Moving One Step Ahead

Environment, Sustainability, Renewables, Conservation, Water Quality, Green Building — And How to Talk about it All!

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Using Graphics to Tell the Story

It’s such a cliche that I’m reluctant to repeat the adage, but it is so true that a picture is worth a thousand words. Perhaps even more so in the sciences. I have an excellent example of just how true this adage from the last few weeks. In this case, a scientific fact–that mosquitoes are actually, by far, the most deadly creature to humans–was skillfully conveyed via a readily consumable graphic that quickly went viral. How wonderful of an achievement would that be with so many other facts? Especially in an era when so many scientific facts are disputed or questioned.

Originally posted on Gates Notes, The Blog of Bill Gates, on April 24, the simple but ingenious graphic was quickly picked up by many other outlets, including The Washington Post, CBS News, and many more after being tweeted and shared through social media. The end result was that this story stuck around through the end of April, by which many other articles had long disappeared. But what are some of the key points that positioned this graphic to be shared so readily sharable?

1) Shock value–very few people knew that the answer was going to be “mosquito” before they clicked on that link. The element of surprise contributed significantly to a reader’s willingness to share.

2) Simplicity–the graphic itself is very streamlined and easy to follow. All extraneous data was eliminated. The images that were used to represent the different animals were simple and readily identifiable silhouettes.

3) Minimal text–As stated above, the image itself provided much of the data. Actual text was kept to a minimum and used only as necessary, this includes a short title.

4) Snapshot effect–it really only takes a few seconds to convey the entire message of the image.

Graphics can help anyone reach a wider audience. If we can follow the principles outlined above, we can create information that can be used and shared and that, ultimately, has an impact. Unfortunately, however, it’s still unclear on what exactly makes a post go viral, although tips abound. Having an excellent graphic that tells a story is a great start.

Elizabeth Striano



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Lectures Don’t Work for Science

Instinctively, we have all suspected on some level that there must be a better way to teach and share scientific information other than the traditional classroom lecture. Well we now have the science to back that up and approaches to help make some changes!

A new study of undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses showed that scores improved approximately 6% when active learning was included in the classroom. It also found that students in “classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning”. The findings applied across all STEM fields and all class sizes.

The study, a meta-analysis of 225 studies of undergraduate STEM teaching methods published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is “the largest and most comprehensive meta-analysis of undergraduate STEM education published to date”.

The authors concluded that when students were active participants rather than passive listeners, they were better able to grasp concepts. Active participation included any activity that required students to engage, from answering questions to collaborating with other students in small groups.

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science recently taught a class on using improv to improve understanding of scientific concepts in a presentation-type environment:

“Scientists need to make abstract concepts clear and relevant to any audience they are talking to,” says Lantz-Gefroh. The exercise “is a playful way of getting them to be vivid and expressive when selling a nonsensical idea and then apply those lessons to talking about their real science.”

This course is one of many the Center is using to help scientists communicate better and to “put aside the jargon and connect with the public in language it can understand”. This type of work and investigation points to growing acceptance of the importance of improving public understanding of the science behind issues such as climate change and other complex topics.

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor

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TED Talks and Science: Solution or Problem?

This recent post about the value (or lack of value?) of TED Talks made me laugh. It made me laugh not because of the author’s hyperbole that these talks are the “recipe for civilization disaster” or because they are a “threat to society”. It made me laugh in recognition, because I’ve spoke to several people in the scientific community recently who have told me they want their own “TED Talk”. They want to create one of these TED Talk-type short presentations that explain a complex problem, with the expectation that it will turn into a viral video. And somehow, this viral video will solve their communications challenges.

I always try to explain to them that there is no simple solution: Effectively communicating science is hard work. Hard work that sometimes pays off and, unfortunately, sometimes does not. There is no guarantee.

But these TED Talk-type videos are so enticing. Many people love them and share them as the final word on a given subject. They wax poetic about how one “changed their life” or “altered the way they look at the world”. The truth is a lot more complicated.

First, of course, there is no guarantee that any of these bits will go viral at all. There are hundreds if not thousands of official TED talks and many more from the local TEDx events. Though most of these clips are available online, only a small fraction of them ultimately will go viral. Second, any single approach is just that: one small piece in a much larger strategic plan. A TED talk is fine if it is a small part of a larger, well thought-out communications plan that includes both digital and traditional approaches. But alone, it likely will do very little to elevate understanding. Finally, there is the possibility that these talks ultimately do little to encourage greater understanding.

The author of the post Benjamin Bratton, a visual art professor at University of California-San Diego and presenter at one of the local TEDx event takes the latter a step further and questions whether these talks have any value at all, “[H]ave you ever wondered why so little of the future promised in TED talks actually happens? So much potential and enthusiasm, and so little actual change.”

He says the reason for this disconnect is oversimplification, “To be clear, I think that having smart people who do very smart things explain what they doing in a way that everyone can understand is a good thing. But TED goes way beyond that.”

This really is the key–explaining things in a way that everyone can understand without oversimplification.

