Category: Science Communication

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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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.

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.

 

Doctor Al Digest 28

A few things that I’ve found interesting in the past few weeks:

A nasty case of alleged sexual harassment drives home the point the dangers that are inherent in a system where a graduate student has only one faculty member as their research advisor. It’s important as a grad student to develop a network of mentors.

In some cases, it is worth your time to improve a skill that you are poor at, especially if it is a required skill for your career. In many cases though, it is a better use of your time and efforts to capitalize on your strengths.

The “Dear HBR” podcast is excellent, but the Harvard Business Review “Women at Work” podcast is phenomenal! The podcast has recently returned for its second season and is better than ever! Honest, frank discussions of the challenges faced by professional women in their workplaces and practical advice on how to navigate this minefield. I can not recommend it enough!

I’ve written my second column for The Conversation Canada on the Venom movie that opened last night. The focus is on symbiosis and how an alien could go about hacking a human host.

 

 

Why I will continue to use the title Dr.

I was a bit annoyed yesterday when the decision by the Globe and Mail to update their style guide came across my Twitter feed. I get to be an associate professor of biology upon first reference in an article, but become Ms. McDonald on second reference. I guess this is how the Canadian Press have been doing things for years, but I find it irritating and I’m going to tell you why.

I’m a professional and an expert and earned a credential, namely a Ph.D., that reinforces these facts. Now you may ask why I need these facts reinforced. It is not because I have a gigantic ego, think I’m better than everyone else, or am a member of the non-existent Canadian “elite”. The fact that I’m a professional and an expert needs to be enforced regularly because they are questioned regularly several times each term due to the fact that I don’t look like a typical scientist. There are huge social and cultural contexts at play here and that Dr. title is therefore really important to people like myself; that is women and persons with disabilities.

I can only assume that because I look younger than I am and because I am female that people feel free to tell or ask me:

1) that I don’t look like a scientist (hello, stereotypes!)

2) I’m too pretty to be a scientist (umm, these two things are not mutually exclusive like you seem to think they are, and ewwwwww!)

3) Which professor do you work for? (I’ve run my own research lab for 8 years thank-you very much)

4) I thought you were so and so (insert some other female academic here), I’m so confused! (We are both petite and female presenting so we must be interchangeable then)

The above are interactions that I’ve had at academic science conferences.

My credentials and authority often also get challenged in the classroom. This is not a unique experience given that it happens to most of the other female professors that I’ve mentioned it to. We were commiserating about it over lunch a few years ago and our male colleagues were in disbelief because it never happens to them.

That doctorate is one item that I can use to level the playing field in academic science. I earned it, I need it, and you can pry it out of my cold, dead hands.

 

Service to Professional Societies

I have recently finished a fair amount of service to two professional scientific societies and wanted to write a post about what I have found valuable and challenging about these experiences.

I did my first stint of professional society service as a post-doctoral fellow and represented both students and post-docs on the executive of that society. I was a valuable experience and similar in many ways to the various student governments and committees that I’d been a part of in graduate school. It was a fantastic opportunity to network and be involved in selecting the professional development opportunities offered to our early career members.

For the next several years and continuing up to most recently, I’ve served as a judge for various student presentation, poster, and best paper awards. This has allowed me to gain an understanding of what constitutes a great research story and how it can be communicated effectively. I’ve learned a huge amount doing these activities that I now use in my own work and that I pass along to my own lab students.

This was followed by several opportunities to serve as a session chair and the chairperson of several committees in these organizations. This has gained me a subset of very specific organizational skills and allowed me to work with some wonderful colleagues. This work was also very fulfilling as it allowed for the opportunity to overhaul several outdated policies and procedures that we hampering equity, inclusivity, and diversity efforts of the organizations.

I’ve also had the opportunity to contribute to the organization of two scientific conferences which led to the development of a whole host of new professional skills. In hindsight, conferences are a huge amount of work and I would recommend that you wait until you are more than 2 years into your tenure-track job before you take on the task of organizing one!

Most recently, I served on a society’s executive council for three years and this last year I served as the chair for a major section of one of the scientific societies. It was very rewarding, but was more work than I was anticipating, and I’ve therefore made the conscious choice to step back from scientific society service for a few years in order to give myself a break and to allow for alternative perspectives to have a voice.

My take-home messages are:

1) Take the initiative. Sometimes you will be approached to participate, but your contribution will be very welcome if you volunteer through self-nomination.

2) Start small and get your feet wet with some reasonable commitments before diving into duties that are more challenging.

3) Do service that is personally and professionally meaningful for you. I especially liked assignments where I had a fair degree of autonomy and flexibility where I could make a meaningful and long lasting impact on the society.

4) If the timing isn’t right, you should decline opportunities without guilt and take breaks as needed.

5) If you recognize the potential to contribute in others, plant a seed by suggesting that their skills would be valuable and encourage them to get involved.

 

Doctor Al Digest #25

bacterial-diet-spotlight

Poster by Dr. Tristan Long

Some great articles in the past few weeks…

The Feminism of Black Panther vs. Wonder Woman

We are All for Diversity, but… How Faculty hiring committees reproduce whiteness and practical suggestions for how they can change

Addressing issues related to child-care at conferences

Pushing back against the quick turnaround to serve as a reviewer for journal manuscripts

How some relationships are ending because of the #metoo moment and current politics, and it’s not due to the reason you think!

My colleague and I talk about our #Scicomm efforts.