What We Talk About When We Talk About Engaging



Cartoon by Carole Levy, commissioned by Andy Hoffman, on redefining academic success to include “stepping out of the ivory tower” to inform important national discussions on topics like climate change and GMOs.

In mid May I had the good fortune to attend a three-day meeting at the University of Michigan that was co-organized by Leopold Leadership Fellow Andy Hoffman on “academic engagement in public and political discourse”. My interest was piqued by an article that Andy circulated in early February (“Isolated Scholars: Making Bricks, Not Shaping Policy”). I’m very glad that I went. Other Leopold Leadership Fellows present were Joe Arvai, David Hart, and Dawn Wright. I think that what transpired at the meeting validates what many of us are doing in a very powerful way, and so I wanted to share some of what I learned and heard.

You might be interested in several articles that highlight various meeting discussion threads: “Presidents Agree Engagement Is Part of Academics’ Obligation to Society,” “What to Expect When You’re Engaging: Tips for Academic Outreach,” “American Universities: Reclaiming Our Role in Society,” and “Can We Talk?”

Below are some of the key points that resonated with me from presentations, panelists and discussions that I tweeted about. I’ve added italicized notes in brackets to help clarify the context of the character-limited tweet. If you’re interested in reading more tweets, all that were tweeted during the meeting can be found on Twitter at #AcadEng. At the end of this post, you’ll find a meeting summary.


  • Engagement is boundary work- a messy space. Need to put thought into how to navigate it. Think about our own personal values sets. [Our value sets inform who we think is credible, e.g., Carl Sagan vs. Dr. Oz. Need to grapple with how we work with each other in terms of being civil and supportive. Need to have stronger collaborative projects with natural and social scientists.]
  • via Susan Collins: should consider working collaboratively in the public/political engagement space rather than being competitive
  • via @DavidScobey need to shift away from intellectual hierarchy @ universities & create an inclusive intellectually generous faculty [“Participate more in inter-institutional and consortial institutions, e.g., Imaging America, and leverage faculty change to undo intellectual hierarchy” David Scobey]
  • RT via @NeilLewisJr “The problem is not the audience, the problem is us.”
  • via @DavidScobey participatory engagement: think abt how to work w/ people w/whom we share a common fate but not common experiences
  • How to broaden diversity of who we’re engaging with? via @RogerPielkeJr Need to be willing to go against the grain of what’s easy [“Engagement is highly politicized and hence polarized- need to not run from the polarization but rather learn how to be at the boundary” Dietram Scheufele. “The goal of politics is not to get everyone to think alike, the goal of politics is to get people who think differently to act alike to get those with differing opinions to know that shared action is possible” Roger Pielke.]
  • via @RogerPielkeJr: Be clear abt your goal for engagement shouldn’t do it to impose our view on others but rather to open up the discussion […to learn more and create a collective vision]
  • via @Nancy Baron: To effectively engage, show your passion- not only the what/how but also the WHY. People will pay attention [‘Those that show their passion are actually the most effective at engagement. “Tell a story, stories are data with a soul” Nancy Baron]
  • via Jane Lubchenco ‘scientists must be bilingual’- to be able to both speak to scientists and to translate this info to the general public [Academic engagement “requires a 2-way communication with society- with transparency and humility” Jane Lubchenco]
  • via H. Pollack: you’ve got to have content, & to coin #LeopoldLP lessons learned, “you’ve got to know thy stuff!” [“Evaluate where you are (wrt engagement) and pivot. Don’t engage with the bad experiences. Cut your losses and move on” and put your energy into engaging with positive experiences. Henry Pollack]

And, last but not least as tweeted by Dawn Wright:

  • via @deepseadawn As one of the peeps in the @LeopoldLP & @COMPASSonline universe, I am SO PROUD of @HoffmanAndy! #AcadEng

Meeting Summary

There were 2 keynotes, one to kick off the meeting, by Jane Lubchenco (Oregon State & Former NOAA Administrator) and the other to close it, by Richard Alley (Penn State). The rest of the time was devoted to a series of panel discussions and breakouts organized with the goal of stimulating a dialogue on specific issues related to academics and public/political engagement, some of which were:

  • Why should academics engage in public & political discourse?
  • What do we mean by public and political engagement?
  • How do we practice public and political engagement?
    • What are some guidelines?
    • How does one pursue an academic career that includes public and political engagement
    • What should be the role of academics in public/political discourse?
  • What are the obstacles for academics with public and political engagement?

