Month: June 2019

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.

 

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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.