Training Scientists to Be Better Science Communicators

IMG_2982The sun rises over the skyline. A boat speeds across the open water. Music by The Who blasts in the background as a young scientist looks through an iridescent green test tube.
These lines don’t describe the opening credits to a hit crime drama on TV, they’re the opening paragraph of an article written by Center for Limnology (CFL) graduate student, Mike Spear, for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine, about his research on using eDNA to track invasive species.
Spear’s article was the product of last fall’s Zoology 955 Limnology seminar, a course focused on science communication training co-taught by professor Jake Vander Zanden and the CFL’s outreach and communications specialist, Adam Hinterthuer (also the person currently typing the words for this blog post).
“In today’s society scientists need to be able to communicate to a non scientific audience,” says Vander Zanden. “It’s become increasingly clear that scientists can’t just be communicating our science to other scientists. It’s our obligation to bring it to the public, not only because the public often funds our research, but also because science is often what society uses to make important decisions.”
While it may have been okay to produce products only for other scientists in the past, Vander Zanden says, those days are over. There is a real need to reach broader audiences now and this class was a way of doing that at an earlier stage in their careers and getting students more comfortable at “cracking out of their traditional mode and connecting with other groups of people,” he says.

Throughout fall semester, graduate students from limnology, zoology and entomology worked on translating their research to a broader audience.The class worked on honing messages, eliminating jargon and fielding interviews. Panelists were brought in – from professional science writers and radio hosts, to non-profit lobbyists and a state senator – to talk about how and why science enters the mainstream.
Final projects included a holiday letter to Mom using Christmas tree ornaments to explain the carbon cycle, materials for local classrooms learning about land use and water quality, and a social media project using conservation-themed Pokemon characters.
While getting more science out to broader public audiences like policymakers, citizens and resource managers helps fulfill the CFL’s commitment to the Wisconsin Idea, it is also practical, in that it teaches young scientists a skill they are increasingly in need of in a changing world.

Courtesy: Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Courtesy: Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

In an article published this month in the Limnology and Oceanography Bulletin, a team of scientists surveyed a group of graduate students found that, while early career aquatic scientists see the need for science communication, they don’t find much training during the course of their studies. The authors call on a “cultural shift” in academic departments in the natural sciences, asking that they acknowledge science communication as an appropriate use of time and resources.
Or, to quote one of the graduate students surveyed, “Can we PLEASE just start institutionalizing this thing already?”
It’s a sentiment shared by many of the participants in the Zoology 955 seminar.
“I think that perspective is more mainstream in science now and we’re coming up in this field where that’s something we really care about,” says Jake Walsh, now a CFL post doc and one of Zoology 955’s students. “You don’t have to twist our arms to be better science communicators because we’re already seeing that the messages aren’t getting out. We’re seeing the effects of the climate change message that got botched, for example, and we don’t want to be a part of that.”
Despite this, any sort of formal science communication training is rare.
Jake Walsh communicating science to the public. Photo: Clean Lakes Alliance
Jake Walsh communicating science to the public. Photo: Clean Lakes Alliance

“I’ve never seen a class like that offered, and it is something that isn’t taught in any other classes,” says CFL graduate student, Rob Mooney. “It was good to be able to think about your research from a different viewpoint and how you would communicate it to a non-scientific audience and that’s something that I struggled with, and I know other people have too,” he says.
Mooney says that one activity in the class, using “message boxes” to plot communication strategies, was especially helpful as it made him focus on what specific audience he wanted to reach and how he could shape his strategy to reach it.
Walsh agrees. “What that class really helped me do was figure out what my message was and craft that message so it’s interesting,” he says. “Without the class, my article wouldn’t have had the exposure that it did.”
During the semester he was in the class, Walsh had a paper published on the financial cost of invasive species. He credits the seminar with pushing him to help produce a press release and make connections with members of the media who might be interested. The result was extensive coverage of the paper – from traditional news outlets like The Washington Post to the social-media sensation, “IFL Science.” He was interviewed by dozens of media outlets and articles about the study reached millions of people.
While Walsh had the right combination of topic, timing and training to reach such large audiences, all of Zoology 955’s student communicated their science to audiences in unique and interesting ways. From newsletter articles, to lesson plans for high school classrooms to amazing YouTube videos, they helped make sure that what we do (and why it matters) didn’t just stay on the pages of a scientific journal.
Here are some examples of the creative and excellent work produced by the students of the CFL’s first-ever science communication seminar. (And here’s hoping it’s not the last!)
“Dear Mom,” Carbon Cycle Explainedhristmas Ornaments – Julia Hart, Center for Limnology blog
CSI: Mendotascreen-shot-2016-11-10-at-12-21-21-pm – Michael Spear, Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine
chinookWhat Lies Behind the Dam? In Some Cases, Self-Sustaining Salmon – K. Martin Perales, California WaterBlog, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences
screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-2-05-37-pmLimnology 101- Lake Stratification – Colin Smith, Center for Limnology YouTube channel
Spiny water flea under the microscope. Photo: Jake Walsh
Tiny Flea Reveals the Devastating Cost of Invasive Species – Jake Walsh, The Conversation