My proposed twist on a “Professors on Parade”-style course: scicomm training for students and faculty

As I wrote yesterday, my department has been thinking about creating a course for first year grad students that would have as a key goal introducing them to a variety of faculty in the department (as well as having them get to know each other better), and that might have as a secondary goal training them in skills that will be useful for careers in science. In this post, I will lay out my proposed twist on the course. Right now, I’m not that optimistic that it would actually work, but I’m hoping readers might have suggestions for ways to tweak it to make it work!

My idea is to create a course focused on training faculty and students in how to communicate their science to broad audiences. The general plan would be to start out with training students and faculty in science communication, and then would have faculty practice their talks by giving them to the grad students who would critique them, giving feedback that the faculty could use to improve their talks aimed at general audiences. This would meet the goals of introducing new students to faculty and the research they do (though would be focused at a different level than if they were giving general research presentations), and would also provide training and practice in science communication (thus meeting our students’ desire to get more skills training, while also hopefully benefitting faculty).

A large part of why this occurred to me is that I have been thinking of ways for my colleagues and myself to engage more effectively with K-12 and undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds. In the past, I’ve organized events where faculty gave talks to, say, incoming first year undergraduates. Oftentimes, those talks end up being slightly modified versions of the faculty member’s regular research seminar; those really aren’t effective at engaging a general audience, meaning there was a lost opportunity for engaging those students in ecology (or biology or STEM or whatever the focus of the event was).*

In thinking about how to address this issue, it occurred to me that it would be great to have a group of people who have been trained in how to effectively communicate with broad audiences, who can then be called upon for these activities.** I especially have been thinking about how to train a group of people who can then engage with various diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives on campus.

So, with that general goal in mind, when we started talking more about a new professors on parade course, I thought it could be neat to create a variation on the general theme where we train faculty and grad students in science communication. The course would start with a few weeks focused on general training in science communication. Given the logistics of schedules, it might be necessary to do a 1 day intensive workshop for faculty right before the semester begins, and then to spend 3-4 weeks with students covering similar material. The goal would be for the faculty to leave the workshop with a draft presentation that they can then pilot with the students in the course.*** After the initial “intro to scicomm” portion of the course, faculty would give their presentation to the students, who would then critique it from a scicomm perspective – that is, did they clearly communicate what they work on and convince a general audience that it’s interesting and exciting? My goal would be that, through this process, the students would learn about different work being done in the department, faculty would receive feedback on their presentations, and both students and faculty would receive training in how to communicate with general audiences while also getting to know each other better.

In my ideal world, this would then link with actual outreach to broad audiences. (Why bother with all that training if not to put it into practice?!) One idea I had would be to then do a similar version of this course with students in a program like the M-STEM Academies at Michigan (which is an undergraduate program) or Wolverine Pathways (a program for middle and high school students).

I am both really excited by this idea and also skeptical that it will actually work. One problem is who would run it – given that it’s my idea and I am the one who seems most excited about it, I would be the obvious person, but I already have a lot of other commitments (including teaching Intro Bio in the fall, plus plans for other activities with Wolverine Pathways and for other activities related to public engagement.)

Perhaps even more problematic is that I suspect that, while some of my colleagues may think the idea is interesting, few will be willing/able to commit to the time it would take to do the course in this format. It would be much easier for faculty to do the more traditional professors-on-parade format, where they can just show up and give their canned research seminar (or a slight variant on it).

So far, I’ve thought about two possible solutions to the problem, though am not entirely happy with either. First, it might be more likely that senior grad students and postdocs would be interested in doing the scicomm training. In that case, they could be the ones who do the training and give the presentations. The downside, though, is that really reduces the benefit in terms of encouraging more interactions between faculty and graduate students at the start of their grad careers. (An upside, though, is that it would mean even more department members receive scicomm training, which would be great.) Second, it could be possible to have the first year or two be a hybrid, where some faculty give their standard talks, and others do the scicomm version. If students really like the science communication angle, it could make additional faculty more inclined to do the scicomm version. (A good thing in terms of time investment is that the faculty wouldn’t necessarily need to do the scicomm training each year, so, after the first year, the time commitment might not be that much higher than with the traditional format.)

If anyone knows of a department that does a course like this, I would love to hear about it! And if you have ideas for how to tweak my course idea to make it more feasible, I’d love to hear those, too.

 

*One tip I learned recently about how to deal with this is to make the people send their slides a week or two ahead of time, allowing time to give feedback on them if they don’t seem accessible to a general audience. I imagine, though, that some number of people simply won’t send them ahead of time, plus it can be hard to tell just from slides what someone will say.

**My thinking on this has definitely been influenced by being involved in Software Carpentry (SWC). The University of Michigan is a partner organization of SWC and we have quite a few people on campus who have been trained as SWC instructors. When someone wants to host a workshop, we can call upon our local SWC instructors to find people to teach the workshop.

***My thinking on this was influenced by recent training I attended by the Op-Ed project, where we had an op-ed drafted by the end of the workshop.

