Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Equipping Smithsonian volunteers to tackle challenging conversations

Watching a Deep Time video

Let’s try an exercise. Close your eyes and imagine your worst-case scenario describing evolution or climate change. It could involve an interaction with a student while teaching, a community member while doing public engagement, or even a family member while sitting at the dinner table. As you’re putting yourself mentally in this situation, what is your visceral reaction? Are your palms sweating, are you getting flushed, or has your pulse started to race? Have you forgotten everything about science that you are sure you knew five minutes ago, or has your mind cleared, ready to overcome whatever challenges await?

I always start with this exercise when I lead workshops on difficult conversations involving evolution and climate change, as I did this summer for 100 volunteer docents at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. NCSE has been partnering with the Smithsonian to provide training for several years on our no-conflict approach.

With the opening of the new Deep Time exhibit, which tackles both evolution and anthropogenic climate change in a hands-on fashion, I wanted to make sure the Smithsonian’s volunteers had the tools to handle even the most challenging interactions. The opening exercise accomplishes two things. First, while the potential for negative interactions is a looming specter that makes volunteers hesitant to do evolution and climate change outreach, allowing them to describe a worst-case scenario helps them understand that their abstract fears entail problems that are actually solvable. Second, it’s important to recognize that we are not objective observers in our interactions with visitors. Recognizing our own tendencies during these interactions is an important part of preparing a confident response as it helps volunteers recognize the complex human emotions that they share with the visitors. 


A crowd at the Deep Time exhibit

The Smithsonian volunteers knew that the Deep Time exhibit was likely to present many opportunities for these conversations. The exhibit represents a departure from the traditional walk-through-time museum display, as it connects both humans and anthropogenic climate change throughout deep time. This is true even for eras well before humans: the section on the Carboniferous invites visitors to think about coal and natural resources. Throughout, the exhibit explains changing, complex environmental systems by focusing on the role of humans in that process. The messaging is clear: while ecosystems have changed throughout time, humans are changing their environment at an unprecedented rate. The exhibit does not shy away from the negative consequences, but ultimately ends on a positive note, encouraging collective action on climate change and emphasizing human unity.

Shared humanity is also a recurring theme of the training I do with volunteers. One of the most rewarding exercises occurs midway through the workshop, where we engage in an empathy exercise to dissect five types of difficult conversations about evolution and climate change. (If you want to try this out for yourself check out our new feature, Case Studies in Empathy on page 13.) When presented with the speakers of these scenarios and asked to explain what’s going on in the speakers’ minds, most volunteers make a rookie mistake: they focus on what their response should be, rather than taking the time to understand the values and fears of the person they’re speaking with. Often, this takes the form of focusing on communicating the science. While effective and accurate communication of science is a crucial element, it is not enough to reach the most skeptical populations. By taking time to assign real human emotions to the visitors, volunteers can better empathize and use this newfound understanding to decide the best way to share their evidence.

By taking time to assign real human emotions to the visitors, volunteers can better empathize and use this newfound understanding to decide the best way to share their evidence.

For the Smithsonian volunteers, thinking about these issues had a significant emotional impact. One of our scenarios involves an elderly couple more interested in learning about the volunteer than the climate change science; the couple concludes their interaction by stating there are “both sides to every story.” Our workshop participants were able to empathize with the couple and how difficult it can be to visit a science museum without kids. Volunteers expressed that even when they visited science museums by themselves, they felt awkward and often forgotten. They then reasoned that by asking questions about the volunteers, these difficult visitors were trying to forge a human connection in a way they felt was more appropriate than doing the activity. Furthermore, their insistence on “both sides” could be a statement more about seeking recognition and a valuing of their wisdom than an attempt to be argumentative. Not only did this exercise provoke a more empathetic response to this type of climate change conversation, it also allowed us to have a broader conversation about increasing the comfort and participation of a diverse range of groups in museum education.

People from all over the world visit the Smithsonian, bringing a diversity of backgrounds and experiences that make this training crucial. However, traveling to DC and spending time at a science museum still presents cost and time barriers: many people, especially those far from urban centers, can’t avail themselves of the opportunities for accurate evolution and climate change information afforded by the Smithsonian. Therefore, I was excited to be invited back to the Smithsonian to share this workshop with a group of Smithsonian affiliates, many working in rural areas across the country. Their worst-case scenarios were often not imaginary: one had almost lost her job over a Darwin Day event, and others were worried about the possibility of losing funding over using the words “anthropogenic climate change.” All expressed, however, their appreciation of NCSE’s work and this training in helping them reach those populations hesitant about science.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Kate Carter
Short Bio

Kate Carter is Director of Community Science Education at NCSE.