Kicking off a Science Communication Course

sci comm 1

This blog post is part of a series about a 4th year undergraduate Science Communication course that I ran during Winter term 2019.

My focus in the first week of this course was to initiate a discussion in class about what science communication is, who does science communication, how is science communication done, and why and when is science communication done. In other words, attempting to answer the very high level questions about science communication as a field and activity.

I made the decision that I wanted the students in the course to regularly sit with different people. Prior to class, I had made 20 cue cards that listed a seating assignment. The course was held in an active learning classroom and I had 5 tables that I put 4 students at. For the first couple of weeks, the students were uncomfortable being at different tables, but by the end of the course I think that they appreciated meeting everyone else who was taking the course. Group dynamics therefore shifted from week to week during our activities in class, but I think that this was a good thing.

I started this class with instructions for how to do a mind-mapping exercise and went through an example using a white board. I then had each student generate an individual mind-map using Science Communication as a topic (I gave them 10 minutes for this activity). After that had been completed, I asked the students at each table to integrate the individual mind-maps into a single mind-map for the group. This was done at the tables on portable white boards. (I gave each group 20 minutes for this activity). Once the mind-maps were completed at each table, each group of students rotated clock-wise to another group’s table in order to look at their mind-map. They were asked to look for common themes, unique observations, and to try to come up with a definition of science communication. Every 4 minutes each group rotated to a new table and mind-map. (This took 20 minutes in total). At this point we took a 10 minute break.

When we reconvened we discussed what is science communication by reflecting on the content of the mind-maps. We also talked about who does science communication. To facilitate talking about how science communication is done, I had prepared a table for the students to fill in that focused on 3 major types of science communication (i.e. traditional journalism, face-to-face or live events, and online interactions). I then asked the students to think about characteristics of each type of communication such as audience size, directionality of the communication, amount of control that a scientist would have over the message, impact on policy, amount of cost or resource use, type of audience, and other advantages or disadvantages that they could think of. Each group filled in the table (12 minutes) and then we filled the table in as a class by having a discussion. We then talked briefly about why and when science communication is done.

I wrapped up the class by providing an introduction to the course (e.g. going over the learning goals, course syllabus, assignments, grading scheme, etc.) and then provided instructions for the assignment that week. The assignment that week was to answer 5 questions based on reading Iyengar S. and Massey D.S. 2019. Scientific communication in a post-truth society. PNAS. 116(16): 7656-7661. I did this in order to get the students thinking about the challenges inherent in science communication.

 

Advertisements

Personal Safety at Scientific Conferences

safe travels

Considerations about my personal safety always influence my conference travel, accommodation, and eating plans. This statement probably is not surprising to other women or female-identifying/presenting people. Why is this the case? I am always worried about getting harassed, attacked, or murdered.

It sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Right up until we hear about cases such as the murder of Dr. Suzanne Eaton. She was attending a conference on the Greek island of Crete, took a break by going for a run, and did not return. The police are piecing together what happened next and have a man in custody.

I have attended many conferences during my career thus far and I want to talk about how safety considerations play out in real life terms and provide some examples.

Disclaimer: I am talking about my experiences and your mileage with my advice may vary. I am not looking for alternative ideas or comments on how I could have solved or prevented these problems. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have to think or worry about these issues and I ask that you believe me when I say that the logistics of conference planning takes up a lot of time and emotional energy that I do not believe is experienced by my male colleagues.

When I first hear about a conference that I’d like to attend, my first thoughts are about the location and travel logistics. I ponder the following questions about the location:

1) In general, is the conference in a country, city/town, location that is relatively safe to travel to and travel within for a petite woman travelling alone? Do any travel advisories exist for the destination?

2) What options are available for travelling to and from the conference site? Can I take a direct flight, or do I have to deal with one or more flight connections?

3) Once I land at the airport, how do I get to the conference location? Is there public transit? Are local ground transportation options plentiful, safe, and regulated? Has the conference made arrangements for ground transportation?

I find travel exhausting and stressful. In an ideal situation I take a direct flight from my local airport to the conference city and pre-book ground transportation through a reputable and insured company that meets me at the airport and directly delivers me to where I’m staying.

