British TV Star Teaches Down-to-Earth Geoscience

For all the courses that advanced degree students can take in the geosciences, one would have to study at Plymouth University in England to experience a class so unique it’s touted as a breakout form of earth science.

“Geoscience Communication” is appealing to an emerging generation of scientists who are realizing that, in many cases, the value of their technical knowledge is only as great as their ability to communicate it – whether to their peers or to the public.

Stewart
Stewart
“This course will help you get a job more than any technical course you could take,” said Iain Stewart, geologist and famed BBC science television host who created the class.

“An employer assumes your technical skills are there,” he said, “but your ability to sell yourself and discuss technical subject matter with all types of audiences – that’s what gets you the job.”

When Stewart, a fellow of the Geological Society of London and president of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, left teaching in 2002 searching for ways to more broadly share his interest in geology, he found his answer in television. As host of science programs such as “Journeys from the Center of the Earth” and “Fracking: The New Energy Rush,” Stewart learned that the complexities of geology can be successfully communicated to the everyday person through common interests and common language.

In other words, drop the esoteric and drop the jargon, and you’ve got a home run.

“Companies often struggle because geologists come in with the same technical training, and everyone thinks the same way. Communication can become tainted by institution,” Stewart explained.

“But having people being able to express themselves individually is really important,” he continued. “A company will always need someone who can communicate. There are presentations, groups of people who need to be shown around.

“By being seen as a person who can communicate, you will get nudged to the front.”

Back to School

Stewart returned to academia in 2004 at Plymouth University with intentions of creating a course centered on all he had learned in front of a camera, transforming the nebulous facets of the geosciences into topics fit for popular public consumption.

In a non-scientific way, he grasped the baseline of the public’s knowledge of geology and other earth sciences. He also experienced how the average person understands and responds to geosciences-related issues, such as earthquakes, avalanches, even the man-made effects of hydraulic fracturing.

After 10 years of teaching standard modules in structural geology and geohazards, the university accepted his proposal for a class in geoscience communication as an elective for master’s students, and Stewart stepped onto the lecture floor as charismatic as he is on television.

Offered just twice to date, volumes of students have signed up to explore the mystery class.

“Kids beginning their undergraduate careers come in the door as freshmen, and we get the red pen out and tell them their writing should be objective, rational and technical. We train them from that moment in the scientific method,” Stewart said. “Then, they come to my class and they say, ’We spent three years learning things this way, and now you want us to change?’”

As difficult as change can be for some, the class has received rave reviews.

After completing several assignments in blogging and designing a geology-related project for children about the formation of sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous rocks, Katherine Harris, who completed Stewart’s course last spring, is completely sold on the concept.

“I really feel that the communication of earth science is massively undervalued at the moment,” she said. “This class should be made available at every level.”

The Real Thing

So, what exactly does the syllabus for Geoscience Communication look like?

  • There are exercises to help a speaker win acceptance from his audience.
  • Lively lectures provide valuable insight into the importance of being natural and genuine.
  • Stewart demonstrates how to let go of technical jargon and speak in general terms.
  • And, of course, he provides plenty of opportunities for practice, practice, practice.

At some point during the class, students are spontaneously taken to the Plymouth City Museum and asked to interview members of the public on the spot about their knowledge of the geosciences. Then, students must explain complex geological concepts to them “in English.”

Many young professionals communicate the way they believe their managers want them to communicate, Stewart said. Turning the tables around, he said those entering the workforce should find managers who support a flexible communication style – one that allows a person to speak knowledgeably from the heart, so a genuine impact on an audience can be made.

When making a formal presentation that deviates from the technical norm, “At first, you get this thing that you’re going to be found out any minute, but you get more confident,” Stewart said. “The best thing to do is to jump in there and make a few mistakes, and if they are small no one will notice and you’ll quickly get better.”

Stewart admits that “some get it, and others don’t,” but he’s beyond satisfied with the results of his class, especially after reading students’ comments that the course should be required for anyone studying science.

“It’s really been taking off, and that’s fantastic to me,” he said. “The young ones really understand this part of the job. They don’t see the need to keep up an academic front and be all self-important. They understand this is a way to package themselves differently and to connect with who they really are. It’s OK to talk in general terms.”

Former student Elliot Wood said the course helped him realize that thoughtful communication could help repair misunderstandings often caused by the gap between technical speak and the vernacular.

“In the U.K., we have a lot of fracing going on and there are protest movements against it,” he said. “A lot of people don’t understand the science behind it. This might be a failure on the part of the scientists.”

Because there are few paths for actual careers in geoscience communication per se, Stewart encourages students to practice by blogging.

“But no one will read it,” students often say of the proposed assignment.

“Exactly,” Stewart responds. “It’s a chance to just get better and then you will get discovered and get more attention.”

It’s a perfect training ground for careers in the oil and gas industry as well.

“We think the technical bits are the important bits when we are talking, but what’s far more important is who we are and what we’re about,” Stewart said.

“The technical bits are covered. What you need to do is be yourself,” he continued. “If an audience doesn’t like the presenter, that’s the end of it. You can say something that is completely correct, but if your body language is off, people will think this is a load of rubbish.

“The people who do really well,” he said, “are the people who are completely genuine.”

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For BBC’s How to Grow a Planet, Stewart and his team filmed in other exotic locations, like here in the Garden of Edam rainforest in the Bo Trach district of Vietnam.

Emphasis: Geoscience Education