22 thoughts on “My proposed twist on a “Professors on Parade”-style course: scicomm training for students and faculty

  1. I really like the idea and would love to be part of such a thing (but like you, I shudder a bit at having to organize it myself). I do think your “hybrid” structure idea is both (1) more likely to work/get participation, and (2) actually better, as it allows for discussion of the differences between formats/audiences.

    I did a (single) lab meeting on this a couple of years ago and I involved our campus’s Media Relations office. They were moderately useful. They were extremely good at explaining how media work, how to engage with a journalist or a radio host, how to get media time, etc. They didn’t know much about scicomm in particular, though – although yours might of course differ.

    I’ve argued that not every scientist should be expected to be active in scicomm (https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2016/09/12/scicomm-and-who-should-do-it/), but nonetheless I think training towards scicomm is something we should give every scientist. Because every scientist does at least “passive scicomm” (they talk about their work to their friends and get questions from non-specialists). And that “passive scicomm” matters too.

    • Fortunately for me, there’s a great group on campus here, RELATE, that focuses on scicomm training. I am hoping to work with them on some of my scicomm ideas in the next year!

      I agree with you that not every scientist needs to do scicomm, but that exposure to scicomm is useful. As you said, everyone does at least some “passive scicomm”. Plus, learning how to communicate effectively is helpful even for communicating with other scientists. In addition, some students might discover early on that they have a passion and/or talent for scicomm, and it might help them set their trajectory early.

  2. Pingback: Poll: Have you been involved in a “professors on parade” course? Was it useful? | Dynamic Ecology

  3. Greetings Meghan,

    I love your idea, and if you don’t mind, I might steal some aspects of it (I “organize” (in a very loose sense) a version of a profs-on-parade course for the Ohio State University interdisciplinary graduate program in Biophysics, and also teach a course on proposal writing that includes a lot of divergences into other varieties of scientific communication).

    I think your two largest challenges will be in creating an adequate flux of faculty who “need help” with a presentation (Once someone has done this, what are they going to do the next time you need a parade? If they don’t have any great new ideas with unpolished presentations, are they unable to participate, etc), and in convincing your students to actually participate (How many students are /really/ comfortable saying “the way you just said that doesn’t make sense to me – you need to try again!”).

    I suspect you’ll need to provide very pointed tools to the students : “Is anyone bothered by Prof Fred’s use of passive voice in the topic sentence? How can we fix it?”.

    At the same time, you might need to intentionally “break” the faculty presentations. I’m just spitballing here, but, perhaps they don’t _need_ to be unpolished presentations that the faculty “need help” with, but rather could be kind of student-guided presentations: You prep students by teaching them how to critically read/listen to science, and then have the faculty member lead off with a (poor) elevator pitch for their topic. “force” the students to engage with that pitch and have them help “fix” it. Then have them ask the important questions that would expand the pitch into a more complete presentation of the problem being addressed and the solution being proposed.

    I think this actually could be tremendously fun. I’m disappointed that I’m not in your department – I’d love to participate.

    • Please use whatever aspects you think would be useful! Yes, I think the potential issues you raise are important, especially the one about students feeling comfortable enough to critique the faculty presentations. I recently did training through the op-ed project where we had to critique each other’s ideas pretty forcefully. Something that helped me do that was the reminder that it’s better to get that feedback ahead of time in a friendly audience — I wonder if there would be a way to frame the feedback in a similar way for a scicomm PoP course.

      I like your idea for using elevator pitches (some of which would be intentionally poor) as a way to “force” students to engage with it. I wonder if, after doing that for a little bit, they’d feel more comfortable critiquing the scicomm presentations?

      I’m glad you like the idea!

    • Re: intentionally poor presentations, many years ago on an EEB retreat we did an exercise in which a faculty member gave a deliberately-bad research talk and then had the grad students critique it. It wasn’t that helpful because too many of the flaws were too obvious (to the point where the audience was chuckling at them as they appeared). I think it’s very hard to knowingly do a realistically, usefully bad talk, and I suspect the same is true for elevator pitches (and, say, grant applications).

      • Our professional skills class uses peer review of students work. This has the dual benefit that students are actually moving forward on writing presentations, elevator speeches etc on their own work and therefore useful to them. And getting feedback to improve it. But not incidentally there is a fair amount of room for improvement in some students attempts so it provides a pretty good platform for learning. The notion of being constructively critiqued by peers is hard for some students – for many it is their first experience and some are visibly uncomfortable. But that in itself is a skill to learn. Overall, I think this model works pretty well.

  4. In my dept. at Calgary (Biological Sciences), there is no “grad skills” course (beyond our new student orientation week that includes some TA training, some orientation to the university, etc.). And although many faculty and grad students would welcome one, it would be a lot of work to put one together, especially if it was to be a single course that would serve everyone from the ecologists to the biochemists. The solution the EEB group came up with this year is a sort of informal “parade of profs” course. About once/month or so, faculty volunteers are leading 1-1.5 hour workshops on some specific skill many grad students would like a bit of training in. I did one on model selection (stealing shamelessly from Brian’s AIC post and the references and comments therein) after considering doing one on elevator pitches. Someone else is doing one on grant writing. And so on. I believe some of the sessions also have been run by folks from other units at the university who were invited by the grad students. I think we had someone from the health centre come in and do a session on mental health in grad school? So far it’s all voluntary on the part of the faculty and the student attendees. But I think students finding useful so far, and perhaps down the road it will grow into a more formal grad skills course taught by a “parade of profs”.

