At AAAS Meeting, Scientist Works All the Crowds

I kept hearing the buzz around “science outreach” during the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). For the public to see why research is important and what we’ve learned from it, scientists need to leave their labs—or invite people in—and show them what researchers do.

So what does science outreach look like? It could be researchers engaging with the public via Twitter or doing an Ask Me Anything (AMA) on Reddit. We’d love it if every brain scientist took part in Brain Awareness Week, coming up in just three weeks. And at AAAS itself, I saw a great in-person example of outreach.

Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester investigates the possible effects that playing videogames have on the brain. I’ve seen her speak at other conferences as well as online in a TEDx talk. So far—much more research is needed—she and others in the field have found some positive effects in areas of visual acuity, mental rotation, and attention. [See also a review paper in Neuron].

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Saturday morning at the conference, she spoke during a conference symposium on the topic to approximately 275 people, a good dozen of whom had to sit on the floor in the back. Despite the crowd, the room was quiet, and hers was the only voice during her talk.

She described designing game-style training for adults with amblyopia (“lazy eye”). “A gaming situation can successfully help retrain the eye,” she said, with the caveat that the visuals need to be very closely calibrated to each patient. Her advice for the research crowd: “Don’t believe your gut instinct”: Go into the lab and figure it out. Who knew action-shooter games had any benefit until researchers found some? And their work has only touched a few aspects of certain games.

She spoke on the same topic during Family Science Days, a two-day science-fair party open to the public with exhibits and a roster of speakers. Like the symposium, the place was packed, but unlike the symposium, the science fair corner of the exhibit hall was raucous. In the curtained-off space where she was presenting, though, the standing-room only crowd was rapt. Well, at least for the first 10 minutes of a 15-minute talk; the lure of the other science fun at the many booths may have been too enticing for some to sit longer.

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Many of the slides she presented were the same as in the morning, as was the way she stepped through the researchers’ process and what they discovered, but the words were different. “How many of you kids have glasses or lenses?” she said. “Another way to improve vision is to play video games.” She also took advantage of location to give a physical example of how people can filter signal from noise: “Right now you have to listen to me in a room with a lot of chatter.”

Her advice for the kids in the crowd: “We don’t know all the examples [of games’ benefits and hindrances to the brain]. This is a call for action, guys. You need to learn in school so you can become scientists and then discover what video games do to the brain.”

She also gave tailored advice to parents: “When your kids wave my paper in your face saying, ‘Daphne says I can binge [on playing games],’ you say, ‘Go and read the methods section [of the paper].’” The gamers in her study played no more than 45 minutes a day, five days a week, for 12 weeks.

Questions were similar at both venues: What about bad effects? Are there studies of children with dyslexia? Are there social effects? One difference: A boy at family days asked, “What is a ‘controlled videogame?’ I play a lot of games but I never heard of that one.”

“That is scientific jargon,” Bavelier said. “You caught me.” Control, like function, theory, and many other words, has different first definitions for scientists and for non-scientists. She explained what experimental ‘control’ can mean to scientists (setting up an experiment to minimize the effects of variables other than the single independent variable you’re manipulating and looking at) and he was satisfied.

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After her talk, Bavelier hung out at the “Meet a Scientist” table, fielding questions from kids and parents for another half-hour. A line formed, and the questioners were focused and intent.

Not a bad bit of outreach in the space of four hours.

–Nicky Penttila

Want to learn more about communicating science? AAAS has posted webcasts of the three sessions in its 2014 Annual Meeting Communicating Science Seminar.

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