We’ve previously blogged for Science Talk about how to lecture about science communication. In this post, we’ll talk about practical science communication exercises that educators can use, and discuss a few do’s and don’ts in undertaking these exercises in the classroom.
Here are a few examples of science communication exercises
- Layperson summaries of science papers — we like calling them “News and Views.” Students can summarize a scientific paper’s main points in a few easy-to-understand sentences. To do this, they should only provide as much detail as needed to explain the topic. They should explain the concepts in the paper at the level of someone unfamiliar with the topic who has no formal science training.
- Social media exercises. Social media is increasingly becoming a source of information, including emerging insights from the scientific community. Your students can write a tweet about a paper, summarizing the main takeaway(s) in 280 characters or less. We’ve found that our students were surprisingly good at this task! If your students would like to communicate their science on Instagram, try to get them to explain their study within the 2,200 character limit. Our suggestion is to let your students decide their platform for their science communication.
- Science art. Alternatively, if they are interested in creating scientific art, they can use this exercise to create accordingly. There’s so many ways to use a creative medium to express scientific concepts: knitting, drawing, illustrations, singing, etc. Try not to limit your students’ way of expression. Need inspiration? Here are a few examples: Sheeva’s favorite science art is the brainbow from the Harvard Center of Brain Science, which actually originated from the need to track different brain cells or neurons, by labeling each with a different color. We both love fellow science communicator Raven the Science Maven, who puts out science-themed music videos. There’s also a great needlepoint of supernova remnant Cas-A.
- Writing a paper critique meant for a general audience. Often, in the science world, papers that are hot off the press are fraught with controversy. An important SciComm skill is to be able to use critical thinking skills to explain why a scientific paper might not be all it’s purporting to be.
- Explaining a complex science topic as one might to friends and family. Exercises in which students explain scientific concepts to friends and family can be useful to improve science communication skills. We learned in the COVID-19 pandemic that verbal SciComm skills are useful. Talking to people about the science of COVID-19 vaccines can help dispel vaccine hesitancy. Anyone with a science background can help improve science literacy among the general population by exercising science communication skills. For example, Nidhi’s family had so many questions about the science of COVID-19 that she published various COVID-19 explainers.
- Doing role-playing to explain a complex science topic to policymakers. Policymakers are not scientists, but the work they do often occurs at the intersection of society — think agriculture, healthcare, environmental policy, even providing federal funding for both biomedical and basic science. As a result, our lawmakers need someone to explain science to them in order for them to make effective policies. As Sheeva has written before, a neglected aspect of scientific training is the policy aspect of science communication. So, students can practice their SciComm skills by role-playing interactions with their lawmakers, which can culminate in drafting emails to policymakers about various topics in science, or even picking up the phone and calling their members of Congress (or the relevant lawmaking body in your country, if you are not based in the United States).
- Engage in “science storytelling.” Stories are a convenient way to communicate, and have been used throughout history. Science can also tell a story. Encourage your students to engage in storytelling using the 5 W’s — what is happening, who is the focus of the story, when and where is the story taking place, and why is it important to the listener or reader?
- Improvise. Check out the PLoS SciComm blog’s discussion of using improvisation in the classroom to improve science communication teaching. If you ask your class an open-ended question, and they provide an answer, continue the conversation using concepts from improv. Say “yes, and” before adding your own information to the mix. The four C’s of improv are “creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication,” which are also foundational in SciComm.
- Use technology. Video recordings are a great way to capture oral science communication, as Ponzio and colleagues report from their SciComm communication endeavors at Rutgers University. It’s easy to record an oral SciComm presentation on one’s smartphone for feedback from oneself and one’s colleagues. If your students are not comfortable on camera, consider suggesting creating animations of science concepts.
- Leverage outreach opportunities as ways to improve SciComm. Outreach opportunities, such as teaching science to K-12 students or doing a science demo at a museum, can be a great way for students to gain hands-on science communication experience. While outreach has traditionally been a foundational aspect of most graduate training programs in science, these experiences are rarely leveraged in terms of their ability to improve students’ SciComm skills.
What exercises have you used in the classroom to successfully teach SciComm? What has worked, and what hasn’t worked? Feel free to chime in below in the comments!