Making Science Understandable to a Broad Audience

July 23, 1999

Richard Feynman, the late Nobel Laureate in physics, was once asked by a Caltech faculty member to explain why spin one-half particles obey Fermi Dirac statistics. Rising to the challenge, he said, "I'll prepare a freshman lecture on it." But a few days later he told the faculty member, "You know, I couldn't do it. I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don't understand it."

Feynman, like most professors, knew that the best way to demonstrate that you understand something is to try and teach it to someone else, particularly someone not in your specialty area. Indeed, Feynman felt quite strongly that scientists have a responsibility to explain what they do to others, particularly the taxpaying public, in ways that are both clear and compelling.

Such explanations have several benefits: They can be used in the preparation of teaching and research portfolios for tenure and promotion evaluations. They can help build enthusiasm for your discipline. And they can help you integrate your research and teaching, which in turn will help you garner support from granting agencies whose reviewers often come from across the academic spectrum.

This is why the National Science Foundation has made it a requirement that grant applications contain an opening paragraph describing the proposed work in a way that can be understood and appreciated by a general audience. In particular, investigators are asked to answer two questions: "What are your trying to do?" and "Why should anyone care?"

For many scientists, meeting that requirement is a major undertaking.

One organization, the American Physical Society, has approached this problem in an unusual way. It has developed a Web site that provides explanations of one or two articles per week from its technical journal, Physical Review Letters.

The site is called Physical Review Focus, and the explanations are intended to be "understood by physicists in all disciplines, and even most bright high school and undergraduate students." The articles include color images and, on occasion, videos. The choice of papers for the series is often based on educational value and intrinsic interest to non-specialists, rather than simply on scientific merit.

At Stanford University, we are attempting to meet the need for clear, compelling presentations about one's research by asking Ph.D. students to give a series of presentations we call the elevator talk, the hallway talk, the office talk, and the guest-lecture talk.

The elevator talk is a 30-to-60-second, two-to-four-sentence response to the question, "So what is your research about?" It is the no-notes, no-illustration comment you give in an elevator between the second and sixth floors at a convention or professional-society meeting. Try it and you will understand why "simple" and "easy" are not always the same things.

In the hallway talk, you have a bit longer, up to five minutes, to answer the same question, but again with no notes and no illustrations.

For the office talk, which can take up to 10 minutes, you can write on a piece of paper or use a white board, but still no notes.

The guest-lecture talk gives you up to 20 minutes to make a compelling case for what you are doing and why anyone should care. You can refer to your notes, and you can use a maximum of three overhead transparences.

The program that trains students to give these talks is called C.R.E.A.T.E. (Creating Research Examples Across the Teaching Enterprise), and is sponsored by the Stanford Learning Laboratory and the Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning. In C.R.E.A.T.E., participating Ph.D. students from many disciplines produce, through a series of peer-reviewed drafts, 750- to 1,000-word statements explaining their research in ways that can be understood by entering college freshmen. Each statement begins with the "elevator" answer and then proceeds in stages through the other types of talks.

To provide a realistic setting for the guest-lecture talk, many of the C.R.E.A.T.E. graduate students have made themselves available to undergraduate classes for presentations and discussions about their research and the research of their faculty advisers.

The first thing many students needed to do in preparing their statements was to get beyond their dissertation title to something more accessible and less threatening. Thus, a medical sciences dissertation titled "Investigating Cytoskeletal Dynamics in the Development of Epithelial Cell Polarity" became "How Do Cells Know Up From Down?"

Other titles from the natural sciences include "Big Elephants and Big Physics: the Stanford Team on BaBar" (physics), "Ant Ecology: What Determines Who Lives Where?" (biology), and "Environmental Impacts of Gold Mining in California" (geology).

Here are the corresponding "elevator talk" statements:

Cells: "My research is one of several approaches being used in my laboratory to understand the shape and function of cells. It is hoped that such knowledge can lead to a greater understanding of the biology of certain diseases."

Babar: "My research in experimental particle physics is directed at monitoring and understanding high radiation backgrounds at the Babar Particle Detector, a project at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC). The systems that I have helped design and commission will enable us to remove the noisy background events more accurately from the data, and also protect the valuable electronics from dangerous radiation accidents."

Ant ecology: "My research seeks to understand how ecological equilibrium is maintained by studying the abundance and distribution of ants, the "movers and shakers," of many of the world's ecosystems."

Gold mining: "My research goals are to determine mineral sources and sinks of arsenic in gold mine waste, and to track its transport into surrounding aquatic environments. Understanding arsenic's chemical characteristics helps to predict its toxicity and potential effects on aquatic and human life."

You can read the first round of completed statements, organized by discipline, at

Graduate students, undergraduate students, and faculty all benefit from the C.R.E.A.T.E. program.

Graduate students benefit by being able to make a more compelling case for the importance and benefit of research already under way or yet to be proposed. They have material that can be used in proposals and grant applications, and they get, through the Web, an increased exposure of their research to faculty members and colleagues.

Through presentations by graduate students and through access to the library of written statements, undergraduates benefit by seeing a greater connection between course content and new problems and applications in a particular discipline or field. Such exposure helps make the research process less mysterious and more accessible.

Faculty members benefit from such statements because, in addition to the above, they foster additional synergy between teaching and research and increase professors' access to future graduate students through the recruitment of undergraduates as research assistants.

During the coming year, we plan to expand the C.R.E.A.T.E. effort to include 50 to 60 additional Ph.D. students and, if possible, we hope to reach beyond Stanford to other universities in the United States and abroad. I'd be very interested in hearing from readers who would like to share ideas on the important goal of making scientific research understandable to a broad audience.

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Richard M. Reis is director for academic partnerships at the Stanford University Learning Laboratory, and author of Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering, available from IEEE Press or the booksellers below. He is also the moderator of the biweekly Tomorrow's Professor Listserve, which anyone can subscribe to by sending the message [subscribe tomorrows-professor] to