Engaging the Invisible Americans: Science communication for Spanish-speaking audiences at #ScioSEA

Sarah Doty (Seamar), Ivan Orbegozo (LatinNexus), Adrianna Gutierrez (NCI) and Mónica Feliú-Mójer (CienciaPR)

They say you should know your audience…

But can you really know your online audience? Especially one that does not speak your own language? Writing content for an online audience requires some guesswork and a lot of hope; you guess what your audience may want to read, you write it for them, and you hope that what you wrote will engage them. The truth is that, apart from online comments and some statistics about clicks on your links, there is not a lot of feedback available about your online readers. When the audience you need to reach has a different culture or  language than your own, this guesswork may become a little too difficult to do from the chair in front of your computer.

Thankfully we don’t exist in a total vacuum, and we can build partnerships with trusted institutions and members of the audience that we want to reach. For Spanish-speaking audiences in the USA those partnerships are readily available: bilingual, trusted, sources at the federal, state, and local level are always hungry for more and better content for Hispanics.

Make no mistake, Spanish-speaking audiences need to be engaged in the discussions about science, medicine and technology in America. It is not only about inclusion and social justice, but about the massive force of demographics. Hispanic Americans are a fast growing community. They make up 17% of the population, and are projected to be 31% of the population by 2060. USA is the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country by population, and Spanish-dominant and bilingual Hispanics accounted for more than 54% of the 32 million Hispanics online in 2010. To leave behind the first-generation of Spanish speakers is not even an option; Americans raised fully bilingual require the constant partnership and support of their Spanish-speaking parents to succeed in STEM.

What we learned at the Science Online Seattle event

Last week at the University of Washington in Seattle we had the chance to ask questions about the Hispanic audiences and to hear four different experiences engaging the Hispanic population en español using the Internet; One global, one at Federal level, one at Washington State level, and one local. Those were our “conversation starters” that began the conversation at the event:

Enhancing science learning with concepts relevant to local context and to Hispanic culture:

Mónica Feliú-Mójer of Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR) told us about the non-profit grassroots organization composed by people with an interest in science and Puerto Rico. Their website is the headquarters for most initiatives, but CienciaPR is more than a website, it is a global community, and a big one: it connects 188 academic institutions, 6,500 members, and 100 scientific disciplines.

Feliú-Mójer reminded us that science learning is enhanced when concepts are made relevant to your context and to your culture. In many Spanish-speaking communities concepts are seldom illustrated in a culturally relevant fashion, and that sends the wrong message to the public and to students. It sends the message that science is not relevant for them or that they can’t become a scientist. Scientists and communicators can help changing this perception by communicating science to the public in a culturally relevant fashion. CienciaPR successfully enlisted scientists from their online community and communicators to create this kind of content (more than 384 articles so far). The effort became a book and now is used in Puerto Rican schools as a textbook, making an impact in K-12 science education.

Science communication is not only about language and what you say, but also about who says it. If you see somebody that speaks your language, shares your background, and looks like you, that communicates that science is relevant to you, and you can reach what that person is. For that reason another successful initiative of CienciaPR has been adding profiles of Hispanic scientists -and personal blogs- and organizing school visits to help change the perception of what a scientist should look or sound like.

If you are engaging the Hispanic community, make sure you include a way they can ask questions and get more information

Adrianna Gutierrez described the Cancer Information Service (CIS) as the link between the scientific health information of the  National Cancer Institute and the community. “We help them answer any questions they may have about cancer and make it in a way that is understandable for them”. She emphasizes that when you are bringing information to Spanish-speaking populations you should also give a way for the community to ask questions and get more information.

The CIS effort relies heavily on the Internet. Not only have one half of the people who contact them found about this service via Internet, but people are using the Internet to contact them with questions: roughly one third of contacts were through email (as many contacts as with their phone calls), and one fifth of contacts were through their Spanish-language Mobile app. They also have a Facebook pageYouTube videos, and a twitter account but not a lot of people use those to ask questions.