The organizational structure and the intentional diversity of career tracks, academic disciplines, and career stages of attendees set the stage for some really interesting and stimulating discussions. Most attendees were from academia but there was also very good representation from boundary organizations, the media and some from the private sector. For those from academia, 43 different disciplines were represented spanning the physical and social sciences, humanities, and professions. Attendees came from the University of Michigan as well as from several colleges and universities from around the country and Canada. Impressive too was that that almost 30% of the academic attendees were PhD students: these are the people who represent the future of academia and so are critical to the dialogue.

A big thanks to Andy Hoffman, Andrew Maynard and the other Michigan Meeting Steering Committee members and organizers for helping to put this all together and for getting such a broad collective of academic wheels turning. A job very well done!!

Summary slide presented by Richard Alley in his MI Meeting keynote presentation ‘Good, Bad and Maybe:  Communicating Scientific Near-Certainties and Deep-Uncertainties to a Non-Scientific Audience’. His presentation exemplified how not only to engage with non-scientists but with scientists and other academics as well.   A very positive keynote- there’s hope!

Summary slide from Richard Alley’s keynote presentation,”‘Good, Bad and Maybe: Communicating Scientific Near-Certainties and Deep-Uncertainties to a Non-Scientific Audience”.

Jennifer Cherrier is an Associate Professor in the School of Environment at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University. In August 2015 she will become an Associate Professor in the Earth & Environmental Sciences Department at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.

Leopold Leadership Core Training Translated and Magnified

Participants in the NOAA/FAMU Environmental Cooperative Science Center came from 5 academic institutions and diverse backgrounds (BS, MS, JD, and PhD). Jennifer Cherrier (2013) with student cohort and postdocs.

Participants in the NOAA/FAMU Environmental Cooperative Science Center came from 5 academic institutions and diverse backgrounds (BS, MS, JD, and PhD). Jennifer Cherrier (2013, center) with student cohort and postdocs.

“The brainstorming exercises were great! I will be using these again.” • “This group project was very much like a real-world stakeholder process.” • “At first I wasn’t sure about the pitch & post and other activities, but once we got to doing them, they were very useful.  Especially for team building.” • “Great team building exercise.  [The] Message Box was the best way of organizing our thoughts.” • “The PMI was my fav thing!” • “This [activity] helped the group stay organized and in sync. Also helped us to communicate, brainstorm together and gel as a group.” • “Loved the Wednesday night ‘mood setting’ activities! 

This is just a sampling of the comments I received from upper-division undergraduate and grad students about the problem-based learning (PBL) portion of a multi-institutional short course I oversaw in August in the Florida Panhandle. And luckily, the timing for the rollout of the course allowed me to capitalize on my Leopold Leadership Fellowship core training and magnify its positive impacts: a truly amazing and gratifying experience. Feeling the fully energized communal mood of these students reminded me of the very same powerful sentiment shared by the 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellows during our training in June.

The opportunity: Our diverse group’s need to translate knowledge to action

The short course I oversaw, “Multidisciplinary Techniques in Marine Science & Policy,” was offered to support student training efforts for the Environmental Cooperative Science Center (ECSC), a multi-institutional collaboration led by my home institution, Florida A&M University, and funded by NOAA. The mission of the ECSC is to educate and train a new generation of ocean scientists, particularly from under-represented minorities, and to produce research products that support coastal resource stewardship and management. The ECSC promotes coastal resource sustainability by bringing together faculty and student researchers from diverse academic backgrounds (i.e., natural, applied, and socioeconomic sciences, as well as policy and law) with the collective goal of finding ways to balance societal demands on coastal system resources with coastal ecosystem health and resilience. The purpose of the intensive, 5-day short course was to provide students with an overview of the ECSC’s multi-disciplinary approach for carrying out research and informing coastal resource management to achieve the balance between resource use and ecosystem health.

