Make it a Conversation: Best practices in #scicomm 3/n

Question_mark_alternateIf there is one thing that most people learn from their 18 + years of schooling is that they do not like to be lectured. Whether it is from your parents, your teachers, your friends, your coach or whoever, a long, drawn-out lecture usually doesn’t work. Compared to many fields, I think we have a good grasp on this, maybe since most scientists went to school for over 20 years. (Yeah, don’t think about that too much. It will make your head hurt). 

The point of this blog isn’t to tell you how to spice up your precious PPTs, but instead how to make your science communication a conversation. I think the best way to encourage conversation is to ask questions! Let your audience give their opinions and contribute to promoting your message. The most important thing is that you must avoid yes or no questions. We’ve all had that awkward moment where you ask someone a question and they simply respond “Nope”. The best way to avoid that situation is to use open-ended questions.

Below, I outline some various types of questions and how you can use them to encourage conversation. These could be beneficial during a classroom visit, public talk, or a conversation on the street. Your audience can change!

Questions to get the conversation rolling

1. Surveying: As I mentioned in my first blog post, it is important to get to know your audience. You can use surveying questions to begin this process.

  • Where are you from?
  • When were you last here? (Particularly appropriate if speaking with people at a museum, zoo, aquarium etc.)
  • What are you most excited about seeing/learning/hearing today? (This question is a great way to survey the interest of your audience. Depending on what they say, you can change your conversation.

2. Comparison: Once you start getting into the heart of the matter, start to let your audience contribute ideas with questions that ask for their opinion or views.

  • How do bird differ from bats? In what ways are they similar?
  • How do trees in your backyard look different from those found in the tropics? Why do you think that is the case?

Comparison questions get people to think. For scientists who also teach, you’ll recognize these as excellent exam questions because they encourage creativity! There is rarely one right answer and it is always amazing to hear what people will come up with when given the chance.

3. Focusing: These questions can serve as good follow-ups to more open-ended comparision questions. With a focusing question, you ask the person to pay close attention to one part. I like to use focusing questions with kids because they often need more guidance before providing answers.

  • Look at the bat’s ears. Now think about how those compare to a bird.
  • Think about the leaves on your backyard trees. Are they bigger or smaller than leaves from the tropics?

4. Problem-solving: I think this is my favorite question type because I love getting people to think like a scientist. Once you set-up a conversation by asking for comparisons and focusing their attention, it is now time to let your audience explore ideas on their own. Similar to the comparision questions above, problem-solving questions rarely have one right answer and they encourage creativity. However, you need to give your audience the tools and information to come up with solutions.

  • If you found a fossilized flying animal, how could you tell if it was a bird or a bat?
  • What do you think would happen if you moved a plant from your backyard to the tropics?

5. Application: These questions will really help drive home your point. This is your opportunity to turn the question “why should I care?” back on to the audience. From your smartly facilitated conversation, you audience should now be able to answer that question. You’ll also be surprised with what people come up with when encouraged to provide their own connections.

  • Why should we be worried about bat specific diseases like white nose syndrome?
  • Why should we control the spread of invasive plant species?

The one thing I hope you take away from this post is that creating conversation and asking questions offers the opportunity for your audience to engage with you in a new and beneficial way. When people are forced to think about these ideas for themselves, the connections between themselves and nature grow stronger. No matter what your specific science communication goal is, I’d say that outcome is a pretty good one.


How else do you encourage conversation in science communication? What is your favorite question to ask? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter (@crhoffman99).


Update: Thanks for making this post one of the Top 25 Science Communication stories!


The naughty side of cosmetics: Microbead pollution & solutions

Everyone loves a good scrub down. Getting in the shower, lathering yourself up with body wash, scrubbing yourself down, stepping out and brushing your teeth, apply globs of facial products, and voila, you’re a clean person!


But if you are using products with microbeadsyou may be contributing to the pollution of our waterways. Microbeads are tiny bits of plastic that go into a large number of cosmetic products and are often invisible to the naked eye. These little bits of plastic may help exfoliate your dead skin, but they are then washed down the drain. The big problem with these tiny beads is that they are too small to be filtered out in water treatment facilities, so they pass right through and go into our lakes and oceans.