What are Hispanics asking about? CIS users are usually contacting them with general questions about symptoms and diagnosis, looking for doctors, and treatment. She also noticed the low percentage of Spanish-speaking requests for more information on cancer clinical trials (only 7.2% of conversations touch that subject). Latinos(*) are vastly underrepresented in cancer research and clinical trials and hopefully, by providing this information and engaging the community, the willingness and interest in participating on clinical trials will increase, providing drugs tested to work on groups that are representative of the general population.

Assess the community you are working with to provide multiple methods for accessing information

Sarah Doty, of Sea Mar, believes the health literacy level of Latinos is an important factor to consider when thinking about what information and resources to put out in the community: an estimated 66% of Latinos have basic or bellow-basic health literacy skills, compared with the overall national number of 36%. Latinos are a very diverse community, not one size-fits-all, not only in literacy levels but also culturally. Assuming Spanish-proficiency is also risky; some of them may have Spanish as a second language and indigenous languages as their native tongue. The level of interest is also highly variable, and you should ask yourself continuously how much information somebody wants.

Having multiple levels of interest and health literacy means that high literacy and high interest users get more in-depth information, low-interest users give less in-depth information and Spanish-as-a-second-language users receive media that provides more visual clues. Doty suggested people interested in bringing health or science stories to Latinos to provide both high-level information and formats accessible for public with low literacy levels (with clear visual information).

A a big number of Latino patients at Sea Mar have cell phones with Internet access but they may not have a computer at home. Doty is using digital storytelling and social media as tools to improve engagement and health literacy in the Latino population. A digital story is basically somebody’s personal story, an audio recording with added photos and some music, a tool to educate about health issues but also for personal empowerment. Sea Mar has a Facebook page and radio station. Radio is a great tool to reach Latino population and it is a community-trusted method to get information. In addition to those, Sea Mar refers web-savvy patients to educational videos on YouTube  to webMD, FamilyDoctor, Myplate (mi plato) and a smoke-cessation website from the Legacy foundation.

Leveraging mobile Internet to reach new immigrants

Ivan Orbegozo, of Latin Nexus Group, came to Seattle 13 years ago speaking almost no-English. Orbegozo talked during our event about his struggles as an Spanish-speaking newcomer, and how finding resources like the Seattle Public library allowed him to learn English and to find a job communicating technology in Spanish. Now he is building the service he dreamed of when he first came to the USA: a centralized list of local resources for Spanish-speaking people using mobile devices. The choice of platform has to do with cell phones helping to reduce the digital divide between Latinos and whites, and the service is implemented in HTML5 to avoid both Hispanic users reluctance to install applications and the segmentation inherent in selecting a specific phone platform for the application.

Can you guess who is NOT Hispanic from the picture? The guy with the red shirt is me. Born in Colombia, Hispanic and 100% Latino.
Can you guess who is NOT Hispanic from the picture? The guy with the red shirt is me. Born in Colombia, Hispanic and 100% Latino.

There is no such a thing as a monolithic audience

To provide context and culturally relevant concepts to Hispanics with roots in the Caribbean and to Hispanics in New Mexico may need sometimes a complete rewrite of your text. Hispanics are a group united by Spanish language and a common history, but not only the language and scientific literacy levels are variable across the community. The same language is not use it the same way in different cultures, and that reflects in the choice of words needed to convey your meaning. There is no easy out-of-the-box way to communicate with Spanish-speaking audiences, but a myriad of possible partnerships with trusted sources for the Hispanic community to create effective and delightful science communication content in Spanish.

What can you do to create content that engages Hispanic Americans?

