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Cultivating a new STEM audience: An exercise in communicating science

Could you explain a complex scientific concept to a fifth grader? Maybe you ARE a fifth grader, and you’re here to learn more about science communication! Regardless of your background, explaining complex information is tough, especially if you are an expert. It’s a concept in science communication we call “the curse of knowledge”, and everyone (even non-scientists) fall prey to it.  In their book Made to Stick, Heath & Heath argue one of the best ways around this is to use stories and concrete language. It also gets easier the more you practice! Dr. Michelle Juarez at the City College of New York experimented with this when she re-wrote one of her research articles for a young audience and learned a great deal about herself in the process. –KHL

 

by Michelle T. Juarez, Ph.D., Assistant Medical Professor, Sophie Davis Program in Biomedical Education, City College of New York

Science communication is an important skill to develop. In my scientific training, I focused on a specialized writing style that included: abstracts, posters, conference talks, seminars, and research articles. However, none of my communications ever made an impact within my community or family. Now as professor, leading a team of students in research projects, I see the challenges of communicating with a general audience and using the standard methods for scientific writing. Often we want trainees to master the scientific techniques, but do not cultivate the skills to effectively communicate their scientific discoveries. There are numerous science platforms to share exciting new results and many education forums to highlight communication practices.  The intersection between research and communication is gaining popularity within online resources and scientific societies. One area that remains limited is the exposure of young minds to the cutting edge of research. With that in mind, I’d like to propose the following model for a scientific writing that promotes STEM literacy and brings our scientific discoveries to a general audience.

About Frontiers for Young Minds

In 2013, a group from University of California Berkeley, led by Robert T. Knight, M.D., introduced a new journal, Frontiers for Young Minds. Unlike traditional scientific journals, Frontiers focused on publishing scientific articles rewritten by the original authors for younger readers. Additionally, Knight and his team included young people in the review and editorial process. Frontiers reviewers range in age 8 to 15. The topics for the journal include understanding Astronomy & Space, Biodiversity, Health, Mathematics, Neuroscience, and the Earth and its Resources. The journal is published open-access and online, and the articles focus on one of two areas: either presenting a “New Discovery” (highlighting a peer-reviewed and previously published scientific paper) or a “Core Concept” (describing a basic scientific idea in plain language.” Since its inception, Frontiers has published 300 authors and been reviewed by 500 young reviewers all over the world.

A special feature of Frontiers for Young Minds is that both the authors and young reviewer develop a profile on the article website. The profiles provide an opportunity for the scientist to highlight a personal side of their career, and the young reviewer to gain recognition for their contribution to publication process. The contribution of scientific authors, young reviewers, and mentors is an international community with a common goal of engaging the next generation in a scientific discussion.

Transforming an Article

When new undergraduate students join my lab group for an independent studies course or summer research internships, I usually give them a few of my scientific papers to read, and I use a journal club-style discussion to ask the students questions about their understanding of my research. In the past, when the students read the assigned papers, they would often fail to gain the ability to think critically about the experiments because of a lack context for the studies.

To help my students gain this additional context, I developed a Frontiers for Young Minds writing project in my lab group. Using two articles as a template for the new discovery and methodology (Juarez et al., 2011, 2013), we sought to revise and translate the scientific content into an article for a younger audience.

First, we worked on learning the research methods (Juarez et al., 2013), with the goal of helping the students to experience science through their own actions. Second, we

Our new figure for the Frontiers for Young Minds audience with sad and happy fruit flies.

focused on collecting data and understanding the importance of the scientific method in performing experiments. Next, we began to discuss the results within the context of the original question and hypothesis. Once the students felt ownership for the methods, results, and conclusions, we began the scientific writing process. This approach inspired student confidence with the research methods, so they could find their own voice during the writing process. Laboratory experience in a research lab is an ideal way to gain conceptual learning, but other forms of visual aids can also promote student learning. For example, I sketch images to represent the core concepts when I am describing a genetic or molecular experiment (e.g. Punnett squares and DNA cloning).

In my research field of genetics and development, most of my discoveries are described using figures to represent the observed experimental outcomes. As a primer to initiate our scientific writing project, our first task was to re-draw the figures of the main article we were going to translate (Juarez et al., 2011). The drawing encouraged us to focus on message of the data and our interpretation. We translated only three of the six figures, as a way to limit complex information and highlight the results and fundamental concepts of the article. In addition to re-creating the figures with illustrations, we also re-wrote the figure legends to emphasize the basic description of our new figures.  

