Teaching Better Communication Skills in Science Courses

In the wake of the recent U.S. presidential election, scientists are redoubling efforts to communicate the importance of science to society. Part of such an effort must be to train the next generation of scientists to be more effective communicators than my generation was. For some years now, there has been a growing movement to improve communication of science. Courses and programs focused on teaching scientists and science students to be better communicators have been implemented at a few institutions of higher learning (for example, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stoney Brook University). Some science societies (AGU is a great example) also are sponsoring keynote talks at conferences on science communication as well as workshops and webinars that teach members about new communication tools and practices.

Progress has been slow, however, and many science students still receive little, if any, training in science communication. At best, undergraduate and graduate students may be given class assignments that provide training in traditional modes of scientific communication—writing a scientific report or giving a conference talk, for example. Although such skills are necessary for someone to succeed in a scientific career, new skills involving modern communication technologies are increasingly required of science professionals. Furthermore, some experts say that scientists wishing to inform the public about the importance of their work must go where the consumers of science information hang out: social media (Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat) and media-sharing platforms (YouTube, Instagram, Vine). To do so will require 21st century communication tools and knowledge of how to use them. Those who acquire such skills early will be at an advantage later in their careers—an ability to communicate with a diverse audience may even make a difference in getting a job. More broadly, a large cohort of trained scientist communicators can help counter anti-science and pseudo-science movements, which threaten the way science and scientists are perceived by policy makers, the media, and the general public.

Of course, not every science professional can or should become a highly visible communicator on the order of Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson. That level of participation and visibility is not what I am talking about. Instead, I’m suggesting that we raise the overall communication skill level of students just enough so that when they must interact with policy makers or the general public as scientists, they can do so more effectively and confidently. One way to encourage and train students to communicate science is to make learning communication skills part of science courses. In addition to the typical course material, students may be given assignments that help them become better communicators. They might create a talk for the general public; an infographic about an important scientific issue; or a video about a species, habitat, or process covered in the class material. The idea would be to introduce students to 21st century communication methods as well as to begin their training in how to effectively engage audiences outside the scientific community.

So, how might this work in a science class?

Recently, I was asked by a colleague, Dr. Tracy Quirk, at Louisiana State University to speak to her class about how to make videos to share science. The course is called “Plants in Coastal Environments”, which covers the distribution and ecology of plants growing in coastal wetlands and adjacent habitats. The course is taught in conjunction with a university-wide program, Communication Across the Curriculum, which endeavors to enhance students’ communication skills in four areas (speaking, writing, visual, and technological). The course must focus on two of these four communication skills and create class assignments that address the requirements for those selected modes. For example, to demonstrate visual skill to communicate discipline-specific information, students might create a video or some other sophisticated visual product. In a communication-intensive course, a portion of the final grade must reflect communication-based work.

One of the class assignments for this particular class was to select a plant species studied in the course and make a video about it. There were about twenty students, who worked in pairs to design and produce a video about coastal plants such as Avicenna germinans (black mangrove), Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass), or Taxodium distichum (bald cypress). Early in the semester, I gave an hour lecture in which I covered some basic information about planning, filming, and editing a video—enough to help the students avoid common filmmaking mistakes and to give them a few ideas for designing their video projects. The students then worked on their video assignments through the following weeks, many filming parts of their video during class field trips to the coast of Louisiana or, for graduate students, during field trips to their research sites.

I again visited the class near the end of the semester when the students presented their completed videos. I was really impressed by the results. The videos were interesting and told intriguing stories, for example, about how a species adapts to the wetland habitat or the relationship of the species to a broader environmental issue such as the BP oil spill. Each video was required to include some data from the literature relevant to the species, and all the student videographers were able to weave that information into their stories. Overall, I could see that they had paid attention to the suggestions I made in my lecture. Most avoided the novice mistakes I often see in first-time videos. Every video was rated by each student, which provided peer feedback on which aspects were good and which could have been done better. What stood out to me was how much more appealing a video was when a student appeared on camera and told a more personal story or impression to introduce their topic. This approach was engaging and quickly grabbed the viewer’s attention. The other thing I saw was that the students came away from the experience with a better appreciation of what it takes to be an effective science communicator. And that, folks, is an important insight for someone who plans to be a science professional.

Below are two of the videos created by students in this class (direct links to videos here and here):

In summary, by emphasizing the use of communication tools such as video in science class assignments, educators can help raise the overall communication skill level of students and better prepare them to compete in the 21st century. As I said above, the goal is not to create an army of Carl Sagan clones, but simply to help future scientists be a bit more engaging and informative in their interactions with the lay public. A little bit of training in communication can go a long way toward improving the overall level of performance when a scientist is called upon to be interviewed by the news media, to testify before Congress, or to give a public lecture about science.

If you are a science educator and are interested in learning more about how to teach better communication skills or if you are a student wanting to acquire those skills, there are many tools and resources available (for example, see the AAAS site or the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science).

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