Category: Teaching

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.

 

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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.

 

Reflections on Teaching a Three Hour Evening Class for the First Time

Since I’ve started teaching courses at the university level, the classes that I have taught have been 1 hour timeslots three times a week on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, or 1.5 hour slots on Tuesdays and Thursdays between the hours of 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. This semester I taught a 3 hour class for the first time and it was on a Monday evening.

I think that when dealing with timeslots that you haven’t experienced before that it is important to go into the experience with an open mind. Prior to teaching this particular course I spoke with some colleagues who had done 3 hour classes before to get an idea of what they liked and didn’t like about the experience. I also went online and looked more broadly about what other professors said about preparing for and teaching a 3 hour class.

Here are my lists of pros and cons that I experienced:

Pros

1) I liked teaching once per week as opposed to 2 or 3 lecture slots per week. I think this considerably decreased my overall stress level because my days weren’t as fragmented this term. While I enjoy teaching, it was great to know that my classroom time was completed by 10 p.m. on Monday. I felt like the rest of the week was open and full of possibilities.

2) Monday evening was a good timeslot as my students were coming off a weekend and were definitely more lively than if the class had been scheduled in the early morning. Getting them to participate in class was fairly easy.

3) I never felt rushed going through my teaching material. I also felt that I could deliver the material more efficiently and in less time in a single 3 hour block compared to three 1 hour blocks.

4) I was able to offer my students some class time to work on a major group project.

Cons

1) Three hours is a long time to teach and to hold the attention of students. The first hour was always good. I then gave a 10 minute break and we launched into the second hour. After that I gave a 5 minute break and moved on to the last hour. I have to admit that the 3rd hour was pretty tough. I was starting to get tired and holding the full attention of the students was very challenging because they were reaching the limits of their ability to focus.

2) It was disheartening to lose a few students after each break. The vast majority did stay for the second hour, but larger numbers left during the second break. This was at its worst on my very last day of class.

3) I found it harder to run active learning exercises in a 3 hour class compared to a 1 hour class. This might have been because there was more time and less urgency to get through an activity and I think this threw off my sense of timing a bit.

4) If a student missed class on Monday evening, they missed a lot of material.

Overall, I liked teaching a 3 hour class Monday evenings and it’s given me a lot to think about in terms of my teaching, classroom management, and pedagogy.

 

Attendance at University Events

This blog post is a vent about people who don’t show up for events for which they have registered. This is easily one of my biggest pet peeves in both my personal and professional lives. I think that I find it especially irritating due to the fact that I grew up in an era when cell phones didn’t exist. I long for a return to a time that when you made plans your word was worth something. You couldn’t easily back out at the last minute because “something came up” or because you got a better offer for some other activity that you’d rather do. If we made plans to go to a movie on a particular date and time, then you’d better show up unless you had an emergency. There was a respect for people’s time and co-ordination efforts. Perhaps this makes me overly rigid and I need to learn to go with the flow.

I was reminded of this particular irritation yesterday because I attended our university’s Teaching and Learning Day. I attend this event most years and I always find it useful and insightful. This year I ran a one-hour workshop for educators to swap course assessments or active learning activities. I was fortunate to have enough participants (8) that the workshop could run. Unfortunately, I know of several colleagues that only had 3-5 participants for their sessions which made facilitation challenging. I was shocked to find out over lunch that 80 people had registered for the event, but easily half of them did not show up. This resulted in low attendance at several sessions and a huge amount of left over food (that ended up feeding random students, so it didn’t go to waste) due to the no-shows.

When I make a commitment to attend a university event I show up. It’s not hard, it’s respectful, and demonstrates that I have integrity. This is doubly true for events that require registration; anyone who has organized a conference knows the importance of having an accurate head count. Failing to show up for something that you’ve registered for is thoughtless and rude; you’re an adult-do better. It’s called time management.

 

Common Problems Experienced during Graduate Student Theses and Defenses

By this point in my career, I’ve been on both sides of this scenario; I’ve written and defended 3 theses (undergraduate, M.Sc., and Ph.D.) and I’ve evaluated a number of theses and presentations from my own students and those from other labs. Here’s my 2 cents on common problems that I’ve experienced, or have heard about from others. I’m focusing on issues that can occur after the thesis has been written and submitted to the committee members up to and including the oral defense of the thesis.

