What needs to be narrated, if an oldie of this profession teaches decades younger newcomers in the trade of science journalism and science communication in general? A report of a three-day mission to a place, which was looked down upon as the boonies, but turns out an emerging center of excellence on the global academic map.
The location: At Germany’s mostwestern corner, where her majesty the Rhine flows into the Netherlands. A brandnew campus, built on farmland and meadows, with a silo and a crane as conspicuous leftovers, reminders of the history of the city: Kleve, formerly a crude transfer site for agricultural goods, today a cutting edge research site and university, which hosts students from all continents. Kleve has jumped courageously into an experiment and has entered the stage of a knowledge economy. First impression: No hustle and bustle like in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, lots of nature, relaxed and inspiring campus atmosphere, just like in Berkely or Palo Alto.
The students: A group of eleven, one third from out of Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, the rest Germans from the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen. So to speak an interesting international cocktail. Many of them 2nd semester, very little experienced in science communication and journalism, still in their orientation phase.
The curriculum: Basically open, but with a strong emphasis on practical work. I have books in my luggage, i.e. Bill Bryson: A short history of nearly everything; and printouts of AlphaGalileo news; and many ideas, such as to present TED talks of the shooting star of science communication, Brian Cox, how he easily chats about the wonders of the universe as well as the Large Hadron Collider. I hope that I always can fall back on my teaching experience at Munich’s People’s University. As a method, I use the participants’ knowledge as a unique resource which can be tapped like a treasure chest and fed into the learning experience. Would that work also here at the Lower Rhine?
Sociometric Line-ups & Murmur Groups
Friday afternoon: After seven hours on the train arrival and brief introduction, then we jump right into it. We do sociometric line-ups, which open a lot of communication, during which the students learn more about each other. And the teacher gets a profile, detects needs, patterns. Small murmur groups follow. They collect what the students want to talk about. Speakers of the groups present the results. A check list is being generated, which is the navigation through the three-day workshop. Ok, let’s get started!
Miraculous Tischwasher: It is my goal that everything we address and raise shall be practiced in writing. No matter whether radio, TV, youtube, well thought-out and presented texts remain the basis of communication and journalism. One student has developed a what he calls a „Tischwasher“, a device which does not clean only dishes, but with the dishes on it the entire table (“Tisch” in German). This shall facilitate the cleaning process. Quite intriguing the technical aspects, the designs and ramifications for the labor market. Is it more than a gimmick? This participant becomes our expert. He presents his invention, the group asks for details and clarifications, then: 15 minutes, under lots of pressure to write the story, either as a press release or journalistic, as news or a commentary.
The differences between media and PR have been defined before: In science communication, you are more or less your master’s voice, show the sunny side, while the journalistic part has to include other opinions, if necessary criticism and serves the public interest, indicates dark and rainy patches of the topic. Everyone produces a corresponding piece. Success!, everyone has scored. The foundation for the next two days is laid, so we happily can adjourn.
Ethics, Onions & Kant
Saturday: We take turns and ask how the participants have digested Friday’s lesson. Some say that they want more input and practical experience by the lecturer. I talk about 29 years on the science beat for a popular science magazine. Highly rewarding, I always felt like Columbus investigating new horizons, but at the same time lots of compromises were made, new technologies jazzed up, explaining them very well, skillfully wrapped into stories, but all in all with plenty of uncritical cheerleading.
Generally, I emphasize, times and markets have dramatically changed, so students need to detect their own reality. Today employment as an editor is scarce. Very few have the luxury of long-winded investigations, as we used to have, up to one month for one topic. And I also give vent to what I learned about objectivity. Truth seems like an onion with many layers. Live up to Kant ethics, if you can and his categorical imperative.
Bottom line: Develop your own business idea around your passions, become your own trademark, as Alexander Gerber, head and founder of the science communication department never gets tired to pronounce. Be creative and bold, but stay clean, regard the civil society as your constituency. And embrace the international scientific community. Gerber forged with the European Science Journalists EUSJA a worldwide coalition around the EU project NUCLEUS, which will come up with a handy tool kit for ethics.
