There are many ways

to skin this course

Blending an online science communication course

into existing classroom programs increases participation

Published September 01 2017

Makenzie Mabry, a third-year graduate student in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri who completed the Art of Science Communication course, talks to students at Benton Elementary School about DNA in broccoli.

Makenzie Mabry has been talking science to nonscientists.

Art of Science Communication:

a course's online origins

Whether we’re trying to discuss our work with the person sitting next to us on an airplane, our family and friends, a news reporter, or a political figure, we soon realize that explaining science to people with no experience or prior knowledge of science is not an easy job. For all our expertise, we often find ourselves at a loss for the right words, and we quickly realize that relaying science to lay audiences requires thought, special skills and a whole lot of practice.

This realization motivated the Public Outreach Committee of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology to develop a course that would instruct scientists — young and old — on how to talk science to wider audiences. The result is the Art of Science Communication, an interactive online course.

The course introduces general communication skills and offers tips, techniques and ample practice opportunities for participants. It consists of online lectures and seven weekly online discussions with a mentor. Discussion groups are kept at four to five students to allow effective interaction. Feedback is given in class and online on the course site. Each session provides additional material to augment the lectures and includes weekly homework assignments.

Students come to the course with a pre-course video, a five- to seven-minute talk explaining the science of their own work to a lay audience. During the weekly meeting, these videos are deconstructed and then reconstructed to craft a post-course video. With help and feedback from the mentor and from other members of the class, we examine the name of the talk (Is it clear, simple and intriguing, and would it catch one’s attention while running down the hall late for class?), the introductory sentences (Are they engaging, informative, yet un-threatening, and do they break the barrier between the speaker and the audience and promise a good and understandable talk?), and the body of the talk (losing jargon, simplifying concepts, employing effective analogies, framing the topic differently for particular audiences, and learning simply to tell a story).

Course mentors were initially outreach committee members versed in teaching science communication. We continually expand our mentor pool by identifying course participants who are advanced enough to become mentors. The new recruits go through our mentors guide, and they usually work with an experienced mentor for one or two cycles before getting a group of their own.

To date, the course has been offered online six times to a total of 167 participants representing 17 countries. Ninety-four percent of participants feel better prepared to give a presentation to a nonexpert audience, and 90 percent would recommend the course to a colleague or a friend.

The positive responses from students, as well as the immensely improved quality of the post-course videos, have been our reward.

Hannah Alexander Hannah Alexander is a retired associate research professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri. In recent years, she developed science communication courses at the University, initiated the “Science and Me” program, and participated in developing and teaching the online Art of Science Communication course through the ASBMB.

Mabry, a third-year graduate student in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri, recently gave a presentation at Science On Tap, a program designed to communicate science to adults in a relaxed and fun environment. She also led children ages 5 to 10 through a laboratorylike presentation about DNA at a local elementary school.

“With each of these programs, I learn new ways to excite the public about science and why they should care about it,” Mabry said. “This, in turn, rejuvenates me to remember why I do what I do.”

As part of a mandatory graduate survival skills class, Mabry and other incoming Missouri graduate students took the Art of Science Communication, or ASC, an online course developed by the Public Outreach Committee of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “Taking the course allowed me to develop insight to the importance of presenting to different types of public audiences,” Mabry said.

That’s exactly what the committee had in mind when it launched the new blended version of the course it developed three years ago. “The original online-only version, which was designed for small groups, is successful,” said Hannah Alexander, a committee member and online course mentor who taught the Missouri course with Kathleen Newton. “The rate of completion is satisfactory, the responses from the students are overwhelmingly positive and we have quite a few post-course documented outreach actions by the students,” she said. “But we constantly strive to expand our reach, and doing it with four to five students per group, ten groups per session, is not changing the world.”

Contact us

Would you like to learn more about bringing the Art of Science Communication to your institution? The people who have taught the course would be happy to share ideas, impressions and advice.

Hannah Alexander ( alexanderh@missouri.edu) and Kathleen Newton ( newtonk@missouri.edu) taught Graduate Survival Skills at the University of Missouri.

Jon Dattelbaum ( jdattelb@richmond.edu) taught the Seniors-Year Research Project at the University of Richmond.

Michael Pierce ( hawkeye@uga.edu) taught the T32 Glycoscience Training Grant Program at the University of Georgia.

