It is clear that the role of scientists in society has shifted over the past few decades. With the explosion of communication methods and accessible information/disinformation at one’s fingertips, dissemination of science is falling more and more on the shoulders of the scientists themselves. There is no longer one way for the public to acquire scientific findings (science journalists) and the quandary of competing claims that pervades the scientific community is now more visible to the public and may be hard to interpret without critical thinking skills. While science communication is not a new concept, there are many more means of interacting with scientific information than ever before. This can lead to confusion when a friend’s facebook post contradicts a scientific claim you heard on the radio that morning. What to do?
Luckily, many scientists and science-friendly advocates have answered the call and the field of scientific communication has expanded. While there are many opportunities for scientists to be trained in science communication, research and teaching usually takes priority. One way to solve this problem is to view teaching as a means of learning how to communicate science. When teaching students, there are ample opportunities to practice scientific communication as well as having students practice these skills themselves. Some scientists are advocating that science communication be incorporated into education at all levels, especially higher education.
There are 3 teaching goals that I advocate will help someone become a better teacher and a better science communicator:
- Backward Design and Teaching like a Scientist. Backward design, as illustrated above, is a framework for designing courses by focusing on your learning objectives first and building from there. This system is analogous to communicating science to the public. It’s important to think about what you want your audience to take home before you decide what you are going to say, and how you are going to design your arguments. This approach is similar to how we approach a scientific question, designing a hypothesis, developing methods to test our hypothesis (assessment), and conducting the experiment. Teaching like a scientist can help you become a better educator and science communicator.
- Give up control of your classroom. The traditional way to learn is to listen to an orator discuss a topic and explain complex concepts. While this method is very ingrained in higher education, it is not as effective as actively engaging students in their own learning process, no matter the topic. By giving up control of the knowledge dissemination, you as the instructor are providing open conceptual space to students to teach themselves, a much more effective learning process. There are numerous examples of this style of teaching in action, but one that comes to mind is having students overcome their evolutionary misconceptions by working them out themselves as opposed to being told the correct science. Throwing information at students, and the public, is not effective at changing minds. Keeping this in mind when teaching students will also prepare you for communicating science to the general public.
- Practice, Practice, Practice. Practice makes perfect is not cliche. It’s the truth. If you don’t have an opportunity to teach a course on your own or co-teach a course, try guest lecturing, or giving public talks. Even volunteering to give presentations at local elementary/high schools is good practice for becoming a better instructor and communicator. As scientists, we live in a sea of jargon. Learning the ways to disseminate complex information in simple language is a skill that will not only benefit you as a teacher and communicator, but also help you better present your own science and research to the greater scientific community.
Nate Emery is a Research Associate at Michigan State University in the Plant Biology Department. He currently investigates how professional development affects teaching practices in early career biology faculty. He is also a plant ecophysiologist and conducts research on foliar water uptake of leaves. Nate has sought out educational research to improve and develop his own teaching and enjoys building opportunities for student engagement in the courses he teaches. Feel free to message Nate if any of the papers are behind a paywall. You can find him at www.nathanemery.com, direct message him @FoggyIdeas or email him at emeryna1 [at] msu.edu .