Sarah Doty firmly believes that it is important for science communicators to grow with the rapidly growing Latino population in a way that involves the Latino community. I completely agree. Hispanics are not invisible, they are not hiding from you, but  they are under the radar for a lot of people in the science communication community. It takes a tuned ear and constant interest to hear the voices that learned first how to speak Spanish, and today are intermingled in our daily lives. Now that you may have caught a glimpse, what can you do to create content that engages Hispanic Americans?

Connect with people of the community, look for individuals that are already trusted by the community, and know what the community needs. User that connection as your platform.

  • You may contact the panelists (see form at the bottom) or contact me.
  • The CienciaPR database is a good point to start looking for partnerships, they have a great membership map with people all over the country. You don’t need to be born in Puerto Rico to be a member, you only need to have an interest in science and Puerto Rico.
  • You may also check an opt-in list of Spanish-speaking science communicators I am hosting called “Ciencia Para Todos” with about a dozen of communicators in USA, another dozen in Spain, and a dozen in Latin-America.
  • Check out this international Twitter list with over 150 Spanish-speaking science communicators.
  • At the federal level several institutions have an effort in Spanish, from NASA to EPA, check if some government organizations in your area of expertise may be interested in partnerships.
  • Some professional organizations have an Spanish effort like the American Chemistry Society or have a hub for minority scientists like the American Physical Society, check if your professional society has one.
  • Contact your local SACNAS or SHPE chapter.
  • Follow #sciolang and #comuniciencia hash-tags on Twitter
  • Google your city name and the word “ciencia” you may be surprised of what you find.
For the full conversation please watch the video (1 hour):


Watch live streaming video from scienceonline at livestream.com



(*) Hispanic and Latino are used very often interchangeably, but I use Hispanic to convey a population with Spanish as main language and cultural tradition, while Latino means to me people with roots in Latin-America. Hispanic includes people born in Spain, but excludes Brazilians because they speak Portuguese, Latino excludes Spanish but includes Brazilians.

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Contact our panelists:

Special thanks to Jen Davison and Liz Neeley for their guidance and help putting the event together, to Sally James for her invaluable help searching for awesome panelists, to Brian Glanz for planting the idea of this event, to Jessica Rhode for filming it, and to Peter Wallis, Adam Kennedy, and Rachael Ludwick for their support.

The Seattle Science Festival is here!

Inspired by one image on the video introduction for the Seattle Science Festival

On Thursday night I bailed out from a picnic and concert with  friends, but they are ok with it because they know I couldn’t help it. The Seattle Science Festival is happening this week and Thursday was the opening night. How could I not be at the Paramount theater for the event?

The main feature was the west coast premiere of  Icarus at the Edge of Time, “a stunning multimedia performance about a boy who challenges the formidable power of a black hole”. Music by Philip Glass performed live by the Garfield Orchestra under the direction of Marcus Tsutakawa. Live narration by Kal Penn. The speakers for the evening got me first excited about going to the theater, and the trailer of Icarus intrigued me, as I seldom see this kind of multimedia performances in Seattle:

The evening started with Jennifer Ouellette, from Cocktail Party Physics blog, introducing her husband Sean Carroll (From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time). He talked about the arrow of time, and how physicists understand entropy as the reason for time moving in one direction. He did a great job telling  it for a general audience, Next was Adam Frank  (About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang) talking about how cosmology and our idea of time are always following each other. Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe,  Icarus at the Edge of Time) came last to introduce Icarus at the Edge of Time. He set the stage by telling us about black holes, and then he let the visuals and music tell the story. I watched the performance invoking my 11-year-old self and I loved it, completely identified with Icarus. I also watched it invoking my slightly jaded adult self and I felt deeply moved by the music and visuals, identifying more with his father now.

After the performance I went home happy and looking forward to experience the rest of this Seattle Science Festival. I recomend you to check the excelent science options for all ages offered during the next week. For more information about the festival go to their webpage: http://www.seattlesciencefestival.org do not miss the big Expo Day on Saturday 8th.

