Communicating Outside the Bubble: creative scientific engagement at Michigan State University

Educators and researchers at Michigan State University have started partnering across disciplines to employ alternative formats to communicate scientific understandings in abstract ways. The MSU Science Communication Team has dedicated massive amounts of creative energy to improve the dissemination of scientific research and information to the public using mixed approaches.

This past fall, scientists, artists, and individuals who span both disciplines, created a set of art displays to be viewed by visitors of the new Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) en route to the building auditorium. These pieces showcase the work of graduate students across disciplines using unique artistic displays that are meant to be aesthetically and intellectually engaging for the viewers. In particular, plant researchers had quite a strong showing for this art exhibit!

The plant-specific exhibits included both literal and abstract depictions of ongoing research projects with art pieces displaying beautiful images of chlorophyll division, artistically drawn phylogenies and chemical structures, and even fully functioning terrariums! 

These pieces represent a desire to broaden the means science communicators use to spread knowledge. Expanding our repertoire for conveying the questions and information that inspire us as scientists is critical if we hope to spread basic scientific literacy faster than we expand formal education systems. Using forms such as art and other creative outreach options give us the opportunity to communicate beyond the typical news article, blog post (cough, cough), or scientific publication.

Although these forms of scientific expression will ultimately not truly educate folks about the various complexities of the natural world, they can be inspiring. The modern world is a sea of information, some good and some bad, and it is incredibly difficult to sift through that knowledge without assistance. This difficulty in engaging people who long ago decided they were uninterested in science or incapable of learning complex ideas has proved to be a challenge for scientists hoping to expand their outreach audience. Art as a form of scientific expression offers an opportunity to engage folks who otherwise probably wouldn’t seek out a journal article or even a popular science article on a given finding or phenomenon.

Developing art that attracts the eye enables scientific learning to be a side effect of the viewing experience. Embedding this information into high-traffic areas or public spaces allows us to infuse our surroundings with just a bit more science. Hopefully, this will in turn allow others to pick up a bit of science during their seemingly unrelated day-to-day activities.

In addition to this exhibit, the MSU Science Communication team has numerous ongoing projects centered around Science Art, Science Writing, and Science Policy. In 2019, the team organized the annual ComSciCon-MI conference and hosted on Michigan State’s Campus! Although not focusing exclusively on Plant Sciences, this student organization is doing great work promoting all of STEM across MSU’s campus. Look out for cool exhibits, podcasts, and other outreach events that 2020 will bring!!