Well, I know what you’re thinking, “Tiny bits of plastic in our water??? That’s the least of our concerns with water pollution”. Okay, point taken. There can be a lot of trash in our bodies of water, but microbeads are unique.

Microbeads look like food for some marine organisms, so they eat it (yum!). The beads then accumulate in our wildlife and if we choose to eat some fish from these areas, the microbeads can enter the human system. Is that really worth a good shower scrub?

After ample research has shown that these microbeads can accumulate to levels as high as 1.1 million plastic particles per square kilometer, as in Lake Ontario, legislations are starting to put a ban on these products in the Great Lakes states (Check out this NPR article for more details).

Although legislation can lead the way to ban microbeads, you can do your part and stop using products with microbeads! It may be awhile before these products are fully banned, so you need to act now to avoid the products.

How to check your product for microbeads.

When I first learned about the problems with microbeads, I asked the cosmetologist at the drugstore if she could recommend a product without microbeads for me. She looked at me with an epically blank stare and I realized she had no idea what they were. (Cosmetology schools… you need to get on that!). So I realized that I needed to take it into my own hands to figure it out.

1. Look for products that contain polyethylene or polypropylene in the ingredients. That indicates that there are most likely small plastic microbeads in the products. Products that advertise as exfoliants or scrubs should be looked at with extra caution.

2. Download the app. Beat the Microbead is an international campaign against microbeads in cosmetics who created an app where you can scan or look up items to check if they are microbead-free.

3. Buy from companies that have banned microbeads from their products already. Check out Lush for brand that has committed to phasing out microbeads in their products. However, always read the labels because they may still sell the older products that contain plastic!


Sugar scrub: Find out more here:

4. Make your own products! I definitely need to do more DIY and I think this is the push I need. When you make your own products, you obviously know what goes into them. You can make a sugar face scrub by easily combining 1/2 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of olive oil. Easy as that. You can also reuse your coffee grounds into a whole body scrub.


No one is perfect. It may be hard to phase out these products at all at once. Start by picking products that you think, “Meh, I never really loved that anyways…” Soon it will be easy to choose all micro-bead free products.

Let me know what products you choose to switch out. Find a favourite micro bead alternative…let me know!

What did you miss? Geological features that go unnoticed.

I recently completed a partial cross-country drive from Columbus, OH to Los Angeles, CA with a quick stay-over in Tucson, AZ. This drive took me through the middle part of the US that is often known as “fly-over country” since people choose to skip it as they fly from coast to coast. During this monotonous, often mind-numbing drive, I realized that there are some geological wonders along the way that go unnoticed. Here are 4 that I found the most interesting.


1. New Madrid Seismic Zone- Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas border.

Earthquake activity in the New Madrid area 1974-2011. Data from University of Memphis

Earthquake activity in the New Madrid area 1974-2011. Data from University of Memphis

The rumble and tumble of earthquakes is typically associated with the West Coast, but hidden right in the middle of the US is the New Madrid Seismic Zone. This zone represents a weak point in Earth’s crust from a messy, incomplete continental break-up about 750 million years ago. This weak point means that small compressions and contractions east to west in the US can be especially dangerous here.

Despite the long distance to the nearest tectonic plate boundary, this old fault can still cause extensive damage. From 1811 to 1812, four massive earthquakes rattled the surrounding areas. Although there were no seismographs (devices to measure earthquake strength) at that time, researchers used journal entries, newspaper articles, and reports to estimate the power of these shakes to be 10 times as strong as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The area surrounding the New Madrid Seismic Zone is still a concern especially for damage in large cities like St. Louis, MO and Memphis, TN.

2. Texas Panhandle.

Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo, TX

Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo, TX

I’m sorry Texans, but your panhandle is so flat and boring. The old joke really applies: “It is so flat you can watch your dog run away for three days”. Luckily, alternative wind power has utilized this level area to put up hundred of giant windmills: Don Quixote’s worst nightmare.

