Hard science can be — well — hard to understand.

Professionals working in the sciences and humanities are trying to break down the barriers that keep the public from engaging with some of the world's most pressing problems through a new biennial symposium: Humanities in the 21st Century.

Shepherd University has joined with the National Conservation Training Center for the new event, which will focus on ways to communicate science to the general public through culture, society and the arts. Environmental issues — including climate change, pollution and solid waste — will be the focus of the 2017 symposium.

"It's not [as much] a science problem at this point as it is an inspiration problem," said coordinator Keith Alexander, a George Washington Institute of Living Ethics scholar who teaches history at Shepherd University.

The mission of the symposium is twofold, Alexander said: first, to empower scientists to communicate with lay audiences, and second, to investigate the power of the humanities to inspire the public.

Literature, film, music and photography have inspired people throughout history to rethink their position in the universe. One example is the first photograph of Earth from space, he said.

The symposium will host a range of speakers, including SkyTruth founder John Amos, whose work with satellites is being used to monitor illegal dumping and fossil fuel extraction around the globe, and documentary filmmaker David Conover, who will discuss and show his film "Behold the Earth." Both will speak on Thursday, the first night of the event.

By trade, Amos is an engineer and geologist. He worked for fossil fuel extraction companies in the 1990s, and switched to a pollution watchdog role with the launch of his nonprofit SkyTruth in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in 2001. 

Using free public imaging, data and social media tools, he and a team of science-minded people track spills, fires, and the growth of the fossil fuel industry. Often, they are watching the ugliest problems on the planet, yet it was imagery that inspired Amos to switch from exploiting resources to protecting them.

He admitted he will be a fish out of water and also a sponge at many of the symposium's humanities panels.

On Friday, the symposium will run from 8:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. with talks from Mary J.C. Hendrix, president of Shepherd University; Angela Lueking, professor in the Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering at Pennsylvania State University; and novelist Denise Giardina, author of "The Unquiet Earth," among others.

Live streams of the speakers will be available through Facebook Live and archived through the National Conservation Training Center's Facebook page.

Amos plans to ask the more emotionally minded humanities experts for help on how to better share SkyTruth's message. Often, a photo uncovered by SkyTruth will be published on its Facebook page, and a person will comment "well, that's it," it's over, Amos said.

"We need to show people there's so much left to protect," Amos said. "Get off the couch and do something."

Organizers are expecting more than 100 people over the course of the two-day event, Alexander said. Attendees are welcome to come and go throughout the day.

The event is free and open to the public, but attendees will need a government-issued identification card to enter the center, which is run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. People planning to attend the event are encouraged to register online in advance to receive future communications about upcoming events.

Follow Samantha Hogan on Twitter: @SAHogan.

Samantha Hogan is the state house, environment, agriculture and energy reporter for The Frederick News-Post.

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