Improving Science Communication at NASA

The expression, this isn’t rocket science, is commonly used to call out a situation where someone is perhaps overcomplicating a topic or challenge that – by its nature – isn’t complicated. But what about when the topic is rocket science – and the communications challenge is to make the complicated more accessible to a lay audience?

Consider this: Imagine a NASA astrophysicist – and winner of the Nobel Prize – practicing improv and storytelling exercises in preparation for detailing his research in a Ted Talk, which needs to hook the audience and connect with them emotionally.

That example comes from recent work in a client engagement that Cambria managed for NASA, in an interesting collaboration with NASA’s Office of the Chief Scientist and the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science based at Stony Brook University.

The collaboration, which Cambria initiated by partnering with the Alan Alda Center, focused on developing a new course called Science Communication at NASA, which was piloted in 2014 and rolled out in 2015-2016.

The primary goal of the course is to teach scientists, engineers, and other specialists how to communicate with non-scientists, colleagues, and the general public. The work draws on our experience developing custom training programs – as well as the Alda Center’s expertise in science communication.

Along with NASA, both Cambria and the Alda Center bring complementary elements to program design and delivery that led the course to be very effective, including the following:

Pragmatic theories and best practices on what makes science communication effective
Experiential “improvisation” exercises that help participants open up and connect themselves to their science and express passion and excitement for their work
Storytelling that explains their science in ways that are engaging and connect to their audience
NASA science communication experts who model and share best practices
Practicing “distilling your message” into the essence of what’s important and communicating it clearly in ways that connect to their audience – how it applies to them and why they should care
Action learning team projects that address real, challenging science communication situations and help build a science communication culture across NASA
Individual science communication projects that challenge participants to apply their learning to a compelling communication of their science back on the job
“Feed forward” suggestions from peers based on observations during action learning team sessions and individual science communication project presentations to help participants improve designing and delivering their science communication projects
A 90-day virtual follow-up session that focuses on presentations of individual and team projects to ensure learning application and demonstration of individual and organizational impact

Why do all these elements make for a successful design? For one thing, they address all four of David Kolb’s learning styles to make the most of learning and its application to the job. (Individuals tend to have different “preferred” learning styles, but maximum learning occurs when participants are “stretched” through all four styles). This chart shows how the course addresses the four learning styles.

Kolb Learning Styles

Learning by….

Relevant NASA SciComm Activities

Concrete Experience Feeling, through direct experience
Experiential exercises – Improvisation, Distilling your Message
Action learning team participation

Reflective Observation Watching different approaches
Observing peers in experiential activities, subgroup practice, individual and team presentations
Giving and receiving “feed forward” suggestions

Abstract Conceptualization Thinking about issues & strategies
Pragmatic theories & best practices from faculty and NASA SciComm experts

Active Experimentation Doing, through trial and error
“Distilling your message” & storytelling practice subgroups
Individual & team project implementation and 90-day follow-up presentation of deliverable results

The collaborative program design and delivery process brought together the experience and expertise of all three parties to create an optimal learning and application experience, as follows:


Design Contributions

NASA Program Team
Program sponsorship, funding, and overall design
NASA SciComm leaders and experts, action learning team projects
Coordination of all program implementation

Cambria Consulting
Overall design with NASA team
Action learning process design, individual SciComm project design, facilitation of team processes and “feed forward’ process
Virtual follow-up design and program evaluation

Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science
Experiential activities – improvisation, distilling your message
Presentation of best practices and concrete examples

The benefits that participants gained from the program, as highlighted in the course evaluations, included an enhanced focus on understanding their audience, improvements in distilling and communicating the essence of their message, the effective use of personal storytelling to connect themselves and their science to their audience, and the application of their learning to creation of specific science communication project back on the job.

The benefits accruing to NASA are enhanced clarity of communications about their science to colleagues outside their specialty, to senior NASA leaders or Congressional committees when seeking funding support for their work, as well as greater clarity and audience engagement when communicating with a variety of public audiences, including young students whom they seek to inspire to pursue careers in science.

This is but one example of how Cambria can help organizations design programs that meet mission-critical needs.

Whether your organization has professionals in R&D or other highly technical fields who need to be able to express their ideas with impact or people who need to implement new strategies or initiatives in other arenas, Cambria can design and deliver unique programs that combine all the elements of experiential learning; sharing of best practices by your own organization’s most effective people; enrolling outside experts into the mix; action learning teams to address significant business and organizational challenges; and individual projects to ensure application of learning back on the job.

CTA Decorative Image

Get the latest insights in your inbox

Related Posts

Artificial Intelligence and Leadership Development

Feb 20, 2024 | by Scott Simpson | Home Page, Leadership Development
Learn about the intersection of artificial intelligence and leadership development, and where it may soon have the biggest impact on talent development.

Employee Attraction & Retention in the COVID-19 Era

Dec 15, 2021 | by George Klemp | Leadership Development
Employee attraction and retention – or how best to hire people and hold on to them – is always a hot topic in talent development…

Finding Hidden Gems to Meet Your Hiring Needs

Jul 21, 2021 | by George Klemp | Leadership Development
This is the second of my two blog posts on hidden gems – the uniquely talented people who are often hiding in plain sight. The…
Read More