Incorporating Scicomm into the Science Classroom

27 March 2014 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Photo credit: North Carolina State University

Photo credit: North Carolina State University

Many people believe science communication (scicomm) is important. But one university professor decided to incorporate scicomm training into an advanced biochemistry course, with interesting results.

Scicomm is important for securing research funding, boosting citations and encouraging future generations of scientists. But it’s also an important part of helping people find work.

One study found that 90 percent of hiring managers felt “communication skills are essential for success” (Peterson, 1997). But, the study found, only 60 percent of job applicants had “effective communication skills.”

A similar study of employers in Silicon Valley found that employers were dissatisfied with the communication skills of employees who were fresh out of college (Stevens, 2005).

If employers value communication skills, and you’re training to become a scientist, science communication training is probably important to you. But where can that training take place? Ricky Cox of Murray State University thought a good place to start would be in the science classroom.

Cox decided to incorporate scicomm training into an upper level biochem course of 10 students. In a paper that stemmed from this project, Cox notes that his goal was to prepare students to communicate effectively about science in contexts that he felt would be relevant to their future work experiences: long and short presentations, formal and informal interviews, and teaching or tutoring students (Whittington, et al., 2014).

During the course, students were given access to scicomm training materials and spent class time discussing science communication techniques and strategies. Students were also asked to give oral presentations making use of scicomm techniques over the course of the class.

Students responded favorably to the scicomm elements of the course, noting in the paper that they felt it better prepared them for their future careers. One student even noted that she drew on her scicomm training repeatedly during a subsequent internship.

In short, the scicomm training appeared to have real value for the students.

But there’s a big question here: does it make sense to incorporate scicomm training into a science class when that means taking time away from the science training itself? It’s not ideal. As Cox notes in the paper, “a stand-alone science communication course may be best, [but] instructors and students need other options if this type of course is not available.”

What do you think, readers? Are you aware of other professors who have incorporated scicomm into science courses? Or do you know of faculty who create scicomm training opportunities for students outside of the classroom?

Citations:

Personnel interviewers’ perceptions of the importance and adequacy of applicants’ communication skills,” Communication Education, Marshalita Sims Peterson, DOI: 10.1080/03634529709379102

What communication skills do employers want? Silicon Valley recruiters respond,” Journal of Employment Counseling, Betsy Stevens, DOI: 10.1002/j.2161-1920.2005.tb00893.x

Combining content and elements of communication into an upper-level biochemistry course,” Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, Whittington, et al., DOI: 10.1002/bmb.20770


7 Responses to “Incorporating Scicomm into the Science Classroom”

  1. Richard Gibson Reply | Permalink

    I'm not a faculty person, but as a volunteer industry geologist helped teach 14 summers of college geology field camp. In various contexts, I always told students (and incorporated it into grading) that they could be the best scientist on earth, but unless they could communicate it to someone - their boss, the public, peers, students, whatever - it was pretty much useless. They hated it when I marked off for using "T" for Triassic rather than the proper symbol (T alone means Tertiary, usually) - but I've had a handful of them thank me for that nit-picking later in their careers.

  2. Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

    Matt - good post. I agree that's it's essential, but that science communication ought to be a full course at the beginning of an academic program. We've tried to do that in our environmental biology program by adding (required) course called 'science literacy' into the first year of the program. This was largely brought about by a concern that written communication skills are important but seriously lacking, and we (the faculty) were seeing poor writing skills in upper-level classes, and thus introduced the class. This avoids the problem of having to take away from some specific content in order to insert science communication training.

    Now... does it work? This is difficult to quantify, but informally, it seems that the course is doing what we hoped.

  3. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    Note for other readers who might be interested in the program Chris Buddle mentioned in the comment above: Buddle is on faculty at McGill University in Montreal.

  4. Theresa Liao Reply | Permalink

    I think more and more universities are recognizing the importance of science communication. For example, UBC has Science 113 (http://science.ubc.ca/students/new/first/113), a 1st year seminar course with a focus on scicomm that can serve of part of the student's requirement (although a small class and not a required one for all science students - so not ideal). In the case where a course is not available, the next best option is likely to have some class time for scicomm and at least get the students interested and to consider it as a critical skill being a scientist.

  5. Daniel McGarvey Reply | Permalink

    Hi Matt. We're trying a couple of new things along the scicomm training line at Virginia Commonwealth University. Last Fall, I paired my Environmental Studies Senior Capstone class with the Senior Capstone in Graphic Design (VCU has the #1 public arts school in the country!). Instead of doing something tedious and of limited value, such as a term paper, each of my students served as the 'technical expert' on an environmental topic (blue crabs in the Chesapeake, bee colony collapse, cigarette butt pollution, etc.) and worked with a Graphic Design partner to create some sort of visual deliverable - a scicomm product, if you will. There were some pretty cool results and it seemed to motive my students to elevate their game a level or two. The process was orchestrated somewhat from the hip, but my collaborator (a prof. in Graphic Design) and I have critiqued the process some and will unroll the new and improved v2 this coming Fall. Also, I obtained a start-up grant from the University to offer a new class on data visualization and communication; the class will be taught in the Department of Communication Arts, and is being offered to STEM graduate students. The idea is to provide some basic (but noticeably better than the competition, i.e. other science grad students) skills in computer illustration and infographics. This new class will be offered for the first time in Fall 2014 and I'm pretty excited about it; some of our better grad students have eagerly signed up for it.

    (BTW - I'm an Asst. Prof. of Environmental Studies).

  6. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    That sounds like a really cool initiative, Daniel. I'd love to see some of the finished products once they're ready for public consumption.

    • Dan McGarvey Reply | Permalink

      Can do, Matt. I'm planning to build a website for the project and some of the results throughout the next year. Once it has some interesting content on it, I'll send you a link.

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