Think like a fifth-grader: Communicating complex scientific and engineering concepts

Posted on Jan 23, 2017

On the recent winter solstice, while watching the snow fall from the sky, I was reminded again that most non-scientists have a grade five level understanding of scientific concepts. When I pointed out to my friend how uncanny it was that it was cold and snowing given today the Sun is closest to the Earth, my friend called me crazy. “It’s impossible,” he said.  His argument went something like this, ‘If the Sun is so close to the Earth why is it so cold, shouldn’t it be summer?”

I struggled to explain the earth’s orbit is not a perfect circle. It is elliptical, or slightly oval-shaped, which means there is one point in the orbit where Earth is closest to the Sun. In the northern hemisphere, the Sun is closest to the Earth in the dead of winter. Even after a check in with Google, he still denied the science, so to explain the concept further I had to think like a fifth-grade science teacher.

Scientists and engineers face the same challenge when they present complex scientific ideas to non-science audiences.

I once saw a mining engineer dispel a myth perpetuated by mine opponents that the tailing dam proposed for the project was larger than the Hoover Dam and held back billions of gallons of toxic waste water.

She explained the construction and design of the tailings impoundment facility by pulling out a wooden replica of the V-shaped mountain valley the facility would be constructed in. Then using jars of cyclone white sand he systematically built the tailings management facility, complete with the lined tailings pond in the middle—all while explaining the design and engineering processes at work.

When she finished her demonstration, the audience applauded.  Rather than seeing a concrete Hoover Dam protruding skyward and holding back an ocean of water, they saw a lined tailings pond enclosed by three kilometers of white sand on both sides complete with sloping beaches.

At the end of the meeting when audience members were asked if the engineer’s demonstration had changed their opinion about the safety of the proposed tailings management design, 82 percent of those surveyed agreed they felt safer as a result of the TMF demonstration. Within weeks of this demonstration, the public comparison to the Hoover Dam holding back billions of gallons of toxic water soon disappeared from the discussions about the project.

Understanding your audience and presenting information that meets your audience needs, is the most important tool to ensure that science concepts are understood. Audience analysis is the foundation for all successful communication strategies and scientists and engineers should be the first to realize that baseline research is the key to good design. Now, if I could just convince my friend that the seasons are not a result of the Sun’s proximity to the Earth, rather the tilt of the earth’s axis, I might have a chance of explaining why the Sun is closest to the Earth in the dead of winter.


Robert Simpson

Robert Simpson is the President of PR Associates and our media trainer. He is a former print, television and on-line science journalist, who has worked with over 2,000 engineers, scientists and technical experts to effectively communicate complex concepts to non-science audiences.

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