Science Communication College Course Ideas

Hello all. Sorry I’ve been too busy to update the site with new posts recently. I’ve been putting in about 80 hour weeks every week this summer trying to keep up with all of the field work for my project in Alaska. Saying Alaska has a short field/growing season is definitely an understatement!

Anyway, I am working on putting together a college course focused on science communication. It would be taught in an agronomy department at an undisclosed land grant university. That’s about all I can tell you for now (I’ll tell you more in a few months). However, I’d like your input on what you would like to see in such a course. I know I have a pretty diverse audience that reads this blog in terms of educations, scientific training, age, etc., but I’m hoping I could get some good feedback from all of you.

A great quote on science communication from the great science communicator himself – Carl Sagan. Photo credit:

This class would include students in agronomy (soil and crop scientists), as well as other agriculture and possibly ecology majors that would consist of mostly upperclassmen and graduate students. The goal is to turn these scholars into well-rounded scientists that possess the know-how and experience to communicate what they do as scientists to a wide range of audiences. As you can see, I’m in the development stages of this class, and I would appreciate some ideas on activities, books, lecture topics, etc. that you think might benefit these students and help them learn to communicate their science. If you have any ideas, please drop a line in the comment box, or email me or tweet at me.

I’m currently envisioning a class that brings in many guest speakers from a variety of backgrounds who will give their personal tips on communicating science to different audiences. These folks might include agriculture extension agents, soil scientist and agronomist consultants, journalists and reporters, graphic designers, salesmen in agronomy, and maybe even lobbyists and politicians! I think each of those examples would have a lot to contribute to the topic of communicating science, each with a different perspective.

For activities for such a class, an essential activity would include having the students regularly read a peer-reviewed research article, then communicate the main points of the article to a general audience through different formats. Those formats could be as a news article, a blog post, an “infographic”, letters to the editor, and more. I would also like to have the students give a scientific presentation to a non-science audience, such as a K-12 classroom, a local garden club, 4-H or FFA club, etc. I’m also considering what books, magazine articles, or news articles I would have the students read that focus specifically on science communication. One book I would definitely include is “Don’t be Such a Scientist” by Randy Olson. Are there any books or articles that you would recommend?

A thorough knowledge of current and upcoming social media platforms is crucial for scientists who really want to communicate their science. This class would include a variety of lessons and activities focused on various platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Flickr, Vine, Youtube, podcasts, and of course the various blogging and microblogging platforms. Are there any scientists, science communicators, pages, or accounts on any of these platforms that you think “hit the nail on the head” and would make great examples of how to communicate science? How about examples of how not to do it?

Lastly, an important topic I want the students to understand is that as a scientist, every conversation they have that includes the question “what do you do?” is an opportunity to portray science in a positive light. Many people assume scientists are a bunch of old stodgy men in white lab coats and pocket protectors, when that is not at all the case. Scientists are normal people just like you and me who watch and play sports, drink beer, have hobbies, have families, etc. It’s important that non-scientists realize that. The two things scientists can do to help with the “scientist image” is to have a well-practiced elevator speech about what they do, and to learn to tell a good story. With that as a start, a scientist is well on their way to communicating their science. I’m hoping to develop this class around that premise.

That’s my vision for this class, though it is definitely not set in stone yet. If you were teaching or taking such a class, what would you like to be included in the course? Thanks for stopping by, and for the suggestions!


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