Communicating science through film

Emerson to co-sponsor science workshop Friday

by Brittany Gervais / Beacon Staff • February 7, 2013

Some would think a college focusing on communications and the arts wouldn’t normally involve itself in a scientific discussion. But learning how to translate any subject into something people can understand is a useful skill film majors should learn.

The college is co-sponsoring a science communication workshop on Friday at the Boston Museum of Science, featuring two Emerson professors and an Emerson alumnus on the discussion panel. 

The event, called “Communicating Water Science Workshop ” is also sponsored by the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, Inc. (CUAHSI) through an educational program called Let’s Talk About Water, an event team for university campuses, according to CUAHSI’s website. 

Through Let’s Talk About Water, a panel of experts will lead a discussion with the general public about different films being shown at the event, such as a water documentary or an environmental film. They will also talk about some misconceptions people have about water issues and other environmental topics in the area, or about the film itself. 

The panelists are trying to help the scientists learn how to do a better job of communicating their research to general audiences, while also helping to teach filmmakers how to work with scientists, according to Director of Strategic Projects at the Museum of Science Carol Lynn Alpert.

CUAHSI’s Communication and Outreach Specialist Kayla Berry said the organization first became interested in hosting the workshop after seeing visual and media arts professor Bob Nesson’s method of teaching his film classes with a scientific perspective.

“We were really impressed of the way he married those two disciplines together,” Berry said. “We really wanted to be able to highlight the format that he has designed and present that to a community of scientists.”

Alpert said at first the museum was just a venue, but after finding out what the panel would be discussing, she discovered that the event and the Museum of Science had similar goals.

“The Museum of Science is really involved in helping researchers communicate their research better for general audiences,” Alpert said. “We also help train researchers to talk about their science to broader audiences through exhibits and public presentations.”

Bob Nesson, who is also a panelist at the event, said that while he’s passionate about the environment, collecting data is not enough to change public policy — there needs to be a bridge of communication.

“Politicians can look at data and not know how to interpret it. Someone needs to translate the data into understandable vocabulary,” he said. “Film is one way of doing that. It is a tool in the toolbox of communication.”

Nesson will be introducing three other panelists during the event who have strong connections to Emerson, including Scientist-in-Residence Jon Honea and Emerson alumnus Shervin Arya, who graduated in 2009. Arya now works as a filmmaker at Illuminating Minds Media, a media production company that focuses on natural science and humanitarian issues.

Honea said he will be showing a few pieces of student work from his class, as well as a film trailer a couple of his previous students have been working on, as examples of environmental science communicated through film. 

According to Honea, it is important for those interested in film to learn how to connect with their audiences as well as their subjects.

“[Emerson students] are really the facilitators of that communication. Scientists won’t have the skills to use film to communicate their messages,” he said. “Emerson students also need to communicate with scientists, just the same way they’re learning to communicate with their audiences.”

Berry said she thought using film as communication was growing increasingly popular.

“I find myself watching YouTube videos daily about science and learning new things,” Berry said. “So I think it’s really a great way to engage the general public who may have an interest in science but may not know the specifics.”

She also said Emerson students who are looking to incorporate science into their productions could learn something by coming to this workshop. 

“Emerson has the expertise in communication and outreach, but maybe students are seeking some scientific expertise to incorporate into their films,” Berry said. “I think this is a good opportunity to mingle the two groups together.”

Arya, who is also a former student of Nesson, will be discussing his films on climate change and its effects on some species of animals and fish. He will also be showing some clips from the film at the workshop.

Nesson said when Arya was in his filmmaking and environmental course several years ago, he made an amazing film on the sedimentary layer of the Mystic River that exceeded his expectations. 

“His film was so above and beyond what any other student had done in that area of translating science into visual information,” Nesson said. “Just amazing.”

While he knows Emerson is mostly an artistic school, Nesson said students need to develop an understanding of science as well in order to prepare themselves for the real world.

“Some of us are working to change the curriculum and the approach Emerson takes with certain subjects,” he said.  

Honea said a more well-rounded education is always the better option, because it can help students understand their audiences. 

“[Emerson students] have to understand their subjects, whether it’s pop culture or history or whatever,” Honea said. “They have to understand their subjects in order to convey that message to whoever the audience is. And I think this workshop will help to do that.”