Training the Next Generation of Science Communicators, Part II: Mixing Tradition with Innovation

(Second in a series of two articles. Part one here.)

From understanding colony collapse disorder in bees to mapping the human genome, science explains how our world works.  But without the ability to clearly communicate these issues, we are left with a gaping void in public understanding of their importance. 

When the Ebola crisis broke in Sierra Leone, the hysteria that followed was just that—hysteria.  As the crisis unfolded, medical experts were able to weigh in on the makeup of the virus and its ability to spread.  Meanwhile, the world was already in full panic mode.

Policies and restrictions were being discussed and nearly implemented before the situation was fully triaged. To allay the public’s fears about how the Ebola virus could and could not be spread, medical and science communicators became instrumental in tempering policymakers’ rush to implement extreme measures. Not only were medical and scientific experts needed to assess the public’s level of concern, but their ability to clearly communicate all aspects of the virus’s impact to the public was paramount. 

Enter science communication programs. These are programs that work with the next generation of communicators to translate scientific facts to the public. Many programs access all tools at their disposal when educating students about how best to communicate complicated scientific concepts, which include use of digital media, honing interviewing skills, and even learning improv!  Let's take a peek at a couple of such programs.

Hopkins Graduate Certificate in Science Writing

Students who complete the Master of Arts (MA) in Science Writing program at Johns Hopkins University will be skilled to translate the complicated information or trends in medicine, science, and technology into meaningful and understandable content to serve a much-needed public purpose.

Because most of Hopkins's MA students already have careers or other obligations, the program’s flexible part-time format allows degree completion in 18 months to five years. This program is structured to provide innovative learning experiences for today’s science writers, as Hopkins believes that successful writers must have a diverse background in everything from multimedia to the literary arts.

Also, all Hopkins writers and editors must monitor science itself to learn how research can be flawed or even be misused. The MA in Science Writing is part of the prestigious Advanced Academic Programs at Hopkins, a division that focuses on graduate credentials for working adults.

Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook (SUNY)

alan-alda-science-communicationsCommunication is not something you add on to science, it is of the essence of science” — Alan Alda

At the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, students are exposed to workshops and presentations, which are highly interactive and conducted in small groups.  Stony Brook has developed a series of workshops and courses that are offered for credit by master's and PhD students.

One unique approach to learning how to communicate more clearly and vividly at the Alan Alda Center is improvisation for scientists. This innovative approach to communicating science was pioneered by Alda and uses games and improvisational theatre to help science professionals speak more spontaneously and directly with their audiences. This helps scientists with career prospects, working across disciplines, potentially securing funding for research or serving as effective teachers.

Students say that the improv training has helped them defend their theses, teach others complicated concepts, and simply explain research to nonscientists. Graduates of the program have found the experience to be enlightening and even transformative.

Stony Brook has developed a YouTube video that provides a peek at the workshops Alan Alda led in 2009 using improvisational theater games.  To learn more about Stony Brook, visit their website at www.centerforcommunicatingscience.org