With the figures transformed, the second task was to read the introduction of the primary article and identify key words that were important to define.  Third, we read a copy of my original grant proposal – specific aims, significance, and innovation sections, as a way to expose the students to a persuasive style of writing and allow them to identify the broader goal of our scientific article translation. A final addition to the scientific writing project was to develop novel artistic representations for the article.  We created a visualized scale to measure the results and help the younger minds reader to interpret the results.

After all this prep work was completed, we moved on to the article. A first draft was written to highlight key concepts and new figures.  The students in my lab then had the task of reviewing the main text for clarity and organization. A second draft incorporated the student comments and began to focus on highlighting why our research impacts the field of health.

As mentioned above, the Frontiers review process includes a review by a young reader. The editors pair the young reviewer with a science mentor to help navigate the process and answer a set of basic questions about their understanding of the article. The feedback from our young reviewers were extremely helpful and allowed us to improve our figures and clarify the overall message of the manuscript. In particular, we focused on the fundamental concepts of DNA and genetics. The young reviewers were intrigued by the idea of doing experiments with Drosophila and using the results to impact human health.

Within the scope of this new emphasis, we revised two of the figures to highlight an analogy comparing blueprints to genetic information. We also described the process of the scientific method to provide a guide for how to form a hypothesis, observe a result, and reflect on the discovery.

Seeing our Work Come to Life

And here is the final result! Our new, transformed article for Frontiers for Young Minds serves as a resource to share with new students that join my research group and the community interested in learning more about STEM.

A Frontiers-style writing project can be applied to learning environments beyond the research lab. In an undergraduate-level course with discussion sections, a writing project like this could be incorporated into a journal club-style paper review. In a graduate-level course with research proposals, a writing project could be incorporated into a broader impacts summary of the scientific outcomes.

Ultimately, the goal of this project is to improve science communication for a general audience. The focus of this essay was to describe my experience translating the science into a Frontiers for Young Minds article. An alternative approach might be for a scientist to make connections with a local school and become a science mentor. Trainees could also play a complementary role in the science mentorship to help the young reviewers envision the initial higher education stages of becoming a scientist. I learned a lot about how a reader looks at a figure and how my words can be improved to help convey the scientific idea. My students think more critically about experimental organization and are now more critical about reading other scientific articles. Fostering connections between scientists and the young minds will enable society to become an active participant in the future of STEM discoveries.

Acknowledgements

This essay was written to highlight the dedication of three high school students: Emaly, Chiandredi and Chloe; their courage to try something new and expose a new audience to biology is refreshing.  MTJ is currently funded with support from NIH NIAID R03AI117671, NIH NCI U54CA137788/U54CA132378, NIH NIMHD 8G12MD7603.

References

Juarez, M.T., Patterson, R.A., Sandoval-Guillen, E., and McGinnis, W. (2011). Duox, Flotillin-2, and Src42A are required to activate or delimit the spread of the transcriptional response to epidermal wounds in Drosophila. PLoS Genet. 7, e1002424. http://journals.plos.org/plosgenetics/article?id=10.1371/journal.pgen.1002424

Juarez, M.T., Patterson, R.A., Li, W., and McGinnis, W. (2013). Microinjection Wound Assay and In vivo Localization of Epidermal Wound Response Reporters in Drosophila Embryos. J. Vis. Exp. JoVE e50750 https://www.jove.com/video/50750/microinjection-wound-assay-vivo-localization-epidermal-wound-response

Juarez, M. (2016) How Does a Fruit Fly Say “Ouch”? Front Young Minds. 4:27. doi: 10.3389/frym.2016.00027 http://kids.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/frym.2016.00027

 

About the Author

Dr. Michelle T. Juarez is an Assistant Medical Professor of the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education Program at the City College of New York. She received her B.S. in Plant Biology from the University of California, Berkeley and her PhD in Genetics from the State University of New York, Stony Brook. She completed her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, San Diego to culminate training in both plant and animal developmental genetics.  Currently leading an independent research lab to study fruit fly genetics as a model of injury and repair mechanisms.

 

 


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Discussion
  1. Great project and great article. Thanks for sharing your process!

    A question: which word is missing in the following excerpt? I’d love to know what you created:
    «  We created a to measure the results and… »

    Thanks!

  2. Great stuff! I am doing a similar “assessment for learning” exercise now in my second year Principles of Evolution course. Students take an evolutionary topic of interest to them, find three scientific articles, and make a magazine article, blog or wikipedia page that conveys the science to a general audience. I can’t wait to see what the students do – their topics are so diverse! And I want to publish this at least for the class if not Uni.

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