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Teaching Science Communication

ESA Water Cooler Chat June 12, 2020 

Science Communication is increasingly recognized as a core competency, essential to ecology curriculum. What are some of the approaches ecologists are taking to teaching Science Communication? Join leaders of ESA’s Communication and Engagement Section for a chat about their experiences teaching Science Communication and an opportunity to share your stories, insights, ideas, and questions about teaching Science Communication. 

Hosted by: 

Kirsten Schwarz and Bob Newman from the Communication & Engagement Section, ESA 


 Science Communication 

What is Science Communication?  

Science Communication is an umbrella term for anything related to sharing science with others. The traditional methods for communicating science have included the classic PowerPoint lectures or student poster sessions, but less conventional strategies for engaging diverse audiences have recently taken the spotlight. Today we are seeing great examples including videos, stories, images, and citizen science projects, but these methods all require training and classes to improve.   

In a General Ed curriculum, students must take writing classes, which does not build the specific skills needed for effective Science Communication. As a result, many science faculty want to see Science Communication courses as requirement for majors. They believe having communication being taught throughout the department might help those who teach Science CommunicationAs a result, instead of being able to dedicate time to teaching science, they must focus on science communication skills which they are not really trained to teach. 


Teaching Science Communication 

Addressing a class is different than addressing a general audience. When creating a class to teach Science Communication, having course objectives always helps. Some course objectives include: 

  • Ensure students learn the fundamentals of science messaging and how creating a narrative can advance science communication.  
  • Educate how to communicate scientific knowledge to broad audiences including community members, youth, and policy makers.  
  • Try connecting the current literature regarding the science of science communication with emerging environmental health issues. 
  • Be an example, by producing your own effective science communication, specifically video and photo projects.  
  •  Provide, reflect on, and incorporate constructive feedback. 


Guidance, ideas, and tips on how to teach Science Communication 

  • Students come with a lot of preconceptions. Challenge them to think about where their ideas come from and that not all sources are credible. 
  • Most discourse are not focused on fact but on emotions and storytelling. Consider this when teaching your students to fact-check themselves and others.  
  • Use a text editor to help teach and encourage students to reduce jargon in their writing such as the Up-Goer Five Text Editor and the De-Jargonizer 
  • Organizations like The National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) are a good source to look at the world of natural history and environmental interpretational and communicating to the public for those want to have careers such as working at aquariums, zoos, the forest service, and many other organizations.   
  • Being able to effectively communicate is key. 
  • Consider using communication rubrics 
  • When students work on group projects, consider having them write out contracts with each other on responsibilities prior to starting and then evaluate each other’s work at the projects’ conclusion. This allows each student to hold one another accountable and maintain an equal share of the work on collaborative projects. 
  • Encourage students to simplify their science writing with challenges such as #EmojiYourResearch and #SketchYourScience 


Problems with teaching Science Communication: How does one assess?  

Most science majors are going into settings where they will need to do public engagement, making learning Science Communication crucial. One major problem is that teachers lack  access to effective assessments. Being able to gauge how difficult a project was or what makes a successful Science Communication is complicated and often difficult. How does one assess communication and summarizing scientific literature? Some solutions and advice on how to solve these problems include: 

  • Invite local communicators from museums to be judges 
  • Have communications students work with science majors on things like press releases 
  • Host small group work to facilitate cross discussion 
  • Have students read the science literature with discussion and/or assessments of student comprehension and have many types of writing assessments. 
  • Work with a community partner on Science Communication projects such as local nonprofits.  
  • Talk with communications professors to get good ideas on how to build a successful rubric that can assess. 
  • Share real peer reviews with students as an instructive tool. It helps students to see that teachers have their work heavily critiqued as well. It will help them see it as part of a process rather than one draft and done. 


Upcoming Awards 

The Science Communication in Practice Award ($400) recognizes individual projects, career contributions and significant papers/research that represent excellence in science communication and community engagement with science. Nominations are open through June 30! Please submit your nominations here.  

The SciComm Poster Award ($200) recognizes excellence in visual science communication, communication and engagement projects, and/or the broader impacts aspects of a research project. If you submitted a poster abstract to #ESA2020 annual meeting that you would like considered for the award, please fill out this form by July 15. 


Events and Conferences: 

SciComm is a conference that helps teach and engage with those who use science communication from all diverse audiences, and across all venues 

The conference will be held virtually from August 14-16 2020. Sign up here. 

Science Talk, had a virtual conference that occurred from March 26-17, 2020.  

The ESA Virtual Annual Meeting will help address the issue of howto harnessing the data revolution to address pressing issues in ecology. 

Evidence-based Communication Techniques for Talking about Climate Change webinar is being hosted by ESA on June 25. Sign up here. 


Other Resources: 

On June 10, there was a call to #ShutDownAcademia and #ShutDownSTEM to bring attention to Black people in STEM and academia.  

