Communicating science

A new 300-level course, Communicating Science (SCIE 300), is being developed specifically for the Combined Major in Science (CMS) and focuses on giving students the skills to critically evaluate and communicate scientific issues.

“Students have voiced a real need for a course like this,” says CMS program director Shona Ellis. “They weren’t getting any real training about how to communicate their knowledge. This course gives them the skills – and the confidence – to share what they know.”

The course, to be launched January 2011, will tackle written skills along with how to supplement presentations with creative visuals. Students will also learn the difference between communicating with the public, science reporting, and communicating to the scientific community.

“We want to concentrate on getting students to think about who they are writing for and how best to reach them,” says course coordinator Eric Jandciu, who is a graduate of the UBC School of Journalism and helped run the School’s science journalism program.

“Science is so entrenched in our daily lives, being able to communicate its implications to the public is an essential skill for scientists.”

“Take climate change, for example,” Jandciu says. “We hear about it in the news almost daily, but if the people responsible for communicating the facts about climate change aren’t doing it in an accessible way, the public loses its ability to understanding the issues and participate meaningfully in the civic discourse required to make changes.”

Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at UBC Fisheries Centre and project leader of UBC Beaty Biodiversity Museum’s Blue Whale Project, is part of the a team of instructors and share his experience in creating engaging presentations to diverse audiences.

Students will also have an opportunity to interview researchers who have recently published to learn how to summarize information and develop scientific reporting skills.

“These researchers can be a tremendous resource for students, who will learn to interview, summarize, evaluate and present the relevance of the research to the public,” says Ellis.

Students will be introduced to the peer review process, an opportunity that many don’t experience unless they choose to pursue graduate studies. The ability to impartially review scholarly works is considered an essential component of academic quality, but hasn’t previously been covered in undergraduate science curriculum.

“Sometimes undergraduate students get lucky and take part in the peer review process as a research assistant,” says Ellis. “This course gives them the chance to become familiar with the practice early on.”

Bruce Dunham, a senior instructor in the Department of Statistics and member of the course planning team, will cover data interpretation and the use and misuse of inferential statistics in scientific reporting. Dunham is a 2009 winner of the UBC Science Achievement Awards for his commitment to improving the quality of undergraduate statistics instruction.

“We have an incredible team of people working on the course,” says Ellis. “There’s a wealth of knowledge and experience to pass along to students.”

“The Communicating Science course – and the Combined Major in Science program –really aim to provide students with the background they need to become informed global citizens and the skills to effectively communicate science to diverse audiences.”