Story time: The most stressful conference travel experience that I ever had (in terms of getting to a destination) was a small meeting in Europe. It involved a 7 hour flight to Switzerland, catching a 1.5 hour train, transferring to another train for 30 minutes, a 1.5 hour conference arranged bus ride, sending my luggage ahead on a ski lift, continuing the bus ride for another 15 minutes, and a snowcat ride up a mountain for 30 minutes.

Next up is investigating the conference venue and accommodation options. I ask the following questions:

1) What kind of venue is being used to hold the conference? Is it on a university campus? At a conference centre or hotel? What services are available at the conference site (e.g. food available, safewalk service available)?

2) Is the venue in a decent neighbourhood/relatively safe part of town? Is access controlled and secured, or is it a public or open site? How are things after dark?

3) What is the distance between the conference venue and accommodation options? Can I walk the distance? Is a car or public transit required? What do parking options look like? Any safety concerns with any particular accommodations?

4) Are any special events (e.g. conference banquet, pub night, etc.) being held at another location? What are my options for getting to/from these events?

Story Time #1: I remember a meeting at a university on the east coast of Canada where the conference was held in a main university building and the accommodations were residence buildings further up the hill. This was neat and pretty during the day, but terrifying at night. The options for walking back up to the residence at night were to either walk up a busy road with no sidewalk, or take the exceptionally dark path through the forest. Women arranged with each other to walk back up in pairs or in groups; no way in Hell was anyone willing to do that walk alone.

Story Time #2: A conference in a major Canadian city. One night I wanted to leave the pub night early, but no one else was leaving at the same time or staying at the same accommodation. It took me 20 minutes to walk to the pub (in daylight) and 10 minutes to speed walk back to my hotel. At the same conference a few nights later, we had returned to the city after the banquet on a bus at about 12:30 a.m. I was very grateful when a friend offered to walk me back to my hotel before returning to his own accommodations.

Some general guidelines that I’ve made for myself based on prior experiences of scientific conferences:

1) Whenever possible I travel during daylight hours and always stay alert to my surroundings. I don’t try to travel for lengthy periods of time all in one go. If I’m travelling across an ocean, I’ll aim to arrive 2 days before the conference and do the travelling in stages to try to deal better with jet lag and exhaustion. I don’t make good decisions when tired. Once I’m at my destination, I plan the route that I’ll take ahead of time and if I’m walking I wear comfortable shoes and never wear earphones.

2) I spend a lot of time looking at Google maps of the areas that I’ll be staying in so that I can situate myself in the location well before I arrive (e.g. I know the locations of major streets and landmarks). I identify several options for the following well in advance: food (grocery stores and restaurants), bank machines, pharmacy, transit stops, all conference venue locations, hotel location, parking locations; I use TripAdvisor ratings to identify good options.

3) I use the campus/hotel fitness centre. I am not comfortable jogging or running in unfamiliar places outside.

4) I don’t use ride-share apps (e.g. Uber, Lyft) and attempt to avoid taxis if possible. I’ll usually opt for public transit or pre-book a towncar/limo with a professional driver. I am done having to listen to offensive opinions, sexist comments, drives through sketchy neighbourhoods to rack up the fare, etc.

5) I stay at hotels or university residences. I don’t use AirBnB/VRBO for travel if I’m by myself.

5) I make use of room service, meal delivery apps, and grocery stores for meals and snacks. If I’m ambitious I’ll plan to meet friends for lunches or dinners on certain days of the conference before I leave to attend.

I’ve been very fortunate that most of the negative experiences that I’ve had during conference travels have been very minor. I hate that I have to invest so much time in proactively attempting to keep myself safe as a woman travelling alone.

Commiseration about awful or dangerous conference and academic travel experiences are welcome in the comments. Stay safe out there!

Science Communication Course: Topic Selection

This is post #2 in a series where I’ll be talking about a 4th year undergraduate Science Communication course that I ran from January to April of 2019.

