Getting creative to communicate science

Across Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, students and professors are devising imaginative ways to bring their scientific work to the public.

On a recent Thursday, Ph.D. student Marielle Ong took a break from her math research to bring several oversized cardboard Battleship game boards to West Philadelphia High School. She was there to run math circles—interactive, puzzle-based sessions—with a group of eight students, mostly ninth graders. Instead of calling out a letter and number, the students would need to aim at an opponent’s ship by writing an equation for a line that intersected with the ship’s location. The game was a hit.

(from left to right) Yidi Wang, Yi Wang, Deependra Singh, and Marielle Ong.
Graduate students (from left to right) Yidi Wang, Yi Wang, Deependra Singh, and Marielle Ong. The volunteers helped Ong carry out her vision for the first iteration of the math circles—interactive, puzzle-based sessions—with a group of eight students at West Philadelphia High School. (Image: Courtesy of Marielle Ong for OMNIA)

She’d had the idea for the activity after the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, Penn’s home for civic and community engagement, accepted a proposal for the math circles that she’d submitted in 2022. She’d been interested in finding creative ways to bring her subject to new audiences since the year prior, when she started teaching math to incarcerated people through a program run by Mona Merling, an assistant professor in the School of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Mathematics.

Though Ong knows that not everyone will become a mathematician, she believes everyone can benefit from learning to think like a mathematician: approaching problems creatively, testing out multiple solutions, persevering through struggle. “There’s no such thing as not being a math person,” she says. “I want people to be able to realize their potential in problem solving. With enough time and effort, you can do this.”

The Battleship game that Ong created is one of many innovative science and math communication efforts from SAS students and professors, who are drawing comics, creating games, writing articles, and more to move their specialties out of the university and into new communities.

PennNeuroKnow, a blog created and run by students in the Neuroscience Graduate Group, is putting that idea into practice. Aimed at “breaking the brain down for everyone to understand,” the blog features weekly articles written by a rotating group of 17 contributors who choose topics ranging from explaining their own research or neuroscience in the news to debunking popular brain myths. A recent article, for example, refuted the popular idea that video games are inherently bad for children’s brains by discussing a study showing that some games can improve children’s cognition.

Many grad students have experience with public-facing events that involve explaining or demonstrating a physics concept. But that type of communication relies on what’s known as the information-deficit model: that people who don’t understand something simply need more information. The PennNeuroKnow editors ensure that anyone at an eighth-grade reading level can understand every piece they write and term they use.

This story is by Laura Dattaro. Read more at OMNIA.