If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation.
Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us. This is not about “personal stories of inspiration”, it’s about the difficult and uncertain work of demystification and reconceptualisation: the hard stuff that really changes how we think. More

The entire post really is worth reading, if only to remind ourselves that we can’t be lulled into believing that there is a simple solution to effective science communication, that if we really want to make change we have to be willing to “slog through the hard stuff”.

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor

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Responsibilities Expand as Nonprofits Take on Social Media

Recently, I conducted a brief survey using Survey Monkey to assess how social media has changed the structure and function of communications and marketing departments at nonprofit organizations. What I learned was that these departments increasingly have absorbed the role of social media marketers. They have accomplished this task without adding staff, getting training, or developing expertise. Typically, an existing staff member was tasked with these new responsibilities, having little additional knowledge other than active use of personal social media accounts.

I chose nonprofit organizations, in particular, for several reasons: the Washington, D.C. Metro region—where I work—has among the highest concentration nonprofits and associations in the country. These organizations are, in fact, one of the largest employers in the area. (Well behind the federal government and defense contractors, of course.) In addition, I am currently working on a related project for a nonprofit organization. Finally, and perhaps most compellingly, nonprofits are actually among the most intensive users of social media as a marketing tool. Who knew?

A total of 51 individuals working at a nonprofit organization responded; 47 completed the full survey. Most organizations fell into one of two categories: membership-type organizations with either an individual membership (65%) or organizational memberships (50%). More than 90% of respondents focused on issues related to education, healthcare, or policy. The average staff size was 46 full-time individuals.

A full 72% of respondents indicated that their organization had a dedicated communications department, which was either strictly “communications” or a combination of communications, marketing, and/or membership. These communications staff ranged from 1 to 20 fulltime staff, with an average of 5 fulltime staff across all respondents. The most common titles in the department were “communications director” or “vp” (>70%) and “communications manager” (35%).  Almost 30% had a social media manager and/or website manager. Other common titles found in the communications department included an editor (28%); public relations staff (28%); and graphic designer (23%). Approximately 20% also included a marketing director or marketing manager.

Two respondents indicated that all of these roles were held by one person!

The heads of the communications department (typically the director or VP), reported directly to the CEO or executive director of the organization. In some organizations Advocacy Communications and Membership Communications were separate departments answering to those respective directors or VPs.

Although answers to “How has the staffing and structure of the department and its role within the organization changed as a result of social media?” varied greatly, a trend was clear: Existing communications staff typically absorbed most of this new responsibility. Often, an existing position—such as communications manager—was tweaked to focus on social media approximately 50% of the time. Representative responses: “[S]ocial media has become one of six core functions for the department” and “Social media now occupies a large role and takes more time than ever. It’s seen as necessary though and has become part of the job.”

Approximately 25% of respondents indicated that staff had been added to the department to accommodate this increasing role in social media, although infrequently was the position dedicated solely to social media. In fact, a few respondents indicated that a small, dedicated communications staff was added in organizations that previously had not had any staff, in direct response to a need to reach out through social media.

Social media is not, however, always handled by the communications department. In at least two cases, this role is dedicated and resides in the IT department. One respondent said, “Social media is handled by membership and marketing department. Communications did not see it as a priority.”

If respondents could make one change to their departments, the answer was almost unanimously: “Add more staff”! One respondent captured this perfectly: “It’s impossible to serve the membership and wider community without greatly expanding capacity. Everyone’s doing two jobs.” Other common responses to this question included a need for better defined strategic direction in communications and goals; increasing the skill level of existing staff; and a communications audit.

The bottom line likely is familiar to anyone working in a communications capacity: Increasingly, we need to do more with less. Fewer staff, reduced resources, and less money.

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor

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Changing the Way We Research and Learn

Recently, I was at my local library, browsing the stacks and looking for a book on — of all things — cheesemaking. When it struck me that it had been a good long while since I had actually visited a library to learn about a new topic. I froze at that realization and tried to recall the last time I had stepped into an actual library, and I came up dry.

Libraries had been my salvation since I was a small child growing up in an even smaller town. Reading was my escape, my route to new worlds and to fulfillment of my autodidact needs. How had this happened? The library was there all through grammar school for school projects and entertainment. Then through college for papers and study sessions. Then as an adult when I wanted to learn a new skill or delve deeper into a topic. Then when I was a parent, to foster in my own children my love of books.

I realized then that, over the years, my research had slowly, imperceptibly shifted to almost entirely online. This most recent foray was no exception. I found a single book cheesemaking, which turned out to be useless with overly complicated instructions and limited images; the videos on YouTube and narratives on various cheese-related websites that I found later were so much more practical and accessible.

But I didn’t decide to write this blog to talk about cheesemaking. I think this incident instead speaks to a larger change about how and where people are getting their scientific information and the format in which they expect to find it. Do school-aged kids even go to libraries to do research anymore? Does it even make sense to do that? Books are outdated as soon as they are published; yet you can find up-to-date information online on virtually ANY topic in an instant.

