Helping Students Communicate Science – Beyond the Classroom!


There’s a new course at McGill. It’s called Communicating Science (CCOM 314). Diane Dechief, a Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre, designed the course and is teaching its first run this semester.

I interviewed Diane to learn what the course addresses and how she designed it. The first thing I learned is that communicating science is a growing interest for many scientists.  

Diane explained: There’s a movement, both online and off, toward increasing science communication. It’s a push for academics to become better at talking about their research to non-specialists, and for scientists, in particular, to assert their knowledge, control their message, and communicate with the public more broadly.

As examples, Three-Minute Thesis competitions for Ph.D. students are now popular internationally, including at McGill. And online, there’s the Twitter hashtag #scicomm: this tag is used when people post research findings intended for non-specialist audiences.

Carolyn: Who are your students and what do you want them to get out of the course?

 Diane: The students in this first run of the course are undergrads, largely in their final year. They’re from a variety of academic backgrounds, but mostly science — neuroscience, physiology, chemistry.

stethoscopeBy the end of the course, I’d like students to be aware of real life opportunities for communicating science to a broader public. They should be able to explain theories or concepts from their field with an awareness of specific audiences, and to be intentional about using metaphors responsibly and avoiding jargon.

Imagine, for example, students majoring in physiology who want to become medical doctors. In addition to communicating within the medical community, they’ll need to communicate with patients. The course offers students the mindset and practice to do this.

Carolyn: What are the assignments?

 Diane: Students complete five assignments that capture a variety of genres and target different audiences. Each assignment requires drafts and revisions, and has interim steps that culminate in the final product.

The first two writing assignments are informative: a New York Times Trilobite-style piece, and a profile of a McGill researcher.

Read how undergrads in a Pharmacology course at McGill make findings from journal articles accessible to lay audiences.

PodcastImage

An Op-Ed and a policy brief are the persuasive writing assignments. The final group project is a podcast that communicates science to Montreal high school students. Podcasts were included in our course “readings,” so we discussed models and anti-models throughout the term.

Carolyn: How do you make communicating science real for students?

Diane: One way is by inviting guest speakers who do the kinds of things we talk about in the course. Joe Schwarcz, Director of McGill’s Office for Science and Society, was our first guest.

Redpath
Photo credit: Torsten Bernhardt

Ingrid Birker, who does science outreach for the Redpath Museum, took us on a tour of the museum and shared techniques for engaging different types of audiences. Senior Communications Officer Katherine Gombay from McGill’s Media Relations Office also visited the class.

Katherine Gombay has a background in radio, and she did this beautiful thing where we listened to a podcast excerpt and we paused several times within the first 45 seconds to talk about what we were hearing and what effect what we hearing had on us. This activity impressed upon students the power of even the subtlest features of podcasts.

Additionally, the final drafts of three course assignments are posted on our private WordPress website. For me, as well as the students, seeing their written work in this “real world” environment is powerful. Students read their peers’ work with interest and even comment on each other’s Op-Eds.

Carolyn: How did you actually go about designing the course?

Diane: I began by reflecting on one main question: “What are the real life writing opportunities that students have and will continue to have throughout their lives?” The answer to this question led to the creation of the learning outcomes.

OutcomesFrom there, I started brainstorming the assignments that would allow students to achieve the outcomes. I was able to get some valuable feedback from other instructors at the Teaching and Learning Services Course Design Workshop.

TLS
Photo credit: Owen Egan

During a group feedback activity, I presented my assignment ideas and asked about the utility of the assignments in light of my course goal.

One prof, who had done a post-doc in California, thought that the researcher profile assignment was really useful. He’d been interviewed and thought it was enriching for junior researchers as well as students to get that kind of interview practice.

Carolyn: I know you’re only part way through the course, but I’m wondering: do you know how students feel about the course so far?

Diane: Yes! I made a point of doing a mid-course evaluation. I provided several prompts and said: “Address as many as you want to; just write a paragraph or two and don’t write your name on the paper.”

One thing that I learned from the students’ responses was that although they hadn’t seemed keen to give oral presentations when we discussed the possibility in class, privately, a number of students really wanted to do this. I’m now teaching my students how to give oral presentations, and they are quite confident at the front of the class.

Carolyn: Creating a new course is a lot of work. You didn’t have to create a new course. What motivated you to do it?

Diane: There’s support at McGill for grad students and faculty members to become stronger communicators of their research. I work mostly with undergrads and I thought it would be beneficial for them to learn these things as part of an undergraduate education.

CCOM 314 is the kind of course I would have wanted in my undergrad degree. I now have a chance to give students a piece of education that has a strong potential for enriching them personally and professionally.

Carolyn: Teaching a new course can be a professional development opportunity for an instructor. Can you tell me about something you learned?

Diane: Communicating science to a variety of audiences is not easy, but it is increasingly important. Designing this course has made me realize that like anything, these communication skills can be developed: students need to learn and practice each piece and then have the opportunity to see the effect of putting all of the pieces together.

Do you have your students communicate science in different ways to different audiences? Let us know what assignments you give your students.

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