Why I want to help scientists tell their stories better

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“Can girls do that too and stuff?” my daughter Rose asked me, for the second time.

We were both glued to the live YouTube feed of Felix Baumgartner’s awe-inspiring freefall jump from the edge of space, even as we were visiting Seattle’s Museum of Flight (which curiously, wasn’t screening the historic event anywhere).

My four year-old had asked this same question for the first time, twenty minutes earlier when she glimpsed a shot of the Red Bull-branded Mission Control in New Mexico . Happily, I was able to point out two women working among the group of about 20.

I’m not a scientist, engineer, or mathematician — my dad and brother are. Yet (1) I direct a graduate program that has a strong technology focus, so this somewhat qualifies me for supporting STEM (the movement to bolster K-20 education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math); (2) I’m a father who has a vested interest in the success of his kids, and especially wants his daughter not to be streamed away from interest in STEM. Hence our annual family membership at the Woodland Park Zoo, the Seattle Aquarium and the Museum of Flight.

It’s also my primary reason for serving on the Pacific Science Center’s Board of Directors. I was asked to do so in 2010 because the Board thought I could bring my storytelling focus to a field that badly needed to recapture the public’s imagination. The Science Center after all, was founded fifty years ago this year, at the height of interest in the Space Age and the New Frontier. Today, science seems to be under siege, from the dismal performance of our grade school students in Washington state, to policy makers’ inability to take on the very real threat of climate change (and among some who actually serve on the congressional science advisory committee and believe that the earth is 9,000 years old).

So I will do my utmost, for the wellbeing of my family (we ended up later in the day at the Science Center, and watched the IMAX movie “To the Arctic” for the third time), and of my community. It’s why I’m hosting a Washington STEM Business Breakfast on November 14th with Zoran Popovic, Director of Game Science at our university (RSVP for free if you’re in the region):

The intersection of engagement, mastery, and imagination is the wave of the future for education. Please join us for a discussion of how innovative learning techniques developed at the UW have already made an impact on early-math education, and produced world-class experts and scientific discoveries in less than two years. Find out how these techniques are being integrated into tomorrow’s STEM education as Zoran and Hanson share their knowledge on “The Crossroads of Engagement and Mastery in STEM Education.”

You can watch the Four Peaks show that I hosted on the future of higher education, which features Zoran and Ruby Love from Washington STEM here:

So that’s what I do. But I also believe that Felix Baumgartner and yes, Red Bull, served the same mission with the awe-inspiring story of courage and innovation that we witnessed live on our smartphone one Sunday afternoon (“days of miracle and wonder” indeed, Paul Simon). And they did it in a very Storyteller Uprising manner, creating superb content that people, and my daughter, wanted to connect to, as Forbes so aptly pointed out:

Baumgartner’s jump was the perfect thing to puncture that thick morass of messaging. It’s a real, tangible thing that’s exciting in a way an advertisement could never be. Red Bull could easily have spent that same money buying ads on the biggest social networks, but instead it just did something interesting enough that people spread the message for them. It may have been a stunt, but it was real, and that kind of tangibility is valuable in the digital age.

We’re seeing now that the simplest of social media campaigns – things like putting ads on Facebook or promoting tweets on Twitter – aren’t nearly as powerful as we might have once guessed. That doesn’t mean social media isn’t a powerful tool. Baumgartner’s jump was that perfect social media campaign because it didn’t go through the networks themselves, but through the people on the networks – Red Bull just did something that people wanted to talk about, and they used viral channels to do so.