Keep your eyes open, because you never know what you can learn from other attendants

Alan Boyle and Michael Venables at the opening night for the Seattle Science Festival

I arrived early to the Paramount theater to get my ticket before they sold out. What a fun thing to wait for the doors to open in company of people excited about science and very knowledgeable!

Here is a picture of some folks I met at the Paramount’s corner, do you recognize them? Hint: one is NBC News Digital’s science editor  the other is a science contributor to Forbes magazine.  That is the magic of the science festivals, that you can learn a lot in the presentations, but also that you can learn even more from people you may find on the streets.

Bringing science back, one story at a time

UW Science Now at Town Hall. Science storytelling for the general audience.

There is a gap growing between the scientific community and the general public. The public can’t keep-up with what is happening in science daily, and often don’t even care. Overworked scientists rarely find extra time to communicate their science to audiences outside academia, and just publishing the science in journals doesn’t seem to bridge the gap fast enough.

Thankfully there is a growing army of science communicators determined to bring science back to the public, engaging in a useful dialog about science. The most powerful weapons of this small army are the scientists themselves. Contrary to public perception, scientists are a passionate, interesting bunch of people. They love what they do. That passion helps them overcome the difficulties, setbacks, and struggles that come with exploring the limits of human knowledge. Their ingenuity navigating the unknown is the raw material for captivating storytelling, but they rarely learn in school how to tell their story to the public. Engage is an organization of graduate students of the University of Washington that helps to reveal those stories.  Engage organizes a seminar to train student scientists on presenting their research to a general audience, stripping jargon and scientific formality. I had the privilege of attending the Engage seminar series for graduate students this quarter and I am really happy I did. The seminar provides a wonderful review of the craft of storytelling, teaching how to speak with your voice and body; presentation content and design; and the “what” and the “how” of effective communication. For me, the take home message is that the respect you owe to the audience means that you must relentlessly simplify the content without dumbing it down. Hopefully, if you use the right tools to tell a compelling, engaging story, the public understands your science better and relates to the person doing the science too. I believe that is a great way to bridge the gap.

The best part of Engage: there is a science treat for the Seattle public too. This seminar is a preparation for the Engage science speaker series, this year happening at Town Hall from March to June. Attending this class I had the chance to learn about the amazing research of twenty graduate students at UW (you can learn more about them here). After more than two decades in academia, I can say that what I have heard from the students is all-fresh, super-engaging science storytelling. To give you a small sample, I learned how coral reduces the destructive power of Tsunamis in a video game analogy, why we may be loving killer whales to dead, and I saw evolution happening in front of my eyes. There is much more coming to Town Hall, starting on March 5th, please check this calendar and make sure to go to the UW Science Now presentations. You will be glad you did.

PS: Special thanks to Jessica Rohde and Ty Robinson, co-instructors of the seminar for allowing me to attend this amazing class, and to the graduate students for tolerating my presence.

En Seattle, los publicos de la ciencia no se quedan quietos!

Pacific Science Center, Seattle Center, Seattl...
Pacific Science Center, Seattle Center, Seattle, Washington lit up at night. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

La ciencia que no despierta el interés del público corre el riesgo de acabar en los anaqueles olvidados  de la universidad. Para evitar esta suerte hay que publicar y comunicar, sabiendo bien a cual público está dirigida la comunicación. En Seattle hay muchas experiencias de comunicación científica exitosas, pero hoy voy a hablar de dos que me parecen muy interesantes por la manera en que se relacionan con el público. La primera es el portal para el público del “Pacific Science Center” que  baja del podio al científico y lo pone a hablar cara-a-cara con el público, y la segunda es el “Citizen’s Climate Lobby” que le da conocimiento y poder a los ciudadanos para que influencien a sus representantes políticos.