Literary references aside, I wanted to know why this area was so dang flat and what it could tell me about the geologic past of the area. I hoped the answer would be easy to find, but it took some digging and I’m still not sure I have the whole picture. A 1907 USGS report by Charles Gould told me this: “the surface of the High Plains in generally flat, with nothing to break the severe monotony.” See? Even geologists think it is flat and boring. Anyways, my interpretation of his report is that rivers originating in the Rocky Mountains occupied the High Plains in the panhandle of Texas. Over time, the streams became overloaded with sediment (rocks, dirt, etc.), deposited this sediment in the riverbed, and eventually filled the rivers pushing them into new directions. This process of deposition and river re-working continued until a deposit “several hundred feet thick” covered the area to the east of the Rocky Mountains including Texas.

I had a feeling that the flatness had something to do with water, most outstanding geological features do. However, I was surprised that instead of rivers cutting into the landscape, they actually created a flat surface. Next time I drive through Texas, I might give it a bit more respect.

(Update January 21: I reached out to the USGS for more information about this area. They pointed me to another, more complete resource on the geology of the High Plains. The information was essentially the same, but in more detail. It appears that this part of the Texas was covered and uncovered by water at many times in the geologic past. Each time it was underwater, more sediment was deposited creating such a flat surface. This short investigation has taught me an important lesson: it is hard to pinpoint an exact cause to a certain geologic feature.)

3. Texas Canyon Rest Area / Balancing Rocks, near Dragoon, AZ.

Roadside Rocks

Precariously balanced rocks. Arizona

Entering into New Mexico and Arizona the terrain became much more interesting. There were mountains, mesas, and sometimes bizarre rocks. Our last stop before entering Tucson was the Texas Canyon Rest Area, a surprisingly beautiful and well-known pit stop. We stopped here specifically to look at the perched boulders along the road. My parents have made this drive before and knew that it was a great spot to stop. Once again, being the inquisitive geology girl, I wanted to understand why it looked the way it did. The rounded boulders made me feel like I was within the circle of a giant’s game of marbles. Rounded and perched rock formations are not uncommon and even have an official name: precariously balanced rocks (or PBR for short). PBRs can be found in hipster hiking hotspots around the world from Africa to Arizona.

To become so round, these rocks were subject to physical and chemical weathering. Physical weathering is when rocks are broken-down by forces like wind and water, but remain the same type of rock. Chemical weathering changes the rock composition through chemical reactions. I won’t go into the exact make up of the rocks (but see this post), however, eventually the weathering causes the rocks to breakdown in such a way that they become rounded and appear to balance atop other rocks.

Although they are called precarious, the rocks are typically very steady on the shoulders of the other rocks. However, earthquakes can jar these rocks down and can thus be used to monitor earth’s movements. Pretty cool, but I hope no one is at the rest stop when the rocks start to wiggle!

 4. San Andreas Fault, California.


Photo at rest stop near fault line. California

You don’t need to be a geology nerd to know about the San Andreas Fault. It is infamous for the fact that one day it will be the center of a break between Southwestern California and the rest of North America (see this classic flash-animated video warning: some NSFW language). This fault is one of the main reasons that Los Angeles and San Francisco are earthquake prone. What I found so surprising on our drive in Los Angeles is that even though I knew the fault line was there, we just drove right over it. I don’t know what I expected. A big sign pointing it out? Some large chasm in the earth? Not sure. Nevertheless, we drove right over this divide without even knowing it.

The San Andreas fault is actually a tectonic plate boundary between the Pacific and North American plates. The plates rub against each other in opposite directions. Think about it this way: place your hands together palms touching. Move your right hand down and your left hand up. That friction and tension between your hands is the same as between the plates. If you press your hands really hard you can understand how an earthquake may occur. The uneven surface of your hands cause them to stick together better in some parts and suddenly slip in others.

Once in Los Angeles, poking my toes into the Pacific Ocean and soaking in the rays, I realized that I hadn’t driven through swaths of nothingness to get here. Instead, I’d peeked into Earth’s history along the way. Next road trip, I’ll still be staring out the window watching the landscape pass, but I will be looking with a closer eye at what I can learn along the way.