I have to admit that although I miss the library, and certainly have a great deal of nostalgia for it as an institution, I get a great deal of satisfaction at having this wealth of knowledge right at my fingertips. Now when someone spouts a scientific fact, I can quickly consult the published literature via and find out if what they are saying is supported by peer-reviewed journal articles. Or if an issue is discussed that is a bit over my head, I can school myself quickly with more basic information first to get up to speed.

But do the data support this? Do readers gain knowledge online? A recent article on Slate about how people read online provides some disturbing statistics about how long readers are willing to stick with an article. According to the article, about 40% of readers who land on a web page, leave instantly, and 10% never hit the scroll bar, reading only what they can see. Only about 50% make just past the halfway point.

A Scientific American article took a look at the recent literature on how our brains process information when reading from electronic versus paper sources. Published literature has drawn only a tenuous advantage to paper over electronic. However, research has shown that individuals reading electronic sources lose a certain key aspect of paper reading: mental mapping of information. The idea is that when we read a book, we make a mental map of where in the book we find a certain piece of information. This map is not created in electronic sources, such as e-books, which lack these more tactile navigational features.

But improvements in how web sites are constructed and how e-book readers are designed and used could — and already have begun to — narrow these differences.

Don’t get me wrong, libraries and books are not going away any time soon. Nor should they. But have we come to a time when the use of libraries is diminishing in importance? And if so, how do we ensure that electronic information is not only accessible but able to sustain eyeballs?

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor

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References, References, References

I cringe when I see that a scientific article I am about to work on has reams of references at the end. I suppose I should have the opposite reaction: lots of references mean a well-researched and documented submissions. Right? Unfortunately, that’s not quite the entire story. Lots of references typically mean lots of mistakes and lots of extra work for the person who has to clean them all  up (me!). To that end, I have included here some quick pointers on citing and including references in your scientific (or even other!) article.

  1. In-text citations. An in-text citation should be included for all references that are listed in the “References” section of your article. The reverse is also true: if you include an in-text citation, then make sure you include the full reference in the list. The format for the in-text citation should match the requirements of the style guide used by the publication or journal to which you are submitting your article. For example, ACS requires (author last name, year). Speaking of which…
  2. Style guides. Be sure to format your in-text citations and references in a way that is consistent with the style guide used by the publication or journal. There are many, many style guides out there, with varying levels of similarities and differences, APA, ACS, AP, Ecology, etc. Regardless of the style is used, know it, and use it, and double check your work afterward. And I highly recommend that you buy or borrow the book and refer to it often until the style has become comfortable and familiar to you.
  3. Zotero. Have you tried this tool yet? A great way to not only keep track of all your references but to organize them and … wait for it … even format them! It’s free, it’s fantastic, and it has hundreds of style guides to choose from just waiting to be applied to your reference list. Before you get too excited, Zotero is not perfect (did I mention it is free?), so you will have to go in and do some cleanup after importing. But overall, highly recommended.
  4. Reference list. Please make sure that each reference includes all required fields, typically all author names (et al. is not a substitute for the names of additional authors); title of publication; journal name (if a journal); publishing company and publishing company city, state (if a book); journal volume, issue, page numbers. Please alphabetize them, and sub-organize them in accordance with the style guide. For example, ACS requires all publications by a the same single author be listed first; followed by same author, with a single co-author; followed by same author with multiple additional authors — all listed chronologically within that author’s listings.
  5. Electronic resources. Most style guides have been updated recently enough to have addressed most issues you will run into with using websites and other electronic resources. Typically, if you are referencing a journal article that is accessed through an online database (i.e., Sciencedirect,, etc.) you would treat the journal article as a journal reference and not as an electronic reference.
  6. Google scholar. This fantastic tool is indispensable for double-checking references, filling in missing information, etc., in addition to its original use for conducting your initial research.

The biggest mistakes I see are related to not following the proper style guide including: incorrect format for author names; missing journal information; and capitalization problems for publication titles (some require initial caps; others first-word initial caps only). The best way to ensure that you’ve done a good job, is to review your references with as much attention as you give to the content of the article. They really are that important.

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor

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The Beauty of Simplicity

One of the single most important rules in writing for a wider audience on a scientific topic, is simplicity. And when I say, simplicity, I do not mean “dumbing down” as I often hear. I mean creating a narrative that is accessible to a thoughtful person who is interested in the topic but does not have the depth of background. Unfortunately, simplicity can be elusive. Some quick tricks that may help are listed below:

  • Keep sentences short and to the point. If a sentence starts to run on too long, then break it up into two or more.
  • Try not to use words that are more complicated than necessary, requiring that your reader hunt down a dictionary with every other sentence.
  • Omit needless words that clutter the sentence. For example, “a number of” can be replaced with “several” or “many”.
  • Similar to above, omit empty phrases. For example, “As mentioned earlier…” or “It is interesting to note that…”
  • Use the active rather than passive voice whenever possible. Doing so will keep the writer more engaged. Plus, it’s just better.
  • If after several tries, you cannot make a sentence work, then scrap it and start over. Maybe even move on and come back to it later when you are thinking more clearly.
  • And, perhaps most important of all, if you don’t understand what it says, then neither will your reader.

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor