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SciComm at School: Science Communication in Undergraduate Education

More and more, academic science programs at U.S. universities are training their undergraduates to communicate effectively about science to a variety of audiences.  This includes courses like University of Chicago, minor programs like the University of Texas, and even stand-alone degrees in the study and practice of life science communication like the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  However, for most institutions, incorporating science communication can be challenging.  There is just too much material to cover and not enough space in degree programs to add a course (or more).  So, how can faculty incorporate science communication into existing undegraduate courses?  And what do students gain from this practice?  Dr. Erin Gereke, a biology faculty member at Butler University opted to dip her toe in the #SciComm water; here’s what she learned.  –KHL

SciComm at School: Science Communication in Undergraduate Education

Scientists are hearing more than ever about the importance of clearly communicating their work, not only to other scientists and funding agencies, but also to policymakers, friends and family, and the broader public.

The rapidly growing collection of tools for science communication, or “SciComm,” taps the power of interpersonal connection, storytelling, and other strategies to energize scientific conversations outside of research or academic settings. Professional science communicators, such as journalists, also use many of these same strategies to write about science for various public audiences.

Most new SciComm training efforts focus on working at the forefront of professional scientific discovery and practice: namely senior scientists and physicians, early-career scientists, and sometimes graduate trainees. (See, for example, the various resources of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS].)

I’ve participated in several workshops recently to learn more about these tools and how to reevaluate my own SciComm skills. But, as an undergraduate educator, I quickly noticed that few of these programs discuss their potential value for communication training earlier, at the college level. Some isolated efforts and research have started to address this issue, but it’s not a widespread movement.

Reaching the undergraduate population may not attract the same urgency as targeting senior scientists with established research programs or leadership positions. But it’s important to consider the needs of undergraduate science students, because many of them already participate in some kind of science communication, even as they consider their future career options in science.

Expanding the conversation about SciComm training to include the needs of educators and diverse populations of undergraduates could help strengthen the scientific pipeline and create a new generation of scientists who can communicate more effectively with different audiences, right from the start.

In the meantime, scientists like me—who were trained through this same research pipeline but primarily teach undergraduates—can explore and adapt some of the emerging SciComm strategies to engage our students during their college years. Undergraduate educators have at least two overlapping roles when thinking about science communication:

  1. modeling clear communication strategies when teaching science content, training novice scientists in research skills, or discussing their own scientific work in different settings; and
  2. helping undergraduate potential scientists to be effective science communicators themselves.

Here, I offer a few points to consider when thinking about undergraduate science teaching and learning through a SciComm lens. Many of these are adapted from a blend of SciComm and pedagogical strategies or research. Selected resources are included for further exploration of some of these ideas.

SciComm strategies for undergraduate educators:

  • Know your audience: Teaching first-year science majors is different from teaching advanced students. Likewise, working with diverse learners, non-science majors, large vs. small classes, or individually with students all require different approaches. It’s important to think carefully about your specific audience’s background and needs in different contexts and plan your own formal and informal scientific communication goals accordingly.
  • Build empathy: When you connect with your students, it’s easier to be empathetic to their various strengths, stumbling blocks, and concerns. Listening, as well as speaking, and finding commonalities with your particular students can help foster more mutual trust and a deeper commitment to the educational process. (See, for example, James Lang’s book Small Teaching for ideas on empathy and motivation in teaching, as well as some other pedagogical ideas discussed below.)
  • Use analogies: Finding appropriate analogies for complex scientific concepts can be very helpful in bridging the gap between what students already know and what they are trying to learn. Making the science “come to life” by using comparisons with everyday objects can be a helpful starting point for students to visualize topics that are difficult to observe directly.
  • Cut the jargon: Science courses and teaching materials contain many important vocabulary words specific to a discipline. But using scientific jargon before you have introduced it to students—or in contexts in which it’s not essential—can be counterproductive. Consider how information is scaffolded and build toward successful integration of new vocabulary with previously mastered terms. Ultimately, modeling to students when and how to use their new vocabulary can help them develop their own science communication skills.
  • Use storytelling approaches: “Science as story” is a compelling way to think about how to discuss core ideas, breakthroughs, and even the scientific method. Can you create a clear and emotionally engaging narrative about a particular topic that will be easy to follow? Presenting new information using the structure of a story is an approach that will feel familiar to most people and may help students remember what you’re teaching them. (For more on this topic, Stephen Heard’s book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, and Randy Olson’s book, Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, provide good introductions.)