New Madrid Seismic Zone:
Texas Panhandle:
Gutentag et al. (1984). Geohydrology of the High Plains aquifer in parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. Regional Aquifer System Analysis Paper 1400-B. Available here:
Gould, C (1907). The geology and water resources of the western portion of the panhandle of Texas. Water Supply and Irrigation Paper. No. 191. Available here:
Texas Canyon:
San Andreas Fault


Take a deep breath: A look at trees and lungs

IMG_0047On a short drive the other day, I was struck by the beauty of these leafless trees. The barren trees reminded me that things we see everyday connect us intimately with nature. In this case, the trees reminded me of the way our lungs work.


Do you see how the tree branches into smaller and smaller shoots? By branching out as the tree grows, it can increase its surface area to produce leaves. In turn, the leaves allow for the tree to exchange gases with the environment. In comes carbon dioxide out goes oxygen

By Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator (Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator) [CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator (Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator) [CC BY 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever thought of what your lungs look like inside? In fact, they look very similar to this tree. Consider your throat (and trachea) as the trunk of the tree. As air moves into your lungs, the windpipes branches out further and further appearing similar to the leafless tree above. This similarity is by no means a coincidence. Your lungs are also exchanging gases with the atmosphere. In comes oxygen out goes carbon dioxide. Nature repeats itself.

Take in a deep breath. (I’m waiting). Okay. Now exhale. Do it again, but this time think of the air entering into your body through those small alleyways of your lungs. Now exhale. Now think of that tree. It looks a bit like an upside-down version of your lungs and it is doing the opposite job of your lungs. In comes carbon dioxide out goes oxygen.

Take some time to wander outside, look at the trees, and see the intimate connection between you and nature. See another cool connection? Let me know!

Know Your Audience: Best Practices (2/n)

(This post is part of my Best Practices in Science Communication series. Check the original post for more information)

Know your audience: Tips and Techniques for different groups.

Use these ideas in your next classroom visit, public talk, or conversation on the sidewalk!

Young children: Kids say and do the darndest things, but they can also be the hardest audience to keep engaged. Let them use all their senses including looking, touching, and (sometimes) smelling to really get your point across. Got some samples from the field still in your lab? Bring them with you to facilitate observations with the kids! Young kids love the interaction and wow factor of your science activities and information. Always make it fun and hook them in.  

If you plan to do an activity remember that young children need clear instructions. I often make the mistake of thinking that the the kids can figure it out on their own, but often they need to be told exactly what to do. (Bonus: following directions is often part of Pre-K and Kindergarten curriculum, so if you are in a classroom, the teacher will be happy to see that this is met).

Teens: Ah yes, the dreaded teenage years. I am still working on the best ways to reach aloof teens so please let me know YOUR suggestions. I like to treat teens like adults and make conversation with them. Teens love the “cool” factor and interesting stories. Teens today are so connected with the world that they often have ample stories about what they saw on the internet to guide your conversation. As the “spider-woman” (a non-self imposed title), I hear comments like “Did you hear about that story where the spider burrowed into the guy’s belly?” Those cool (although bizarre) stories are just what teens love! Don’t be worried about the sidetracking because you can always wrap it up with your message in the end.

In contrast to young children who need clear instructions, teens like a good physical or mental challenge. In a recent museum activity, we challenged people to perform better than nature’s superstars, like the brilliant crow seen here. The teens loved to show-off their skills especially when told how tough the challenge was. We also took a group of 50+ teenagers and had volunteers battle it out in the physical challenges (jumping, throwing, etc). A little healthy competition and showmanship goes over well with teens. Present your research as a challenge and let teens come up with their own solutions to stretch their brains.

Adults: Hey, that’s us! Most adults like to be treated as equals in a conversation. Open up for them to add experiences, insights, and personal connections. When I asked my parents (very non-sciencey people…sorry Mom and Dad!) about what makes them interested in a science story they said when it has a human connection (global warming, agriculture, habitat changes) and when it has the “wow” factor. Using one of those two hooks can help you get talking with adults and can help you lead the conversation towards your research.

Try it out!

Pick a friend and have them act as either a 5-year old, 16-year old, or adult. Practice telling them about what you do and what you research. Use the tips from above to keep them engaged for 1-2 minutes. (Bonus points for the friend that sits on the floor acting like a true 5-year old or plays on their phone the whole time as that typical teen.)