Designing a Practical Science Communication Curriculum

By Chris Mooney | October 12, 2010 12:26 pm

As someone extremely interested in science communication, I find a huge gap at the university level when it comes to the teaching of this subject.

On the one hand, there are plenty of university programs that teach science writing–generally within journalism or journalism oriented programs. MIT has such a program. Carl Zimmer teaches such a class at Yale. And so on and so on. These things are not rare.

At the same time, there are also some distinguished university programs that study and teach science communication as a sub-discipline within the broader field of communications. Cornell and the University of Wisconsin Madison are particularly well known for their strengths in these areas. Matt Nisbet teaches in this area at American University. And so on.

The writing programs described above exist to create journalists; the traditional communications programs exist to create science communication scholars–academics. But who’s creating good science communicators who are also Ph.D. researchers?

Not many people, that’s who. That’s why I’m very interested in finding out what kinds of courses exist across the country to do this. I recently came across the following example at the University of Washington-Seattle: “Communicating Science to the Public Effectively.” They’re teaching the course right now and it seems like exactly what I had in mind–exactly what’s needed.

So that’s a start–but I’m wondering, what else is out there right now? I’ve heard about a few other things, but am not finding them on the web, so I won’t link–yet.

It would be good to see what others are teaching, and try to come up with some type of basic curriculum.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: science communication

Comments (20)

  1. The course at Washington is the best thing going right now. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend the last session as I was finishing up my postdoc. However, a couple colleagues of mine from Caltech did get to attend and gave it rave reviews. This program has a national audience. I don’t know if there are any good examples of static courses within any university for developing scientist communicators. While I was at Caltech I took several evening courses (not part of the university catalogue) on science communication. Greg Critser has taught his science communication course at Caltech for several years now.

  2. This needs to happen, like yesterday. Because right now (as a Ph.D. student) my communication education consists of blogs like this and whatever workshops I can sneak off to in between experiments. Not effective.

  3. I hope this kind of thing catches on. I think it’s a real shame that there’s not more support in academia and research circles to promote communication. There’s a fair amount of talk, but little action. Either at individual universities, or maybe preferably supported by societies like the American Physical Society, there should be positions for science experts to be spokesman. Any intensive researcher will be mostly too busy (or have too skewed a perspective) with their own research, there should be people with the knowledge to keep up with scientific journals and so on but with the purpose of promoting that for the public. It would also serve as a reliable source for journalists and other media.

  4. I’m one of the students that’s taking this course right now. We’ve just had the second session (it’s a weekly class) but we seem to have a good mix of people and I’m liking the way it’s setup so far. Just the process of introducing ourselves and our work led to a good discussion about what kinds of things we unconsciously do and would need to adjust when talking to non-specialists. It’s been really interactive and built around discussions about content, as well as getting practice. We’ve also been mixing in some improv exercises as a way get comfortably presenting ourselves in something other than a scientific manner. This will lead up to giving presentations as either part of the Engage seminar series that was organized by the same people that planned this course or at the local Science on Tap events.

    Matt – I think you may be thinking of a different program. This is intended to be an “example of static courses within [a] university for developing scientist communicators”.

  5. Bob Thomas

    The closest thing most PhD programs might have would likely be course work geared toward teaching PhD students how to someday be a teacher at the University level. This isn’t a perfect fit with the goal of teaching future PhD researchers how to communicate with the general public, but it might be an existing curriculum from which additional communication skills could be added. Considering the observation that many new PhD grads aren’t adequately prepared to even communicate with the University students they are supposed to be able to teach, I think it might be a bit of a stretch to think that departments would have a huge demand to teach communication skills that don’t directly make the PhD students better future teachers. Maybe these new communication courses could be framed as providing better overall communication skills with the primary benefit being better future teachers and an added bonus of making PhD researchers better overall communicators with the general voting public.

  6. In addition to my semester-long writing class, I’ve been teaching a short workshop for graduate students at Yale for the past four years, addressing exactly the issues you’ve raised here: http://www.eeb.yale.edu/zimmer/

    The workshop has had a fantastic turnout every year. In fact, I have to set a rule that I can only critique the writing assignments from the first 20 students who sign up. Nevertheless, there have between fifty to eighty students enrolling each year. I think that’s evidence that the young scientists themselves recognize that this is an important part of their education, even if they don’t get much of it anywhere else. I hope it helps, but it’s only a very small contribution to their training as writers, speakers, and all-around members of our society. For anything more substantial, the scientific community has to establish a system of rewards and incentives. Otherwise, grad students will just go where those rewards and incentives are today: the lab, the clinic, the field.

  7. @mcmillan, thanks … sorry about that. I know that there is a (one week – I think) program at Washington that pulls in people from all over the country and gets tremendous reviews …

  8. Bruce Lewenstein

    Like Carl, I also teach a workshop for science students to get a practical introduction (stress “introduction” — it’s just a start!). This course was actually originally created at the instigation of a couple of grad students, who very much recognized the need for training of this sort.