Hudson Freeze ( Hudson@sbpdiscovery.org) and Thomas Baldwin ( tbaldwin@ucr.edu) teach Science Communication at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute.

Susanna Greer ( Susanna.greer@cancer.org) is the Public Outreach Committee chair and a seasoned mentor and instructor of science communication.

To increase participation, committee members experimented with offering the ASC course to larger groups at four locations in four different formats, promoting a tool that helps scientists improve their skill in communicating science to all audiences.

“The course prepares students to present their science to any audience, be it scientific, lay or an audience in between,” said Susanna Greer, chair of the outreach committee and an ASC mentor. “Feeling comfortable adjusting our presentations to our audience is an essential skill set for all scientists, and the earlier in one’s career that skill set is sharpened, the better.”

In addition to the graduate students at the University of Missouri, the course was offered to senior undergraduates in the biochemistry and molecular biology program at the University of Richmond as a way to prepare for giving talks about their hands-on research projects. Pre-doctoral fellows at the University of Georgia took the class as part of a National Institutes of Health T32 training-grant program, and graduate students at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in La Jolla, Calif., have taken the blended ASC course as a science communication class taught by Hudson Freeze.

“Watching these students zoom from uncertainty to comfort in front of a camera or any nonscientific group was jaw-dropping,” Freeze said. “I’m confident that the future of science communication will be in skilled and enthusiastic hands. We just need more folks to join the party.”

Aditi Mishra became a mentor for the online ASC course after taking the blended version at the University for Missouri. “The Art of Science Communication was a very insightful course,” she said. “The class was easy to follow, and I learned techniques for presenting to diverse audiences without doing away with the scientific aspect of my talks. I have used my knowledge from the course to teach undergrads and give talks to scientific and lay audiences, and it has worked really well.”

By bringing the course into existing classroom programs, instructors are able to tailor the curriculum to their students’ needs. The seniors at the University of Richmond were preparing to deliver a talk to students and faculty members who had science backgrounds but no expertise in the presenters’ particular fields of research, which ranged from protein chemistry to organismal evolutionary biology. “Over seven weeks, using the online materials, the students prepared and delivered their talks and gave each other feedback,” said Jon Dattlebaum, a committee member and course mentor who taught the course at Richmond. “The in-class portion of the course gave them the structure to focus their presentations and to learn from peer critiques.”

Similarly, the course filled a void at the University of Georgia. “The response to an initial poll of 14 pre-doctoral fellows about their interest in the course was very positive,” said course mentor Michael Pierce, “and encouraged the establishment of the course.”

The grad students at the University of Missouri each prepared a 10-minute talk about their work for the rest of the class. Their individual expertise covered a variety of disciplines, including molecular and cell biology, neurobiology, plant biology, ecology and conservation biology, making the class effectively a lay audience. The online ASC lectures were available to students, and weekly follow-up sessions were conducted in class. Post-course talks were presented to and critiqued by the entire class.

Olha Kholod, who took the ASC course at Missouri, enjoyed being able to discuss homework assignments with her peers. “The discussions were quite informal,” she said, “which erased barriers between instructors and students and provided freedom for self-expression and creativity.” Like Mishra, Kholod became a mentor for the online ASC course. “I adore talking about biology to … my family members, my friends and even to complete strangers,” she said. “My acquaintances always refer to me as an expert in biology, and it’s so important for me to be able to communicate my knowledge in a comprehensive way.”

A number of professors at other institutions — including ASBMB President Natalie Ahn at the University of Colorado, Boulder — have taken the online ASC course as students, with plans to integrate it into their curriculum.

The outreach committee hopes the four successfully tested models for a blended version of the course will help others incorporate science communication into their institutions’ curricula. “The quality of the post-course presentation, in all of these venues, serves as testimony to the notion that one’s science communication skills can be improved, whether you are an undergraduate, a graduate student or an established scientist,” Alexander said. “The basic online ASC course lends itself to many different iterations and can serve as an excellent tool to enrich existing programs in any institute.”

The ASC course is available for use by ASBMB members at their own institutions. “We call on members to get in touch with us to find out about it, explore it and try it,” Alexander said. “We promise that you will feel rewarded.”

Thanks to Hannah Alexander, John Dattlebaum, Michael Pierce, Hudson Freeze, Susanna Greer and Geoff Hunt for their contributions to this article.

Comfort Dorn Comfort Dorn is the managing editor of ASBMB Today.