    Courtesy of Erin Gereke

  • Try improvisation-based teaching strategies: For a twist on traditional approaches to communication in the classroom, consider using aspects of improvisational theatre (improv), such as the foundational Yes, And idea. As an example, if you’re asking a class to provide an answer to an open-ended question you’ve asked them, try accepting their answer (“Yes”) and building on it (“And”). What if the answer was supposed to be “mitochondria,” but they came up with “chloroplasts” instead? Rather than shutting down the dialog with a quick “No,” try using the moment to build positive connections between two related concepts instead (in this case, energy use in cells). Including “Yes, And” or other improv tools in your teaching repertoire can be challenging in practice, but it can lead to more low-stakes risk-taking on both sides of the classroom interaction, better science communication overall, and a more positive environment for learning.
  • Distill your own professional message: Outside of class, you might give presentations, write grants, or share your own work with alumni, potential students, donors, or the general public. In these scenarios, being engaging and concise is important. Tools such as COMPASS SciComm’s “Message Box” or activities such as “Half-Life Your Message” can help you identify the core concept that you want to share with a specific audience (and why they should care) and communicate it concisely and clearly at the right level of complexity. Incorporating SciComm strategies when describing your own work simultaneously benefits students in your audience by modeling effective approaches and showcases your professional efforts well beyond the classroom.

SciComm opportunities for undergraduate students:

  • Small-group and active-learning activities: When students work in smaller groups and engage in reflective activities, their own communication skills can grow in new ways. Rather than engaging only with an instructor, students must carefully listen to others in the group, work as a team to determine the key ideas, and learn to describe them to others. Improv-based activities can have a place here, too, for team-building and fostering inclusive engagement and communication skills.
  • Storytelling in science: I’ve already identified how “science as story” is a common SciComm strategy for researchers. Undergraduate students can start thinking about this idea, too, even in their first year. The traditional format of primary scientific reports provides an opportunity to discuss how the “story” of the experiment is revealed, and what makes certain papers clearer to understand than others. Secondary news sources or popular books describe science in a different way, but they, too, often rely on storytelling approaches. Exposure to both types of writing (or videos, animations, and more) can provide opportunities for discussion or assignments focused on identifying and using different science communication strategies, including narrative structure, for different audiences.
  • Research communication: Many undergraduates participate in formal scientific research projects with professors, in summer programs, or through internships. Learning some of the same techniques used by senior researchers on how to create effective formal research reports and presentations, engaging poster designs, or a less technical “elevator pitch” of their work can help novice researchers communicate their own projects with the rest of the scientific community or to a broader audience. Students who practice these skills early on may be better prepared for further scientific training, networking/interviews, and discussing science with people outside their discipline.

    Courtesy of Erin Gereke

  • Public engagement/outreach: Courses, departments, student organizations, and local communities often have opportunities for students to engage with people outside the academic institution. Such programs can be wonderful opportunities for undergraduate students to reframe their growing skills and knowledge to share them with others. Most importantly, students can form connections with a broader group of people in their community while building mutual enthusiasm for their science through interpersonal interactions. For example, I teach a class in which students design biology activities that they share with children and adults at a community science festival and in partnership with a local museum. In this context, students must consider how to interact with a wide variety of people who are talking with them about their activity. Introducing role play and improv techniques with students engaged in outreach can be a fun way to help students find common ground with others in their community and reflect on how science fits into their own and others’ life experiences.

Undergraduates today have rich opportunities to start developing a clear and engaging science communication style right from the start, alongside learning technical scientific skills and content in the classroom. Intentionally modeling and emphasizing SciComm skills early on could (1) positively impact student success in the short term, and (2) help students avoid having to recalibrate their skills later in a scientific career, like I and many others have done recently.

Furthermore, students pursuing a career path outside of science—such as journalism, business, or K–12 education— also would benefit from understanding the logic of different types of science communication as part of a general scientific literacy curriculum. Such students hopefully will become lifelong consumers of scientific information and can become powerful allies and advocates for science.

As we consider new approaches in SciComm for advanced scientists, thinking more broadly about how some of these strategies can trickle down to educators and students at earlier levels of scientific training (and how best to evaluate these tools) may build a more inclusive and engaged scientific enterprise for generations to come.

Edited by Krista Hoffmann-Longtin, PhD, Indiana University- Purdue University Indianapolis.


About the Author
  • Erin Gerecke

    Erin Gerecke, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences at Butler University. Trained in fungal genetics and molecular biology, she teaches undergraduate biology courses in genetics and cell/molecular biology, as well as non-majors’ biology, a senior seminar, and a biology-themed community engagement course. She is certified as an Editor in the Life Sciences from the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences (BELS) and is passionate about science communication and informal STEM engagement. Find her on Twitter @mulledscience.

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