By Edward Shore
Hot Science-Cool Talks is a nationally recognized outreach series that provides a platform for leading researchers at the University of Texas-Austin and other prominent universities to share their research with the public in general and the K-12 educational community in particular since 1999. Presented by the Environmental Science Institute (ESI), the events feature various science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) topics and take place six times a year on Friday nights. The 106th Hot Science-Cool Talk, “Solving a 3.2-Million-Year-Old Mystery: How Lucy Died,” took place last month. Hundreds of attendees packed into the Welch Hall auditorium and overflow rooms to watch Dr. John Kappelman (Anthropology and Geological Sciences) present his research into the fate of Lucy, a fossil specimen more than three million years old and the oldest, most complete skeleton of any adult, erect-walking human ancestor. Many more viewed Dr. Kappelman’s on a live webcast, which can be found here. The last Hot Science-Cool Talk of the semester will take place on April 28, when Dr. Shalene Jha (Integrative Biology) presents her research about the importance of bees and the challenges these pollinators face to survive. Thinking in Public caught up with Dr. Jay Banner, Director of the Environmental Studies Institute and co-founder of Hot Science-Cool Talks to discuss the urgency of cultivating a “scientifically literate” public and how public-facing research can inspire empathy for a living creature that existed more than 3.2 million years ago.
What was the inspiration for Hot Science-Cool Talks and how has this public-facing event changed over the years?
In 1999, a colleague of mine, Libby Stern, and I discussed how we could share scientific research that was happening at the University of Texas with the public. Most important, we wanted to design a forum that was “more than just a lecture.” We wanted the kind of presentation that anyone could understand, as opposed to the sorts of lectures and conferences that academic scientists are accustomed to, namely, an audience of experts. It turns out that we do a really great job training graduate students to speak to a group of experts—30-40 people at a scientific conference who are well-versed in a particular field of study, but not so well when it comes to training how to reach a general audience. But we wanted to be outward looking. We wanted to reach young people with middle school levels of education. We asked, “How can we reach out to them? How can we focus on K-12 students and their teachers?”
That led us to design lesson plans, in addition to the lecture, that were based on the key points of the Hot Science-Cool Talks presentations, to make it easy to bring those ideas from the lecture to the middle-school classroom. We also added a live webcast so that anyone in the world with an internet connection could access it. We soon discovered that it was really important to recruit skilled communicators and dynamic speakers, who are leading researchers in the field, here at the University of Texas to present their research in these forums. We set the bar high, but on a campus with 3,000 faculty—many of whom study science, engineering, and technology—we knew that we had a large pool in which to find good speakers. We also draw a fifth of our presenters from outside UT. We wanted lecturers who could get people engaged—people in the K-12 community, people in the UT community, and people from outside both of those communities. How could we convince them to come learn about science on a Friday night?
Another inspiration for Hot Science-Cool Talks was our desire to share the kind of research that was happening on campus with people before it eventually appeared in a textbook. In other words, we wanted to create a more immediate pipeline to share research at UT with the local community, and eventually with people everywhere, via our webcast. Anyone in the world can ask questions of our speakers in real time. At the end of the lecture, I will moderate the Q & A session. I will always select people who are watching the live webcast. It’s really fun to have Jennifer from Wichita Falls ask a question and then have the speaker directly address it!
Our first lecture was in November 1999. We weren’t at all sure how successful the first talk would be. Some colleagues were skeptical. “Who would be interested in coming to a nerdy science talk on Friday night, on a campus where finding a parking spot is impossible? How can you expect that many people to show up?” I was unsure myself. I reserved the largest lecture hall in the Geology Building, which seats 300 people. Professor Tim Rowe was our first speaker. He gave a presentation about dinosaur extinction theories, and 600 people showed up. I was hoping that the fire marshal wouldn’t come by because we were definitely in violation of some code All the seats filled, then people sat in the aisles, and finally people were sitting on the floor near the stage, leaving a small semi-circle where Tim and I stood while I was introducing him. When I was done I had nowhere to go, so I just sat on the floor at the speaker’s feet, and Tim was stuck too. He did a great job giving his presentation in such a tight spot, including a flimsy table holding some of his valuable fossil specimens. We had to turn away 150 people. The experience told us that there was a strong interest in this kind of science night, after all.
