Plant the seeds of curiosity: Dispatch from Sci Comm Camp 2017

atI had the pleasure of attending Sci Comm Camp for a 2nd year. It made me think about communicating science generally, but also how to better relate plant science specifically.

Sci Comm Camp location. Photo: Ian Street

Amongst the sweet smell of false pepper trees (Schinus molle, Anacardiaceae) and stands of white bark-shedding eucalyptus trees (Eucalyptus sp., Myrtaceae), 80 or so science communicators gathered for the 3rd Sci Comm Camp in California’s Simi Valley. Organizers Sarah Keartes, Jason Goldman, and Cara Santa Maria greeted everyone on the opening day to open the workshops and sessions on better communicating science and to make new connections with fellow science communicators. Something that more critical than ever.

The California Pepper trees of Peppertree Lane. Photo: Ian Street


Being in a communications role is not an easy task. Producing communication is hard enough. Producing communication efforts that connect with defined audiences may be even harder. Putting work attempting to communicate science out into the world is also a vulnerable position to be in. It requires a goal, creativity, execution, sharing, collaborating, assessment, and above all, a compelling story with a compelling storyteller to that audience (& audiences are diverse!).

Plant Stories

The shadow of plants at Sci Comm Camp. Photo: Ian Street

Botanical stories might be particuarly hard to communicate. Plants are often the unacknowledeged, but critically important denizens of the Earth. Humans exist because of them, not the other way around (yes, there are also some plants that couldn’t exist without people, a lot of our cultivated crops, for instance). However, plants don’t communicate in the same way humans do. They tell stories, but it requires curious humans to uncover and tell them.

One of the few flowers blooming at Sci Comm Camp. Photo: Ian Street

And yet. The false pepper trees on Peppertree Lane in Sci Comm Camp were imported to California at some point. Someone cared enough to spread them from their native South America for their look, fragrance, and fruit. The plants were meant to say something about their shippers, growers, importers, and farmers. They are the indicator of a story we may never fully know.

The grounds of Sci Comm Camp were the  American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus, the largest piece of Jewish owned land outside the State of Israel. It was bought because of it’s resemblance to Israel. Plants were also chosen to populate it that reminded the founders of the area of their home. Plants define us, our cultures. Still there are more plants that have seen human feet in their midst and go unnoticed. These have stories that only scientists and researchers may ever bring to light.

Above the Grounds of Sci Comm Camp. Photo: Ian Street

Cultivating Curiosity and Critical Thinking

Emily Calindrelli just before  her talk. Photo: Ian Street

Emily Calindrelli (@TheSpaceGal) gave the keynote address with the theme of allowing audiences’ critical thinking to occur. It is like planting a seed that will eventually germinate. As I’m sure seedbank workers would say, some seeds are easy to plant and germinate, others harder. Each seedling of a difficult plant that establishes itself and matures is truly remarkable. It is similar with getting scientific inquiry and curiosity to grow in audiences. Some ideas will be difficult and can be easy to snuff out before they take root. Seeds can also hang out for years in the soil unti things are right for it to grow. A science communicator can be effective in planting seeds or provide conditions for an already planted seed to grow.

Calindrelli grew up in West Virginia, where the remains of ~300 million year old dead plants and algae are excavated for energy in the form of coal. It’s solar-power generated carbon sequestered undgerground after millions of years.

A science communicator can be effective in planting seeds or in providing conditions for an already planted seed to grow.

Like plants defining human cultures today, they defined life in the Carboniferous-period too. Coal is a core part of West Virginia’s identity and largely due to economic forces, the industry is dying. This is obviously hard on those for whom coal has been a way of life for generations. The new jobs in energy aren’t in West Virginia (though the possibility exists that they may one day be– but that is likely years off). Perhaps unsurprisingly, climate change dismissal is common and the reality that coal is a major contributor to it is a hard story to sell when livlihoods depend on coal mining continuing. There have to be viable alternatives and hopeful solutions.

Science doesn’t guarantee the answers we want to hear. It just gives us a window into how nature works. Adding carbon from 300 million years ago back into Earth’s atmosphere affects the entire planet now. Re-digging up those plants that built themselves and fuelled food webs  from atmospheric carbon dioxide and sunlight contributes to the greenhouse effect.

The stars above Sci Comm Camp during the observation party sponsored by Celestron. Photo: Ian Street

Calindrelli related the impossibility of communicating science if you first dismiss and look down on a climate change dismisser’s views without trying to understand how they came to them. It makes planting that seed that might later grow impossible. It makes spreading of critcal thought or curiosity in their mind more difficult. And we want to spread curiosity and critical thinking.

Getting Stories Through

Sci Comm Campers evade an oncoming T-rex. Photo: Ian Street

300 million-year-old dead plants are remote. The Earth would likely not have been able to support humans then (at least not our modern lives). We rely on flowering plants more than most might be aware. Those false pepper trees and Eucaplyptus, and shrubs defined a place for people. The Barden-Brandeis Campus has a gully alongside the road where Steven Spielberg filmed the T-rex chase scene in Jurassic Park. Fowering plants were relatively new in the late Cretaceous period when T-rex roamed the Earth. Jurassic Park brought dinosaurs back to life for people with the power of story-telling and opened up curiosity about just what science does know about T-rex and other dinosaurs. It started curiosity and didn’t shut it down. It began with a story.

A large Eucalyptus tree at Sci Comm Camp. Photo: Ian Sreet

Calindrelli noted that cultivating curiosity requires building trust, finding common ground on something (e.g. being West Virginian), admit what we don’t know, and otherwise not being a jerk. Even if it is hard or tempting to be so at times. It’s a long game to grow a plant as it is in planting curiosity. New ideas need a fertile and open mind to grow. Some ideas might spread like weeds, or become a superbloom of science in someone’s mind. It might also take years of dormancy and then germinate when conditions are right.

Perhaps plants are even more useful than we give them credit for – it’s more than just the material good we derive from them. Using them as metaphors, and in our languages is common. One more way plants define us and show how they tell stories.

Calindrelli mentioned the book Made to Stick, a book about how to make ideas memorable and get them to spread. Making ideas simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and stories are all features that make them take off. The messenger is key as well. Some storytellers have more credibility in communities than others, and that has to be taken into account – perhaps you are not the person to tell a story that will resonate.

A tiny tree seedling attempting to grow in the shadow of fully grown Eucalyptus tree. Photo: Ian Street

The themes Calindrelli covered were repeated throughout Sci Comm Camp weekend in various workshops, conversations, and books mentioned. The world of science is huge and it is absolutely worth working as a group to communicate it as well as possible. The polar bears, plants, melting glaciers, and other strong indicators of the changing state of the planet we call home – the modern versions of canaries in the coal mine used to keep people alive and thriving – rely on instilling critical thinking, curiosity, and the stories of science in everyone possible.

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