After defining my learning outcomes and objectives, the next order of business was to decide on the weekly topics that I wanted to cover in the course. I ended up finding a great paper called “Core Skills for Effective Science Communication: A Teaching Resource for Undergraduate Science Education” written by Lucy Mercer-Mapstone and Louise Kuchel. This paper contains a list of elements that are important for effective science communication that was generated by a literature search and later vetted and ranked by experts in the fields of science, communication, education, and science communication. I used this list as a starting point for structuring my in-class sessions and their associated assignments. The course was 13 weeks and each class ran for 3 hours once per week (one session was cancelled due to inclement weather). I’ve listed the topics and the focus for each week below:

Week 1: Introduction to Science Communication and its Purpose

Week 2: Communicators and Audiences

Week 3: Overview of Modes of Communication

Week 4: Mode-Visual Communication

Week 5: Mode-Oral Communication/Social Media

Week 6: Mode-Written Communication/Developing a Science Communication Plan

Week 7: Reading Week-no class

Week 8: Narrative and Story Telling

Week 9: Content, Context, Prior Knowledge

Week 10: Style and Language

Week 11: Final Presentations for Student Capstone Projects

Week 12: Engagement and Dialogue

Overall, I found that this structure and order of topics worked. My goal was to cover a particular topic and then the students would spend the next week often completing an assignment that directly related to what we had explored in class. Each class session consisted of multiple active learning exercises that allowed the students to put into practice the theory that I had shared with them. I demanded a lot of the students in terms of participation during class time, but they rose to the occasion and were engaged and excited about the material. This made the course a lot of fun to teach and I ended up learning a ton about science communication also.

In my next post, I’ll start talking about each topic and the active learning exercises that I used to reinforce the material for my students. Some of these activities were pulled from the literature, but others I came up with on my own and decided to give them a try.

 

Launching an Upper Year Undergraduate Science Communication Course

I think that in typical Biology undergraduate programs a fair bit of thought goes into giving our students opportunities to improve their communication skills as scientists, but in my opinion this is usually limited to communicating with other biologists. Some time is perhaps spent talking about communicating with scientists outside of our field of study or discipline, but I think that we are really falling behind when it comes to teaching the skills of how to communicate with non-scientists about biology. In today’s interconnected and global world, I think that these skills are vital to our students’ future success in whatever career or degree they tackle next.

With this in mind, my goal was to be able to offer a 4th year undergraduate course in Science Communication that would examine the scholarship of this field and give students opportunities to put into practice what they learned. I was successful in getting the course into the departmental offerings for 2018-2019 and the course ran for the first time from January to April 2019. It’s fair to say that a lot of learning took place in our classroom and that it wasn’t limited to only the students.

When I design a new course, I start by identifying course goals and learning outcomes. It’s always a challenge to make these meaningful and flexible without being too vague. For this course, I stated that by the end of the course my students should be able to:

  1. Understand various scholarship and theory about the field of Science Communication.
  2. Be able to develop communication plans appropriate for a wide range of audiences.
  3. Take part in science communication efforts using several modes of delivery.
  4. Evaluate the effectiveness of science communication presentations.
  5. Be able to organize themselves as part of a team and plan and deliver effective science communication projects.
  6. Be able to research, analyze, and synthesize information in order to produce short writing pieces.
  7. Possess a broad understanding and appreciation for the importance of science communication and be able to serve as ambassadors of science.

I think that during the course we achieved the above outcomes, but to varying degrees. My overarching goal was to drive home the importance of #7 and I think that I achieved that.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how I decided what topics to cover each week and the in-class active learning exercises that I used to teach my students and allow them to put into practice what they were learning each week.

DoctorAl Digest #30

A depressing finding in this study by Dr. Holly Witteman and colleagues “Are gender gaps due to evaluations of the applicant or the science? A natural experiment at a national funding agency.”

The main finding “Gender gaps in grant funding are attributable to less favourable assessments of women as principal investigators, not of the quality of their proposed research.”

The takehome: “To ensure the best research is funded, funders should ensure the design and execution of their grant programmes do not reproduce or exacerbate biases.”

Women in academia across Canada are no doubt nodding in agreement and feeling validated.