How has Hot Science-Cool Talks changed? In 1999, the webcast technology was not yet available, so a few years later, we added that. In addition, whereas we started out with a focus on K-12 teachers, we quickly realized how many segments of our community also had an interest. So we have managed to grow our audience. We’ve learned to accommodate large audiences by setting up overflow rooms with the live webcast for the speaker presentations. At one event, we had 1,300 people show up to our 500-seat auditorium. Our coordinator at the time, Geoff Hensgen, was running form lecture hall to lecture hall, and escorting guests to different viewing areas. In the third or fourth overflow room he set up the computer on the lecture but it crashed. So he ended up borrowing an audience member’s laptop, put it through the feed, and then he went on to the next room. I called him “Batman” after that.
Our current outreach program coordinator is Didey Montoya. She is now leading our effort to corral, register, and track our large audiences so that we can serve them better. We’ve also partnered with organizations that have larger venues. AISD has a new performing arts center, a beautiful facility that seats 1,200 and we’ve had a couple of events there. One event by Professor Julia Clarke, about how dinosaurs communicated and another was about the mission to Pluto. We had the leader of the mission, Alan Stern. He gave an amazing account of how the mission took 10 years, traveled 3 billion miles, and when it finally arrived, it hit the mark within 90 seconds of when the team anticipated getting there. This was just a crazy achievement of humanity. We’ve had presentations on one topic like this after another. Each one blows people’s minds. Another recent partner is the Paramount Theater, a wonderful venue downtown that also seats 1,200.
I should also add that we work with each speaker to preview their presentation beforehand. We offer suggestions on the kind of words and graphics that may make their science most accessible for the audience. I get to make suggestions and I also get to enjoy the final talk, and I feel fortunate to learn about all the remarkable research of our speakers. I find sometimes that, days later, I wake up thinking about how amazing a particular discovery was. Weeks after a Hot Science-Cool Talk, people may still be telling me how great the last presentation was. At some level, all the talks reach people in that way. The common thread is this: the speakers are all great, we’ve had 106 of them; and the ones who are really great have an ability to share their excitement of scientific discovery with the audience so that people— middle school students pondering what they want to be when they grow up, someone who is 80 years old and still has a love of lifelong learning—-in all these cases, our presenter shares with strangers what has inspired her or him to solve a scientific problem and how they went about testing that hypothesis. And then they do this in the form of weaving a story, it’s particularly resonant with our audience.
Describe the Community Science Fairs. Who participates in them and how does the fair complement the lecture?
Thanks for asking about that. I meant to address that at the beginning. That’s another way we wanted Hot Science-Cool Talks to be so much more than just a lecture. The community science fair is the key. We have 10-30 tables of hands-on activities that are related to the topic of the presentation. They serve as a primer for what the audience will see inside the lecture hall. Two weeks ago, for example, we had a geomechanics professor, Chad El Mohtar, compressing cow bones until they snapped, which was a preview for what Dr. John Kappelman discussed in his Hot Science – Cool Talk regarding figuring out if Lucy’s bone breaks were post-mortem or not. John’s lecture was amazing because it was also so clear. Lucy was discovered in 1975 and many thought that we already discovered all that we were going to know because it was a limited fossil specimen. But John asked simple questions to spur his creative research that led to such an elegant presentation.
Regarding the Community Science Fair, people say they come for that just as much as they come for the lecture. The audience seems to love it. Having that interactive ability, the chance to speak directly with scientists and science professionals, is just really neat. There’s a great atmosphere and vibe to it. The audience will see something interesting and the researcher will get to interact with younger students and see how engaged they are. Often times, the Community Science Fair makes the whole event memorable.
The turnout for Dr. Kappelman’s lecture about Lucy on a Friday night was massive. How has ESI managed to attract such a devoted following outside the University of Texas?
I think it began with partnerships with area schools and from word of mouth. When we started the program, a bunch of people showed up with just a little publicity and we’ve continued to grow. Our email list has 2,500-3,000 people. We’ve had unique partnerships. Social media is of course a great way to spread the word. John Aielli’s KUT show, Eklektikos helps. He interviews our speakers and he shares the same fascination of the scientific process as our audience. Sometimes we get the occasional TV spot. But to this day, a lot of our outreach is through word of mouth. What we are doing in terms of content, finding the best speakers, working closely with them to improve their presentation,, I’d like to think the quality of our content compares well with what appears on, for example, TED Talks, except that we don’t have the same publicity engine. But I’d put any of our talks up against theirs. I think the audience sees a level of quality of content and that generates a natural word of mouth.
As a layperson, “non-science guy,” I was impressed by Dr. Kappelman’s ability to explain complex concepts from —evolutionary biology, paleontology, physics, and medical science— to an audience of non-experts. What are strategies for engaging folks outside the academy in learning about science and making scientific research accessible to the general public, and young people in particular?