    Syllabus: http://lewenstein.comm.cornell.edu/Comm%205660%20syllabus.2010.03.09.pdf

    Letter to Science about the first running of the course (that year, it lasted all semester instead of the weekend workshop we’ve evolved to): http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/316/5828/1122b, DOI: 10.1126/science.316.5828.1122b. Full cite is Warren, D. R., Weiss, M. S., Wolfe, D. W., Friedlander, B., & Lewenstein, B. (2007). Lessons from Science Communication Training (letter). Science, 316, 1122.

    Finally, following up on Carl’s comment about the need for a reward system, there’s still 3 days left for nominations for the AAAS’s new “Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science,” which is explicitly intended to provide recognition for the new generation of scientists who are making public communication of science part of their identity. For more information: http://www.aaas.org/aboutaaas/awards/public_engagement/.

  9. I’ve just returned from assisting at a workshop to help Canadian and American ecologists and wildlife biologists to communicate with the media. It is one of many that are organised and directed by the Aldo Leopold Leadership training program. The program was begun 10 years ago by Jane Lubchenco (now head of NOAA) – and has been incredibly successful in helping both young and veteran scientists to communicate with media, government, and opinion makers.

    The lead trainer is Nancy Baron – and many of the readers of this blog have participated over the years, as I have (Cory Dean, Jeff Burnside, Ken Weiss, Juliet Eilperin, Tim Radford). I would highly recommend her new book to any scientist who wants to engage with the media: Escape from the Ivory Tower. (Island Press).

  10. The Center for Communicating Science (CCS) was recently founded at Stony Brook University, in part to address the issue Chris is bringing up. So far, the Center has offered one-day workshops for graduate students and faculty at Stony Brook, Cold Spring Harbor Lab, and Brookhaven National Lab. The workshops include sessions of improv for scientists developed by Alan Alda and theater arts faculty, taping of interviews conducted by professional TV people, lessons on using newer media, a distilling-your-message exercise, and a few others. The workshops have been very successful based on participants’ feedback.

    The CCS also plans to offer courses to graduate students in the sciences starting in the spring semester that would be much longer versions of the workshop sessions. For more info, see http://www.stonybrook.edu/journalism/science/.

  11. Chris Mooney
  12. This spring I will be teaching a seminar for psychology graduate students on writing and speaking for a general audience. I haven’t done this class before and I’ve just started to work on the syllabus. If anyone else has done a similar course, I would love to see your syllabus or any other materials you would be willing to share. The links in the comments from Carl and Bruce about their workshops are a great start (thanks!). My course will be hands-on, with no more than 15 students and required writing/speaking each week. Students will write in a range of styles (blogs, op-eds, feature-style overviews, press releases, etc) and will practice giving TED-style talks and being interviewed about their own research area. Once I develop the course syllabus and materials, I would be happy to pass them along to anyone else thinking of doing this sort of course.

  13. Some great suggestions and resources here, thanks!

    I’m interested in the role that science professional societies can play in helping to educate their members on public science communication. We all attend research conferences so it seems like an obvious place to have trainings. The problem comes in trying compress a semester of practice into a 1/2 day course. I’m looking for suggestions on ways to do this that actually do improve people’s communication skills. Has anyone done a workshop at a conference that they would recommend on this topic?

  14. Allison Coffin

    I’m peripherally involved with the University of Washington course and I think it’s a great class and a much-needed resource within the scientific community. Here at the UW we also offer science communication workshops for graduate students and postdocs-I taught one yesterday. I’m glad similar classes and workshops are slowly catching on around the country. There’s a great need for scientists to communicate both with the public and with each other, and it’s high time this need was recognized. Chris-thanks for promoting this need, and this course!

  15. Karen

    There is a great deal of training in forensic science concerning communicating one’s bench work, methodology, reasoning and results to juries. Forensic science trainees are chosen recognizing that a key of the necessary skill set is technical writing and verbal communication competency. As well, the adversarial legal system we have in the U.S. requires the ability to defend what you have communicated both in writing and verbally, also a training component. Over the years I’ve observed that forensic scientists must speak three languages: the language of science, the language of law enforcement and the language of law. Communication is a constant battle for verbiage a scientist can use that will make sense to a police officer and to a lawyer. Complicating it a step further, when you arrive in court, there are 6-14 people of all educational and walks of life making up that “jury of your peers,” bringing their own unrecognized biases and experiences into their understanding and decision-making process in this never-before-experienced environment of the courtroom. The scientist witness has one shot to make this conglomerate understand the strengths and weaknesses of their analyses, all the time speaking through the filter of the attorneys asking the questions. Talk about a challenge. This very communication issue is what often washes out trainees. The most skilled, talented scientist under the scrutiny of a highly-trained advocate attorney can fail miserably at this communication step.

