A Texas A&M University geography student starts discussing her research on rip currents by describing a day at the beach - and Michael Phelps' swimming speeds.
The three-minute presentation is not intended for her fellow scientists. Instead, she's hoping to distill down her research – for example, by comparing the speed of a rip current to how fast the Olympian can swim – so that anyone can understand it.
"I'm able to calculate daily maps of potential rip current locations," said the student, Sarah Trimble, at a competition in which students explain their work for outsiders. "The National Weather Service may soon be able to offer you a map of predicted locations of rip currents and their strengths…and just by chance, it may say across the bottom, brought to you by research from Texas A&M."
Houston and Texas universities have long invested in research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But a new push on these campuses encourages faculty and students to better communicate their findings. The push comes amid surveys showing eroding Republican support for higher education and a social climate that casts academics as elitist and out of touch.
Workshops, classes and conferences at Texas colleges and universities encourage STEM researchers to ditch technical or complicated jargon so broader audiences can understand the importance of what they do.
"We haven't done a really good job in communicating why it's important for your taxes to fund this research," said Carolyn Nichol, who directs Rice University's office of STEM Engagement. "(Research is) going to help you be healthy, or have a faster phone or have clean drinking water. The pace of research is accelerating, but I think showing that the research really matters is something that scientists may have not thought about in the past."
Trimble, who studied rip currents at A&M before graduating late last year, said there's a more basic motivator.
"If I am given this awesome opportunity in my career, I want to make sure it's going to be used by someone, somewhere, somehow," she said. "If I'm going to pour in hours and years and lots of sweat and tears, when I finally find an answer or move closer to finding an answer, I want to communicate (it)."
In March, Rice and the University of Houston are co-hosting a second-annual workshop on the communication of science, and Texas A&M's science students are required to take two writing-intensive or communication-intensive courses.
At Rice, a STEM outreach class launched last September encourages students to make their work clear enough that a fourth-grader could understand it.
Some Texas graduate students - from College Station to Austin to Huntsville - compete in a competition called the three-minute thesis, encouraging sharp communication skills.
This level of activity abounds on Texas' campuses. Faculty members have pursued individual projects ranging from UH's work on nanotechnology solutions to purify water to Rice's work on gene therapy. UH, UH-Downtown and Rice have entered the field of data science, a burgeoning area that they say can impact Houston industry. Universities across the state and region are deep in projects related to Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath.
But this work cannot make a difference without scientists learning perhaps a more basic skill - communication - said Thuy Le, a UH chemical and molecular engineering student who is organizing the March science communication conference at UH and Rice.
"Scientists and researchers are viewed as elitists," she said. "The public doesn't understand how pervasive STEM is in their lives."
Recent surveys found that many white Americans, Republicans and right-leaning respondents believe higher education had a negative effect in the country and that college is a "risky gamble."
Meanwhile, politicians at the state and federal level questioned how much to invest in and how to tax higher education institutions this year.
Texas lawmakers threatened to strip back state funding, though in the final budget, the state's biggest research universities remained unscathed.
Encouraging good communication is crucial in light of this "anti-science" social climate, said Barbara Gastel, a Texas A&M veterinary investigative biosciences professor. Writing is a survival skill, she said.