Kicking off a Science Communication Course

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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.

 

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