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Making Sense of Science

  • Smitha Raghunathan

Holly Morris and Randy Atkins are the two winners of this year's IEEE USA Journalism Award.

Holly Morris and Randy Atkins are the two winners of this year's IEEE USA Journalism Award.

Science journalism is increasingly important in technology-driven world

Engineered devices are all around us.

From cell phones and computers to hybrid cars and deep-water oil platforms, advances in engineering are profoundly changing our lives. But concerns are growing that public understanding of how these technologies work - and how they impact our society and the environment - is not keeping pace.

To help bridge this knowledge gap, the engineering community is increasingly turning to science journalism.

Recognizing engineering in the news

Only 1 in every 800 people in the United State is a professional engineer. That leaves many Americans without the technical knowledge, or vocabulary, to make sense of today's complex, technology-driven world.

But science journalists - some armed with advanced scientific degrees of their own - are helping to translate those complex stories into terms lay audiences can understand. Scientific organizations are welcoming this effort. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers recently created the IEEE USA Journalism award to honor the work of science journalists.

Nita Patel, the institute's vice president of communications and public awareness, says the award was created to promote engineering and science writing so the public can learn how their lives are impacted by technology.

Engineering on the radio

Randy Atkins of the National Academy of Engineering was one of this year's winners.

He was recognized for his weekly Engineering Innovation podcast, which adds technical context to issues in the news, such as the safety features on the space shuttle.

His minute-long reports air during rush hour, providing commuters with a quick look into what is going on in the fields of engineering. Atkins says journalists these days don't try hard enough to convey the important issues behind the news of the day.

"There is engineering - I believe - behind almost every news story. The audience is intelligent and I think they would crave this information if journalists would just take the time to give it to them."

Scientists of tomorrow

The other winner of this year's IEEE USA Journalism Award is Holly Morris of Fox News DC, a local TV station in the nation's capital.

During the morning newscast, Morris covers events in the community, and IEEE recognized her for her report on the 2009 National Engineers Week Future City Competition.

The contest challenges middle school students to design the cities of tomorrow, addressing engineering issues like energy generation, water treatment and infrastructure to ease emergency response. Morris - who has a degree in civil and environmental engineering - says projects like this can inspire kids to pursue careers in engineering, and also help create a dialogue that may one day lead to important advances.

"It's the good old fashioned concept of brainstorming. I want to listen to what you have to say because what you have to say might then be the catalyst to help me come up with something that is gonna eventually be the answer."

Explaining the engineering behind oil drilling

As new technologies are put to use in so many areas, the need for this type of journalism is especially important, according to Wilson Lowrey, a University of Alabama journalism professor.

The lead author of a recent study of media communications during disasters, Lowrey stresses the importance of explaining the inherent complexities of today's technologies to the general public, an especially relevant topic with the oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico

"For example, in the situation with the Gulf, [if we were to say] 'Well, BP did the wrong thing. That's a bad company. They made bad decisions.' If that's the lesson learned - and maybe I'm opinionating here - but I think that's the wrong direction to go. I think we also, at least, need to look at the question of well, what about our energy policy? Should we be drilling to the bottom of the ocean at all?"

These are the types of questions that the IEEE USA Journalism award-winners are asking - while educating the public on the technological capabilities and exploring the limitations of our scientific community.

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