Exposés & Elevator Pitches
Important note: Always focus please on the needs and experiences of your audience, not only in writing, but also in teaching. For example: The students are very knowledgeable about Egypt, its history, the myths. A recent investigation has shown that pharao Tut’s sword contained minerals of a meteorite. We develop five different angles to write a story, from the allusion that the Egyptian culture was triggered by alien influences and from outer space to the revelations of modern archeology, which ground the highly speculative elements.
It is rewarding to find that the students mostly think in journalistic terms and that they want to confront nebulous theories with hard science. The presence of three native speakers (Canada, India, Zimbabwe) turns out very helpful as a means of amending and enhancing the English of the German students (and, of course, also the teacher’s).
How to sell the stories now? The main characteristics of a proper exposé are developed, such as: an attractive title, an short and concise abstract, the envisioned audience, the interviewed sources, conclusion and message, deadline of delivery of manuscript, honorarium. Subsequently, we practice the pitching of stories. Participants present their hobbies, in only 30 seconds, and offer to write about them, with convincing arguments. This turns out to be especially difficult for the German participants. They are a bit uptight. The African participants do very well, a well-done mixture of information, relaxed postures with smiles and politeness. Remember: take it easy, do breathe and don’t chop your own head off; life is too short and way too valuable to worry too much about yourself!
The Sea Weed Story
Formula against procrastination! A full-fledged problem for many writers, including the professional ones. One participant suggested the tomato or pomodori technique. Proceed in small steps, but make sure you start and finish your introduction. From there on you proceed chapter by chapter. Nice, catchy word. Personally, I prefer to lock myself into a room and get done with everything without distractions; but will need a reward afterwards.
Sunday: Touring around the city and the surroundings. Beautiful parks in Kleve, an ancient castle, laid-back restaurants and cafés, lots of nature and water, unforgettable the bicycle trip on the dike along the Rhine all the way into the Netherlands, only 25 km to Nijmegen.
Monday: The students are curious about how to find topics for scientific articles. I recommend: Don’t wait for the latest edition of Science or Nature. Open your eyes! Themes are everywhere. From my Sunday reading during a rest by the Rhine I’ve brought back a picture, which features a housing structure made out of sea weed. We brainstorm around it. See weed is a delicious, nutritious and abundantly available food. Along with some genetic transformation – if this is considered kosher! – it can be enhanced to produce energy. So it fulfills the basic needs of a growing population on the planet. But beware of our largest natural resource, the sea: don’t (over)exploit it.
I Didn’t Fall Asleep
One of the prime activities of the workshop, as defined Friday, is to investigate Kleve and the Kleve Campus. This shall be today’s main task, with a focus on interviewing techniques. Jointly we develop the essentials. Not to take no as an answer, if the person you want to interview says no. Stay polite and try new angles, last but not least this interview could and should also be in the self-interest of your target person. Prepare a check-list with questions, but stay within the flow of the conversation, especially when new unexpected aspects emerge. Always dig as deep as you can, don’t finish the conversation, until you have the entire picture.
The interviews are trained in tandems, then the students swarm out over the campus to conduct interviews in labs, administrative sections, with other students out on the campus. At the end the class delivers its final piece. Well-done. Lots of interesting information about the science of Rhine Waal Campus was gathered. In chemistry: If a substance is too smelly, you just add a molecule, so it gets fat enough and cannot access your sensors in your nose. Security, too bad, did not want to talk to the students. As a whole it turns out that some students feel isolated despite of many social programs, that English is not spoken very well everywhere on this international campus and integration still needs to be worked on – by and large a journalistic outcome.
In the oral evaluation of the workshop, students welcome the exposure to practical engagement, some and especially the Germans miss more theory. My personal hero is one participant, the most active during these 15 hours, who said that the high level of engagement kept him going and from falling asleep.
Rhine Waal Campus
Professor Alexander Gerber
Where the heck is Kleve?
Brian Cox TED Talks
Nucleus@PCST 2016 Istanbul
For applied moderation methods check PCST 2016 “How to make your audience’s neurons rock!” -> http://www.pcst.co/papers/view/71 –> Download of the resume go to the foot!