This is the heart of what makes a good teacher at any level: to take complex ideas and break it down; to do it in a way so that you’re not talking down to the audience. The best teachers say, “I want you to be enthused as I am. I want you (the audience) to share this experience with me.” They don’t say, “Let me tell you how it is.” That (approach) doesn’t work. In short, I don’t want to take credit for even a few percent of how good these speakers are. I’m more of a sounding board. The real credit goes to our presenters. My work is made easy if I do a little homework and find people who are, off the bat, gifted communicators. Our ESI team decides who to invite. We typically find people who have won teaching awards or presenters who are frequently invited to give talks. Some presenters have a relatively low profile but they are exceptional teachers and researchers. I ask my students, “Who is your favorite professor?” If I keep hearing the same answer, that will be a good sign that the person will be a good Hot Science — Cool Talker. The ones who are especially good at this—the really good speakers—-are, I think, a combination of nature and nurture. Some are born with a gift for communication. But I think there are also people who are smart and really care about communicating well. They put effort into figuring out how to do this well. Our faculty have so many obligations that there’s little time available to work on improving communication skills, but I think it’s those who find a way to make this a priority that wind up meeting the high bar we set for being speakers in this series.
One example is Michael Starbird. He teaches mathematics and he is one of those people who teaches math and he’s won teaching awards. I’ll never understand that! I have a hard enough time teaching about nature, the environment, and geology, relatively easy stuff to get excited about (well, for me at least). But boy, for someone to teach math well, that’s someone I have respect for. For Hot Science — Cool Talks, he led a conversation about concepts of infinity. I told him, “So where is your Powerpoint?” He says “I don’t do Powerpoint.”
“I mean, we’re going to talk about math, on a Friday night, and without visuals?”
He said, “Yeah, that’s right.”
I braced for what was going to happen that night, and it was a full house. Mike talked for 50 minutes about mathematically rigorous concepts, about infinity, and yet it was spellbinding. He had everyone on the edge of their seats. The biggest resources we have are the remarkable researchers and faculty at UT.
Why do you think public scholarship is important and how does it benefit your own academic work and teaching?
Well, a couple of things. It’s sort of not a huge expectation for new faculty. It’s largely about research and teaching at the university level. We all find different ways to do service. So I’ve looked at public scholarship as a type of service commitment, a service that I want to do and that I think is important. I think that sharing science with the public is essential. I came here in 1990 and was focused largely on my research and teaching, but over time, I’ve come to appreciate why engaging the public is so important. That’s because the National Science Foundation, or any other agency that funds our research, is supported by the tax payers, and we have an obligation to explain what we do and why it’s important. But even more important than that: we need a public that is knowledgable about science. The goal is not for everyone to be scientists, but we need a scientifically literate population. So many things in our lives exist due to scientific research.
It is so important to explain what science does for us. It’s so crucial. If we’re going to face the challenges—environmental degradation, diseases to come, and how the spread of disease and environmental degradation are related—all of these issues are fundamental parts of our lives and people need to be aware of them. Whether these are the decisions we make with our spending and how can live more sustainably, the decisions we make in the voting booth, science is at the core of so many things. I’ve felt this way a long time. Following recent events in our country, I feel even more strongly about that.
Finally, my last question is a tough one, so forgive me. I was struck by something Dr. Kappelman said in his lecture the other night. I’m paraphrasing, He said that in pondering Lucy’s death, she came back to life. For the first time, she became a living, breathing individual, because he could understand what caused her death: after all, we have all fallen down. In other words, Dr. Kappelman said that research led him to discover empathy for a living creature that existed 3.2 million years ago. How can public-facing science inspire empathy and why do you think empathy is such an important trait for scholars to possess?
Wow. The reason this is important is that we are all human. The knowledge that we are discovering—any kind of scholarship, all that we are discovering—is in some way, presumably, making the world a better place. It’s not always obvious. A lot of researchers are doing more basic research than applied research. Basic research is what John Kappelman does. There is often no immediate application and he can’t take what he learned about Lucy, for example, and solve other, modern cold cases. However, the fundamental concepts he is piecing together are so vital. And it is through basic research that things develop that make our lives better. Sometimes we don’t even know until three studies and many years later. Yet expanding our knowledge base about our ancestors 3 million years ago may portend howe we may live a better life today. There are so many examples, time and again, of something discovered in basic research that led to better way of living. It is all about curiosity. When we are curious, we live richer lives. When we discover things that satisfy our curiosity, we live even better lives. Those are some of the benefits of trying to understand how seemingly cold science being done in an ivory tower in the dark reaches of a well-lit laboratory can lead to people being more empathic of how people live.