Portal para el público del Pacific Science Center: Esta iniciativa recibió un apoyo inicial de dos millones de dólares de parte de la NSF (Sociedad Nacional de Ciencia de los EEUUAA) en el 2007 para sus primeros tres años de funcionamiento. El objetivo principal es promover una mayor apreciación y entendimiento de la investigación científica actual por medio de interacciones cara-a-cara entre el público general y científicos que explican su investigación y responden preguntas sobre ella.

Como parte de esta iniciativa hay un programa de entrenamiento para científicos interesados en comunicar su investigación fuera del ambiente académico. Estos reciben una semana de entrenamiento intensivo en técnicas para conectar con el público y son certificados como “embajadores de la ciencia”. Como parte del curso los científicos desarrollan una actividad educativa o demostración que les permite explicar parte de su trabajo actual de una manera interactiva. Luego los científicos exponen su trabajo, ya sea interactuando con el público en una mesa de demostración en el museo de ciencia, o en charlas divulgativas abiertas al público general.

El público que generalmente asiste al museo o a la charla es un grupo cuyo mayor interés es la ciencia por sí misma, o lo que yo llamaría “ciudadanos apasionados por la ciencia”. Sin embargo, el público tiene diferentes opciones para ver en el museo y hay muchas diferencias de edades e intereses, así que los científicos deben “sudarla” para atraer y mantener el interés tanto de niños como adultos.  La interacción entre el público y el científico no solamente aumenta el conocimiento y entendimiento público de la ciencia “Made in Seattle”, pero también permite que el científico entienda mejor el tipo de inquietudes, interés y conceptos equivocados que la gente tiene sobre su área de conocimiento. El resultado final es que el público ve al científico como un ser humano apasionado por lo que hace, en lugar de un ser extraño con el que no se puede conectar, y el científico entiende que la simple exposición de resultados por más importantes que sean no logra llegar al público a menos que se pueda primero interesarlos y establecer una conexión humana.

Citizen’s climate lobbyEl objetivo de este grupo es inspirar en los miembros del congreso de EEUUAA para que se conviertan en abanderados de un “clima sostenible” y actúen en legislación que permita frenar el calentamiento global. Este grupo actúa a nivel nacional pero se basa en grupos locales separados por distritos electorales del Congreso de los EEUUAA.

El grupo en Seattle es bastante activo y tiene como objetivo llevar su mensaje a través de los medios de comunicación, servidores públicos electos y comunidades del distrito séptimo del estado de Washington. Los miembros del grupo son bastante heterogéneos, desde científicos con PhD, a estudiantes terminando la escuela secundaria. En Seattle los jubilados constituyen la mayoría de voluntarios. El ambiente es de camaradería y todo el mundo está allí para aprender a usar técnicas de comunicación efectiva para dar argumentos tangibles, respaldados por mediciones científicas, modelos climáticos y  estudios económicos. El financiamiento es donaciones de los propios voluntarios.

Cada mes hay una teleconferencia nacional con un orador invitado, normalmente un científico que trabaja en el área del Clima, y se tiene una sección de preguntas y respuestas. El valor se pone en cuáles son las inquietudes e intereses de los voluntarios.  Al final de la llamada se practican “laser talks” que permiten discutir el tema del mes de manera sucinta durante una conversación con diferentes públicos: la prensa, un senador, el vecino. Este punto es muy importante, porque no sólo se dan las bases científicas sobre el cambio climático, pero se dan herramientas para hablar de manera efectiva sobre un tema que es controversial para parte del público en este país. Luego el grupo transforma ese conocimiento y lo pone en sus propias palabras. Se comparten las experiencias del mes, las cartas al editor publicadas en la prensa local y otras actividades interesantes como conversaciones con miembros del Congreso o charlas públicas. El público en este caso es el motor del cambio. Es el interés y esfuerzo de los voluntarios el que transforma conocimiento científico en acción y contagia a familiares, amigos, vecinos, periodistas y políticos.

* Parte del texto es extraida de mis contribuciones a la clase “Comunicación Social de la Ciencia”de la OEI