 

Sarah Parcak @indyfromspace asking female academics what the “absolute worst advice ever given to you by senior male colleagues?”

The replies say it all. I had to stop reading them; I was so disheartened.

 

These issues are systemic. They build and amplify the longer you are exposed to them. That is the brutal truth of microaggressions. Death by a thousand papercuts.

 

Burnout and Errand Paralysis

I read a great article last month that has been getting a lot of attention online, and eventually the piece went viral. The essay is on Buzzfeed and is entitled “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation” and is definitely worth the read if you are a millennial yourself, or work with or teach millennials. I found a lot of the ideas in this article resonated with me despite the fact that I’m part of Gen-X.

I think that we’ve reached a tipping point where many of us are starting to push back on the idea that exceptional optimization is a good thing. Life shouldn’t be a video game where you are constantly trying to level up; some hours in your day should be savoured for their inefficiency and slowness. In my experience, it usually takes a big wake-up call (e.g. health crisis, death of a loved one, etc.) to come to that realization.

The other point made in this article that was really interesting is that millennials have been molded to believe that hard work will pay off in the end and that they can “win” at life by constantly striving to be better. They have a general sense (and have been told) that life is a meritocracy and that if you only work hard enough to be the best that everything else will follow. As a Gen-Xer I learned pretty early on in life that the above is a false premise. We knew that we would have to work hard essentially to stay in place, but that there was no guarantee that success would be waiting on the other side of that labour. It’s a pretty cynical world-view, but it has served me well. Part of it is perhaps personality; I always plan for the worst and then can enjoy being pleasantly surprised when the worst doesn’t come to pass. My childhood was pretty free-range; lots of time to be bored (and to find ways to amuse myself) and few scheduled athletic or academic activities (my parents insisted on swimming lessons so that I wouldn’t inadvertently drown). In contrast, millennials have been subjected to a high rate of academic and athletic programming, with every moment of their lives mapped out and the message that one misstep would bring the whole house of cards crashing down.

The author of the article, Anne Helen Petersen, was recently on the Hurry Slowly podcast and the conversation between her and the host, Jocelyn K. Glei is very engaging and insightful.

I highly recommend reading the article and listening to the podcast.

Cubic Wombat Poop

One of the many reasons why I love biology is when a great and weird story gets told about some kind of living phenomenon. This week I was surprised to learn that wombat feces are cubic. Evidently it’s been known for quite some time that the wombat’s poop is cube shaped and it is hypothesized that wombats use it to mark their territories and the fact that it is cubed means that it doesn’t easily roll away, but it more likely has to do with attempting to conserve water and the structure of their digestive tract.

Dr. Patricia Yang and co-workers investigated the physical properties of the wombat intestine and determined that variation in the amount of stretch in different sections (by using an inflated balloon no less!) resulted in the cubic feces. As you can imagine, the wombat poop finding is receiving a lot of attention in the popular media. In my opinion the best headline goes to Vice.

Fun fact: Dr. Yang won the 2015 Ig Nobel Prize in Physics for testing the biological principle that most mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds.

 

Planning a New Course in Science Communication

Next term I’m launching a new 4th year undergraduate course in Science Communication. I’ve wanted to teach a course on this topic for a while as I think that teaching our students how to communicate science to a range of audiences will be useful to them. Ideally we’ll get to a point where they can enter into dialogues with others about science, rather than having the interaction be one sided.

It’s been fun to think about what topics to cover in the course and what order to present them to the students. I’ve also been developing assignments for the course that I’m hoping will be useful for the students to complete and am aiming to have them be interesting and enjoyable too. Several months ago I sent out a call on Twitter to crowdsource resources and ideas and I was not disappointed!

My own relationship with science communication has been an ever-changing journey. I recognized its importance when I was a plant biology graduate student during the mid-90’s and consistently found myself at parties having conversations with people about genetic engineering. Most of these conversations were frustrating for me as I felt that I wasn’t very effective at articulating my viewpoint and was very shocked by the beliefs (true or not) that other people held about the technology. I’d like to think that I’ve become a better communicator since then, but I recognize that I still have a lot to learn. I’m looking forward to my new class next term and will be learning a great deal of new content and ideas alongside my students.