Challenges for the Student

  1. Figures in the thesis aren’t as good or robust as those used in the presentation.

I’ve been in several defenses where many concepts that were challenging to figure out while reading the written thesis have been cleared up by the inclusion of additional figures in the presentation. It would be great if students just included these additional figures from the get-go as this would really improve the experience of the reader.

2. Figure and Table captions are not sufficient.

I always recommend to students that figures and tables should be able to stand on their own without any help from the written text of the thesis. This can be achieved by including an appropriate level of detail in your captions that explains what the reader is seeing as well as making any jargon and acronyms clear.

3. Interpreting questions or concerns as a personal attack.

It is very hard not to take concerns or questions about your writing, data, or presentation personally. While you should definitely not be a doormat, you should be respectful and thoughtful when receiving the feedback and opinions of your committee members.

4. Lack of knowledge on the basic theories, techniques, or information of your field.

Often committee members will ask what we see as very basic questions about your project and your field of study. If you mention something in your thesis or presentation, expect to answer questions about that content. Be sure that your focus has not narrowed so much that you neglect to explore and understand the theory or basic tenets of your research area. For example, if you are showing images of Western blots, I will likely ask you to explain the theory of how this technique works. It looks very bad if you can’t explain technique that is in your thesis.

5. Absent or inappropriate use of statistical analyses.

I’m not a statistical wizard, but even my Spidey senses start tingling when I can’t understand why you’ve chosen particular approaches, whether they are appropriate, and what they are telling you about your data.

Challenges for Examiners

  1. This is not the time to retaliate for a slight that occurred in 1999 from another faculty member on the committee.

Focus on the student’s work and accomplishments and let it go. Stop being so petty and giving professionals a bad reputation.

2. Come prepared and be on time.

Respect the time and efforts of the student and other committee members. Come with useful and insightful questions and suggestions.

3. Clearly communicate the student’s strengths and accomplishments that impressed you.

Be kind and sincere in your praise. A thesis degree is a tough slog and we don’t compliment our students enough and should celebrate their successes.

4. It isn’t about you.

Check your ego at the door. We all know that you are smart. You don’t need to convince us of this by your preambles to a question, your expositions on a particular theory, and your recently published work. Keep the focus on the student where it belongs.

What other insights can others offer about the thesis and defense experience? Leave your answer in the comments!

DoctorAl Digest 19

An exciting article in University Affairs about Laurentian’s new MSCom (Master’s in Science Communication) program launching this fall.

Samantha Oester’s (@samoester) Twitter feed from yesterday drives home the fact that it isn’t just harassers that drive women out of science; the clueless and unsupportive other members in the community also contribute.

I’m really enjoying the Period Podcast by Dr. Kate Clancy.  You’d think as a middle aged woman I’d know all that there is to know about menstruation…but you’d be wrong.

When I became a principal investigator of a lab I began managing people for the first time. I’ve found the Ask a Manager website an amazing resource. Some of the stories are so wild that you’d think that they can’t be true! A great source of examples of how not to manage, and excellent advice from Alison on how to solve problems and effectively manage your staff.

 

4th Year Undergraduate Research Thesis Opportunity #2

Investigation into the Structure of the Oyster Alternative Oxidase Protein

An undergraduate student position is available to conduct a BI499 or HE490 thesis research project in the McDonald lab in the Department of Biology at Laurier. The McDonald lab prides itself on being a diverse and friendly working environment.

Description of the Project:

Research in our lab focuses on the mitochondrial protein alternative oxidase (AOX) which is involved in the electron transport system in mitochondria. This project will focus on developing a protocol for isolating mitochondria from the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae that are expressing the oyster AOX protein. These yeast mitochondria will then be exposed to various chemical cross-linkers in order to determine whether oyster AOX is monomeric, dimeric, or oligomeric by using protein gel electrophoresis and Western blots.

Skills Required:

Ability to effectively conduct literature searches and to analyze and synthesize information from primary research papers.

Knowledge of the theory of protein gel electrophoresis and Western blotting techniques.

Attention to detail and ability to work safely in a biological laboratory.

Strong written and oral communication skills.

Effective time-management and project management skills.

Highly self-motivated and resilient in the face of project challenges.

Interested students should email Dr. Allison McDonald at amcdonald@wlu.ca by Jan. 31, 2017 with a resume/CV and to set up a time for an interview in early February.