The University of Rhode Island’s  Metcalf Institute  launched the #InclusiveSciComm Symposium in 2018 to center inclusion and equity in STEMM engagement and to build a community of practice around science communication. 

The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) seeks to inspire and promote intellectual work in the environmental humanities and arts.  

This Justice in June document was compiled by Autumn Gupta and Bryanna Wallace for the purpose of providing a starting place for individuals trying to become better allies. It has a daily schedule with links to anti-racism resources. 

Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World aims to teach the reader how to think critically about the data and models that constitute evidence in the social and natural sciences. 

BioRender helps to make graphical abstracts, by offering a large number of pre-drawn icons and templates from more than thirty fields of life sciences. 

Examples of syllabi for teaching Science Communication Courses are available 

Stephen Heard’s author of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing offers his science writing course syllabus, including his slides. They are available here: 

An online science journalism course created by the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) and SciDev.Net. 

The Message Box, from Compass, is a tool to help the user sift through the mountain of information about their work, and identify the essential nuggets for your chosen audience. The Message Box consists of five sections to help you sort and distill the knowledge in a way that resonates with your audience, and is based on the scientific underpinnings of how to communicate effectively. 

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) offers the Communication Toolkit to offer guidance and tips on how to improve one’s communications skills. 

The Frameworks Institute has done a great deal of social science research to determine the best ways to frame conversations for change, including many environmental topics.  

The Inspiring Meaningful Programs and Communication Through Science (IMPACTS) from the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill can be a model for similar programs elsewhere.  

The ESA Communication and Engagement website empowers ecologists to better communicate the stories of our science (including stories about the people doing the science) in creative, compelling and innovative ways. 

The University of Wyoming’s Communication classes sequence

VALUE rubrics from the Association of American Colleges and Universities.  

BGM’s undergrad Communicating Science course: Prompts for peer review of posters  and Prompts for peer review informed by the standards of science peer reviewer 

From the University of Wyoming English 1010 program Characteristics for ABCD Writing

Peer-Review Form by Dr. Bruce K. Kirchoff


Studies, Papers, and Articles: 

Baram-Tsabari, A., and B.V. Lewenstein. 2017. Science communication training: what are we trying to teach?. International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 7:3,  285-300.  

Brownell et al. 2013. Science Communication to the General Public: Why We Need to Teach Undergraduate and Graduate Students this Skill as Part of Their Formal Scientific Training. The Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education (JUNE), Fall 2013, 12(1):E6-E10 

Craig, J.L. et al. 2008. Innovation Across the Curriculum: Three Case Studies in Teaching Science and Engineering Communication. Ieee Transactions On Professional Communication, VoL. 51, NO. 3. 

Chan, V. 2011. Teaching oral communication in undergraduate science: Are we doing enough and doing it right?. Journal of Learning Design 4(3). 

Guilford, W.H. 2001. Teaching Peer Review  And The Process Of Scientific Writing. Advances in Physiology Education 25(3): 167-175. 

Merkle, B.G. 2019. Writing Science: Transforming Students’ Science Writing by Tapping into Writing Instruction Scholarship and Best Practices. The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 100(1): e01487. 

Merkle, B.G. 2020. Writing Science: Leveraging a Few Techniques from Creative Writing Toward Writing More Effectively. The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 101(2): e01650.  

Nilson, L. 2016 An article on specifications grading, “Yes, Virgina, There’s a Better Way to Grade” 

Rodgers, S. et al. 2018. Decoding Science: Development and Evaluation of a Science Communication Training Program Using a Triangulated Framework. Science Communication 40(1): 3-32. 

Wood, W.B. Innovations in Teaching Undergraduate Biology and Why We Need Them. 

Zhu, W. 2004. Faculty views on the importance of writing, the nature of academic writing, and teaching and responding to writing in the disciplines. Journal of Second Language Writing 13: 29-48. 

Zimmerman, J. 2017 “It’s Time to Give up on Facts” article offers a new perspective on countering misinformation.  


Books and Journals: 

Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda by B.G Merkle

The Debunking Handbook, a guide to debunking misinformation, is now  freely available to download. 

Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World by Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D West Pre-Buy: Comes out on August 4, 2020 

The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, by Stephen Heard offers advice on how to write more easily and effectively throughout one’s scientific career. 

Scientist-Community Partnerships: A Scientist’s Guide to Successful Collaboration 

Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda  


Videos and Podcasts:

“Ologies with Alie Ward”, a podcast, lets the listener walk side by side through life as a Black academic and hear their tips to best support them as well as guidance to Black students.  

Randy Olson Great Challenges Day, ABT Method at TedMed 2013  

TED talk on Dance Your Science: Dance vs Powerpoint, a modest proposal. John Bohannon gives his take on how to make your next presentation less boring.   

The Story Collider tells true, personal stories about science.