    What leads to successful outcomes? “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Learning methods to illustrate concepts and bring those learning with you toward your knowledge level. Publications and texts such as Edward Tufte’s visual explanation series are valuable. The deliberate practice of these skills in mock situations is valuable. Training and practice are key. The National Research Council has helpful publications concerning how students learn and how to teach science. Workshops and coursework as described in this column are crucial. The mere recognition of this as an issue, and in the academic setting, is the start in a better direction.

  16. Deborah Illman

    The comment from Matt likely refers to a week-long training institute that I developed at the University of Washington (www.chemleaders.com)

    I developed and have taught since 1998 a set of three courses treating media coverage of science in the broadest sense, encompassing science, environmental issues, engineering and sustainability, health, natural resources, and natural history. About 60% of the students enrolled are from science disciplines at the graduate and upperdivision undergraduate levels. All of our award winning writers have been science graduate students.

    My courses cover the entire spectrum from hard news to creative nonfiction–from the role of the public information officer and writing press releases to reporting hard news, writing feature articles, writing for the Web, and nonfiction genres of narrative, review, profile, and essay. Using case studies and readings from the literature, we examine issues of balance, accuracy, media framing, treatment of uncertainty, and reporting about risk.

    I am founding editor of a regional magazine called Northwest Science & Technology
    (www.nwst.org), which has provided a platform for my experiential learning curriculum. Articles assigned to students in class may be considered for publication in NWS&T online, so students have a chance to build a portfolio of published clips while contributing to an outreach vehicle that fosters greater public understanding about science and technology developments in the region. Graduates of the program have been very successful at earning national placements. For example, over the summer, one worked as a mass media fellow at the Chicago Tribune, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Another just went to Fermilab and Symmetry magazine as a science writing intern. Previous students have earned placements or freelancing assignments with the Dallas Morning News. Boston Globe, Discover magazine, Science; IEEE Spectrum, and Astronomy magazine, among others. Several have done Congressional fellowships

    The most effective strategies from these classes have been combined into a hands-on, intensive course for postdoctoral researchers, initially aimed at chemists (www.chemleaders.com) but applicable to other fields of science and engineering as well.

    –Deborah L. Illman, Ph.D.
    University of Washington
    illman@u.washington.edu

  17. Briana Pobiner

    Several of the science communication courses people have mentioned here sound great, but most of us don’t happen to be located in Seattle or New Haven or wherever and can’t take advantage of them. What about an intensive multi-day course? An online/webinar course/series?

    I attended one of AAAS’s Communicating Science workshops; these are usually held in conjunction with professional science society meetings. I thought it was great! Dirk, you might be interested… bonus: these workshops are free.
    http://communicatingscience.aaas.org/Pages/Workshops.aspx

    Chris, an aggregation of these classes/workshops would be a wonderful resource! Thanks.

  18. While universities have been reluctant to incorporate formal science communication into their curriculum, students have been taking the initiative to make their own opportunities for training for years.

    Science in the News (http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu) is a unique example of a successful science communication program that is entirely graduate student initiated and driven. Over the past 11 years, SITN has proven to the Harvard administration that there is both public and graduate student interest in such programs and the organization has become one of their most cited examples of university science outreach. SITN provides an annual 9 week lecture series that is free and open to the public where teams of 3 graduate students present on current science topics followed by a lab tour. Check out our website to watch a lecture or come in person (http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu). We also have a bi-weekly e-newsletter called the SITN Flash that is entirely written and edited by our graduate student members, bring science labs, lectures, and mentoring to local schools, host a “Model Organism Zoo” at the Cambridge Science Festival, and run a science cafe, called Science by the Pint, where we provide opportunities for faculty and post-docs to communicate science. Contact us (sitnboston@gmail.com) to learn more about what we do, how we are organized, and how you can start a similar program in your area (our low budget model can easily translate to any community).

    SITN in collaboration with Harvard faculty have recently instituted a short course on oral science communication entitled “The Performing Art of Science Presentation” (Check it out: https://nanosandquarters.hms.harvard.edu/node/131). In the class, Nancy Houfek, Head of Voice and Speech at the American Repertory Theater, leads an interactive workshop that provides performance training to improve science presentations (and oral communication ability in general). The second session of the course is an opportunity to prepare and deliver a brief presentation, receive audience critiques, and give a repeat performance. The pilot of the course had overwhelming turnout from graduate students and post-docs. Based on that initial success the course is now offered every fall and spring and we have the opportunity to further improve the curriculum, expand the course, get more faculty to show up and participate, etc. While it took some convincing, Harvard administration has allowed the course to be offered for academic credit. This was a crucial step towards institutionalizing science communication training and changing the community’s attitude about recognizing that so-called “non-science” curriculum is critical to scientific training and career development.

    The need for communication training really starts even earlier than we are discussing, at the undergraduate level. Many students come to graduate school now with extensive research training. They’ve already begun to communicate their science and bad habits have had a chance to be ingrained. It’s harder to unlearn than to be properly trained at the outset.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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