[Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer, vice-director of CienciaPR. It is part of Communication Breakdown’s occasional series of posts about improving science communication for Spanish-speaking audiences in the U.S. and elsewhere. The post is available en Español here.]
Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone. — Albert Einstein
Science communication strives to increase the understanding of science by making it exciting, inspiring and relatable. One way to achieve this is by speaking to the audience in the language they are most comfortable with and using examples from their own culture and context. Thus, when it comes to effectively communicating science, language matters.
In the United States, 16% of the population is Hispanic and 12.8% of the population over 5 years old speaks español at home. In fact, in the U.S., Spanish is the leading language spoken at home other than English. Those Spanish speakers are from a wide range of nationalities, ethnicities and cultures but are brought together by language, making Spanish an important vehicle to reach a growing segment of the U.S. population. Given the increasing political, economic, cultural and social importance of Hispanics in the U.S., it is imperative for the science communication community to reach out to this demographic, early and effectively.
There are, however, several challenges to achieving this. As Luis Quevedo pointed out in a recent interview with Communication Breakdown, there is a lack of contextualized and culturally-relevant Spanish-language science content available. Few media outlets consistently publish science content in Spanish—and most of these only publish direct translations from English sources. Also, there are few Hispanic role models communicating science. This is problematic in several ways. In communication, language is one, but not the only, aspect. Implicit in the message are other components, such as context, culture and identity. When science is brought to you by someone who shares your background, speaks your language or looks like you, it becomes relevant beyond content.
A shortage of Hispanic science communicators not only leads to a shortage of Spanish-language science content, but it conveys the image that science is not done by Hispanics. It implies that science and technology do not belong to our communities. It affects how our future generations perceive and identify with scientific careers, and at a more fundamental level, how they develop the scientific knowledge and skills they will need to thrive in an increasingly technological world. Hispanics suffer a disproportionate burden of disease in the U.S. We continue to be underrepresented in science and engineering at every stage of the training pipeline. The lack of Hispanics communicating science only contributes to these issues.
Hispanic scientists can and should play a key role in explaining the meaning and importance of science and technology to the public, particularly their communities of origin. Not only can we explain complex scientific concepts in a culturally relevant manner, but we can also illustrate who scientists are and dispel misconceptions and stereotypes. So, why are there so few Hispanics communicating science in Spanish to their communities? Unfortunately, in addition to being underrepresented minorities, Hispanic scientists (and science communicators) are geographically dispersed throughout the U.S., often far from their home communities. Many times, scientists don’t have access to mass media channels or don’t have the training to effectively engage broad audiences.
How can we bring together Spanish-speaking scientists and harness their knowledge to share it with the masses? Social networking tools hold promise for ‘connecting’ geographically dispersed groups, and represent an innovative approach to bring together Spanish-speaking scientists and harness their knowledge to share it with the masses. One successful example of how social networking platforms can be used to address the lack of Spanish-language science content and Hispanic role models in science communication is the work the grassroots non-profit organization Ciencia Puerto Rico has done (full disclosure: I am the organization’s vice-director). Started by a group of scientists in 2006, Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR) brings together fellow scientists (and other individuals) with ties to Puerto Rico, for educational and research collaborations.
Our website is designed to allow the self-identification and interaction of members of a geographically dispersed community—a task that without social networking tools would otherwise be difficult and costly to achieve; to foster mentoring interactions among Hispanics at different stages of their scientific careers; to highlight the work of Spanish-speaking scientists; and to increase scientific literacy and appreciation among Hispanics, particularly, but not exclusively, those of Puerto Rican descent. In just seven years, the community has grown to more than 6,300 members and facilitated the creation of initiatives to develop scientific careers and improve science education in classrooms and among the general public in Puerto Rico, Latin America and Hispanic communities in the U.S.
As part of our mission of promoting awareness, understanding, and appreciation of science, Ciencia Puerto Rico has established several collaborations with newspapers, radios stations, and scientific communication blogs in Puerto Rico, the United States and abroad. Through these established media partnerships, scientists who are members of the CienciaPR community contribute news content for the Spanish-speaking public around the world. Their contributions are curated and edited by a team of expert science communicators who act as volunteer-editors, providing guidance on how to best present and contextualize stories, and assuring that articles meet publication guidelines. Member-contributed science news items are also distributed as podcasts through CienciaPR’s website and iTunes, and are broadcast through radio stations locally. To date, CienciaPR has published 374 articles and 206 podcasts with its media partners, all of them authored by scientists.
By leveraging the knowledge and expertise of its scientific community to create news content, CienciaPR not only helps make science meaningful and relatable to Spanish-speaking audiences, but also provides visibility to Puerto Rican and Hispanic scientific role models. In addition to the news articles published through media partnerships, our website features monthly online profiles highlighting the life and work of remarkable scientists among CienciaPR’s members. These stories not only showcase the accomplishments, but also the challenges faced by these scientists, their drive to succeed, and their interest in giving back to their communities.
The success of our media partnerships has served as a launching pad for other science education initiatives. Our news articles, podcasts and scientist profiles are used by teachers in Puerto Rico as a tool to make science meaningful and relatable for K-12 students in classrooms around the archipelago. In 2011, we published ¡Ciencia Boricua! Ensayos y anécdotas del científico puertorro, an anthology of multidisciplinary science essays that illustrate scientific concepts using examples from the Puerto Rican culture and landscape, and that showcase research performed in Puerto Rico or by Puerto Ricans. The book was the result of an open call to the CienciaPR community to generate a collection of easy-to-understand short essays about science for the general public. Twenty-three Puerto Rican scientists contributed 61 essays, making it the first crowd-sourced book of its kind in Puerto Rico. ¡Ciencia Boricua! is also being used by Puerto Rican teachers in classrooms to contextualize the science curriculum, and was the centerpiece of a 2012 pilot project seeking to increase Puerto Rican elementary and middle school students’ general interest in science, and in particular, their appreciation for Puerto Rican science.
CienciaPR’s multiple science communication efforts give scientists the opportunity to share their knowledge with broader audiences, while serving as role models. The publication of scientist-authored pieces not only educates audiences about the relevance of science to their lives, but also helps demystify the perception that science is abstract and far removed from their reality.
Although most of CienciaPR’s work centers around Puerto Rico, through collaborations with international media, our initiatives are having an impact on Spanish-speaking communities outside of Puerto Rico as well. We believe our efforts could have further impact by serving as a model to other communities that are similarly dispersed or underrepresented in science. By using networking platforms to encourage user participation and the exchange of ideas; by enabling and facilitating the creation of scientist-driven content; and by focusing on showcasing role models and communicating cultural and contextual relevance, we can help democratize knowledge and increase public understanding of science, en español or in any language.
Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer is the volunteer vice-director and news editor-in-chief of Ciencia Puerto Rico. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @moefeliu.