I received very little explicit instruction or education about how to be an effective science communicator. I think that this is a skill of increasing importance, not only in academia, but in other career paths that my students may choose once they leave the university. I think that I have an obligation to engage with various audiences about my science and science in general due to the fact that my research is funded by the public. I also think that if we as scientists do not have a role in crafting the narrative about science and the process of doing science that other incorrect or harmful narratives will be offered up by others. I’m hoping that by teaching this course I will be giving my students some of the tools that they will need to be effective and engaging ambassadors for science and that this is a worthy endeavour.

 

Movies from my childhood: Not as awesome as I remember…

More often than not on Friday evenings my family has a movie night at home. My kids are 15 and 11 and we are finally at the point where we can regularly watch films that are rated PG rather than G. This has been pretty neat and recently we’ve been introducing our kids to several films that my husband and I really enjoyed from our own childhoods.

The first one up was The Last Unicorn. That movie really made the rounds at birthday parties in 1982/1983 and I saw it a lot as a kid. My family wasn’t particularly impressed and watching it recently made me aware that there are many themes in the movie that aren’t really kid friendly. I remember being terrified of the Red Bull (no, not the energy drink) when I watched it as a kid.

Our next film was Labyrinth starring David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, and a bunch of awesome muppets. It’s full of catchy musical numbers (Dance Magic anyone?) and the Bog of Eternal Stench. My kids enjoyed it, especially my daughter.

Recently we watched the entire Back to the Future series (1985-1990) which gets worse as you go along. The first film has a really clever premise and we all really enjoyed it. I seem to recall that numbers II and III were filmed back to back which was pretty revolutionary at the time, but is more common today for large productions like Lord of the Rings and Marvel movies.

After that we watched The Dark Crystal (1982). It has a somewhat complicated plot and my daughter was thoroughly confused by the ending of the film.

Our most recent selection was Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) . This film does not hold up well over time. It’s funny to see Keanu Reeves actually emoting in a film and I found myself wondering whatever happened to Alex Winter. The fashion choices in this film are epic.

A few things have happened while we’ve watched these films. The first is the recognition that we have come a long way as a society in terms of social justice since the 1980’s. Some of what is in these films is hard to watch and literally had me cringing in my seat at times. Many of the above films are products of their times and feature harmful racial stereotypes, homophobia, sexism, etc. Rather than attempting to “protect” our kids by pre-screening these films, we’ve been watching them together and having conversations about disturbing and disappointing content as it comes up. My son in particular has been really appalled by some of the scenes in these films (especially a horribly homophobic one in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure).

I’m almost scared to watch The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink…

 

Putting Dog Waste to Good Use

Our dog Sullivan turned 9 this past weekend. Sullivan is awesome, but like all other mammals, he generates a good amount of biological waste. When we moved to Waterloo, we were happy to see that a green bin program was in operation. We used biodegradable pet waste bags to collect his waste and put them in the green bin. Unfortunately, many weeks the bags weren’t accepted by our waste collectors (not sure why) and we switched to disposing of the waste in the garbage. We live in the Beechwood part of Waterloo and there are many dog owners in our neighbourhood. The public garbage cans in McCrae Park were essentially repositories for dog waste. While it was good that most pet owners were being responsible and picking up after their pets, it wasn’t great that all of that dog waste was going to a landfill.

About a month ago, we saw a large concrete structure sitting near the road in McCrae Park. A few days later this pit had been installed as part of a pet waste station. Waterloo had invested in and installed a Sutera in-ground pet waste system. The waste is collected and transported to an organic waste plant and is converted into electricity. Our site was added after a successful pilot program in other parts of Waterloo. Since the installation of the Sutera unit, the city has been able to get rid of two public garbage cans in the park. I think that this is an awesome initiative and have been very pleased at the success of the program. It’s convenient, easy, and is no doubt diverting large amounts of dog waste from the landfill. Kudos to the City of Waterloo for being so forward thinking!