in a way that is accessible to everyone. I found it amazing that he could explain these subjects in a way that even a kid could understand,” she said.
Science Communication Crash Course finishes up today, but it has undoubtedly been a valuable learning experience for the students involved. We hope to see Dr. Prodanovic at ISP again next year!
About the Independent Studies Period
The Independent Studies Period (ISP) is an annual program targeted at MSc students that has taken place every January since 2014. The four focus areas for students are to develop different skills and knowledge: Broadening Horizons – Beyond Profession, Soft Skills Development, Entrepreneurship and Innovation (E&I), Career Development.
Master’s students will have the chance to explore avenues of learning that differ, though not necessarily, to their traditional science and engineering backgrounds. It is built around a core of external instructors as well as Skoltech faculty and members of the student body (both MSc and PhD), all teaching courses on topics such as public speaking, academic writing, science in contemporary art, an introduction to cybersecurity, a stock trading course, science and cooking, and so on.
By its very nature, the program is interdisciplinary and helps raise the next generation of science, technology and business leaders, and students get the chance to work on cool, innovative projects.
2020 marks the seventh ISP and this year there is a choice of 36 different courses.
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