University science programs, both undergraduate and graduate, have an exceptional variety of scientists conducting ground-breaking, cutting-edge work. However, these research institutions do not often train students in effective science communication. That’s not to say that some universities have not made strides in establishing science communications curricula. MIT, for example, created a communications requirement tailored to the oral and written communications of scientific materials. However, researchers need to move beyond communicating effectively in their field and learn to communicate scientific information to a general audience.
Without Science Communication, There Is No Science Literacy
Being able to communicate your science is central to scientific research: it comes in handy when applying for grants, raising donations and awareness, empowering individuals with information to make decisions relating to science and health, and more. University students and researchers are often at the center of this process, communicating research with other scientists and the public.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the issue of science and health communications, especially the practice of translating complex scientific language to the public, into the spotlight. The scientific and medical communities (including science and health communicators) are tasked with the challenge of persuading people, most of whom are not scientists, to get a COVID-19 vaccine, for example.
Unfortunately, though science researchers are the gatekeepers of sorts of this health and science knowledge, not all researchers are good at communicating their findings to the general public. Learning to work well with the media is also an important part of science communication, in order to get your point across effectively. Without effective science communication, there is no science literacy.
Whether or not all scientists should be communicators is highly controversial — we believe you can do as you please. However, all scientists should have proficiency in communicating even if they aren’t “science communicators.” As such, there needs to be a better way for scientists who are interested in strengthening their science communication skills to do so. One way to improve science communication is to teach science communication foundations at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Building science communication is especially important on the graduate level, when knowledge is more specialized and therefore also more siloed.
Below, we will highlight some of the best practices in teaching science communication to students at university:
Best Practices When Teaching Science Communication at the University Level
1. Consider your audience
Obviously, if you are teaching a course which has a science communications component, it’s easy to know your audience. If you are a science communications professional that is guest lecturing, ask the professor about the audience. Are there undergraduates, graduate students, post-graduate students, medical students, or other people in attendance? Tailor your course to those in attendance.
2. Keep it simple, but not too simple
Remember that your goal isn’t to make everyone an expert in science communication, but to learn some foundations that can be useful. Likewise, don’t talk down to your audience. Nobody likes to feel stupid.
3. Consider a smaller seminar instead of a large lecture
Teaching professionals should evaluate the size of the classroom along with best practices to teach science communication. Lecturers should also ensure that the active learning environment is non-judgmental. Personally, we believe that a smaller group of 6-10 students is the optimal learning environment for science communication.
4. Do not discount peer-to-peer learning
In small groups, such as in seminars, every student can learn to pick up the right tone for science communication and also quickly and easily learn from their peers. Students are also able to identify techniques in communication that they like and dislike from each other and openly discuss the advantages and disadvantages of these.
5. Include some real-life SciComm activities
Science communication is fun because it involves actual communication. So it should come as no surprise that to teach science communication at university, your students have to feel comfortable taking turns to speak up. Most science communication courses have outreach programs with local primary schools, museums, etc. Encourage your students to participate!
Most importantly, have fun! It could be useful to come up with some in-classroom science communication activities, such as figuring out how to write a social media caption when sharing a scientific article. Whatever you do, make sure it captivates students’ attention; research shows that students learn the most when they are engaged. Check out this post from the Ecological Society of America for more ideas.