Course design: Adapting Leopold Leadership tools

The first 3 days of the short course were dedicated to mini hands-on lecture/lab/field training sessions where students learned practices and techniques used in ecosystem assessments and valuation and participated in simulations that explored policymaking paradigms. The last 2 days of the course culminated with students working in teams on a role play problem-based learning (PBL) activity that focused on the impacts of land use practice on coastal ecosystem and socioeconomic health. This last activity challenged students to pull together everything they learned during the first part of the course and hone their collaboration and communication skills. I applied techniques learned during my Leopold Leadership training primarily during this final PBL activity.

For the PBL activity, students were broken into teams and each team was assigned a particular stakeholder point of view (i.e., government, developer, fishing industry, or environmental advocacy — see below) regarding whether plans for a controversial coastal development project in the Florida Panhandle, “SummerCamp,” should proceed. The task for each student stakeholder group was to develop and present a compelling “pitch” to the other groups during a “town hall” event.  After the final town hall pitches, the stakeholder groups engaged in discussions with the goal of finding an amicable agreement about a balanced, sustainable path forward for the coastal development project.

The night before the students were to begin work on their group projects, I introduced them to the Message Box

message box

and walked them through a couple of warm-up activities to help lighten the mood and get them into a more creative space.  One of the warm-up activities was a gentle, bastardized version of Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument to help students see the strengths of their team members’ thinking styles and appreciate how their own thinking style might appear to others. The second activity was a destination postcard visualization/drawing exercise to help students imagine the best outcome their stakeholder point of view could produce for the land development project.

destination postcard 1

Destination postcard

Their homework for that evening was to prepare a Message Box for their point of view for the coastal land development project.

The next day I had students do an iterative series of Plus/Minus/Interesting, shown here…

Students working on "Plus/Minus/Interesting" analysis

Working on “Plus/Minus/Interesting” analysis


orig PMI actually subsequent to a PMI

…and here.





They also used Other Point of View and Pitch and Post

Pitched and posted!

Pitched and posted!

to guide them in developing a group Message Box for their “town hall” pitch on the final day of the course. Throughout the process I continually reminded students to be cognizant of their communication style, think about their audience, and avoid using jargon (advice from COMPASS in my Leopold Leadership training).

Results: Engagement!

Working on message box for final pitch

Working on message box for final pitch

The students worked extremely hard on this PBL activity. They were completely committed to the process and were genuinely interested in honing their collaboration and communication skills. All their hard work paid off, and what’s more, they had a lot of fun doing it! They did an outstanding job with their final pitches and town hall meeting discussions (they did come to a well-informed, amicable path forward) and it was great to see how effectively they integrated what they learned during the hands-on mini lecture/lab/field training sessions. They understood the necessity of “knowing thy stuff.”

Their evaluation of the PBL activity was very positive. The consensus was that the action of stepping outside of their own personal point of view and into that of the stakeholder, combined with  the town hall simulation exercise, gave them a greater appreciation for what it takes, and for the skills needed to move people (all groups) toward sustainable practices. I found the whole process of working with the students on this activity to be unexpectedly organic, seamless, and incredibly satisfying.  The experience really hit home the power and effectiveness of the techniques we learned during that arduous but lovely and magical Leopold Leadership training week at Wingspread. The Leopold training has certainly created a shift in my approach to teaching, and if the positive outcome of the ECSC short course is any indication of how it can speak to future academic and non-academic audiences, I fully expect the impact of the Leopold training to expand exponentially.

Big thanks to the ECSC faculty, post docs, and staff who helped put this course together — it took a village. And thanks to the Leopold Leadership Program for helping to shape the path and grow the rider!


Jennifer Cherrier is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment at Florida A&M University and a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow. Follow her on Twitter.