    But a difference from the sort of course Meg’s been thinking about is that our informal version isn’t aimed at helping new students get to know the profs. There’s no social element, and profs aren’t running sessions on their own research. At Calgary, we have other things already in place to take care of the social side. And although at some point I’m sure there will be some scicomm workshops, I wouldn’t foresee the whole thing ever being primarily scicomm-focused.

    Graduate (and supervisory) skills workshops are kind of big push at Calgary right now, many of them under the heading of a university-wide initiative called “My GradSkills”. For instance, I went to a very useful lunchtime workshop for supervisors on helping grad students look for non-academic jobs, which I turned into a post (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/12/05/helping-grad-students-pursue-non-academic-careers-advice-from-anne-krook/)

  5. Other major obstacle I see is that early stage grad students are likely going to be really reluctant to give criticisms to professors! No one wants to start out a relationship with negative comments and early stage grad students may not have learned the science culture or techniques of doing so respectfully.

    • I _think_ you can get around, this, by making the process “collaborative improvement”, rather than “criticism”.

      Start with the elevator pitch, get the students to apply simple, pointed writing-improvement tools to the pitch : “What’s wrong with that sentence? Can we rearrange it so it’s more clear?”. Then once it’s in good shape, focus them on expanding it : “Does the number of people affected really tell you how big of a problem it is? What information could Prof. Susan give you to make the magnitude more obvious? What about the proposed solution? Is it clear why this is important and uniquely applicable? What additional information would you like to know? Now, we’ve got those details – is the way they’re being stated, really tied back to the initial thesis as clearly as they could be?”…

      I _think_ you could keep this up for an entire class period, and get the students to work as active collaborators in engaging with the presentation and drawing it out of the presenter as an act of collaboration. This shouldn’t feel nearly as scary to the students as outright criticism.

      My thoughts here are, of course, tuned to my particular interest in getting our parade-of-profs class to work more effectively. Our purpose for the class is to help our tremendously (academically) diverse students develop enough of a shared language that they can converse with each other and the faculty, in a field where none of them come in with any knowledge of more than about 20% of the breadth of our program. I think the general approach could be tweaked for many other uses though.

      … still really liking this and spent the afternoon trying to figure out where I can squeeze an experiment of this nature into our spring writing/communication course…

  6. University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) has an intro seminar for all grad students in our Animal Biology, Entomology, Plant Biology, and Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation programs.
    The general format has evolved over the years but usually include some of the following: 1) Grad student Q&A for TA training and committee formation. 2) Work on either an NSF GRFP or an EPA STAR Grant (this is the backbone of the seminar. 3) Presentations by faculty. The seminar is run by at least one professor representing each department/program.
    It worked well to have this program built around the application for one of those fellowships. Basically, everything was based around us learning how to communicate the science that we wanted to do towards scientists/funding agencies.

    • There was also an ethics component that – I believe – was mandated by the university for all incoming researchers. We discussed various situations surrounding challenges that can be faced in the line of research.

  7. If this involves too much of a commitment from professors, here is a twist. Let the professors give their regular research talk, then the assignement for the students is to choose a talk and turn it into an interactive activity or pop-sci talk for a community outreach event. This transfers the work of developing the outreach to the students and has the added benefit of making it more interactive. It will also challenge the students to listen to research talks differently than they might be used to. I have no idea if this would work. It is kind of a whaky idea and I am aware of no one who has tried anything like this.

    • That is a cool idea. No idea if it would work, and not sure you’d want to do that same exercise every week for an entire semester. But it might be worth a shot, or a few shots.

    • I like this idea! I also have no idea if it would work, but it could be another option for faculty to choose from (that is, we wouldn’t need all faculty to do this approach, but it might be more appealing to them than coming up with the scicomm presentation on their own ahead of time).

  8. Nice idea! Another option could be to set up a pairing system with a completely different department, e.g. a humanities discipline, law department, physics etc. and match profs and student classes across different disciplines. This would probably give more valuable feedback, as they truly would be speaking to a general audience that has very little previous experience with the subject matter.

    • Yes, I agree that the feedback from that would be more useful in terms of how to pitch a talk to a general audience! I think it would be a different course, though, as it would no longer achieve the goals of departmental cohesion/interactions.

  9. My department has a mandatory course for 1st year students, which I took last year. It was different in many ways than the type of course that’s been discussed so far, and I thought it’d be worth describing.

    The course met once a week for two hours in the evening and had an alternating every-other-week format. One format involved two professors talking to us very informally about their research and about the path that led them to science. We had the opportunity to ask questions. It felt a lot like we were just hanging out, which I thought was great. By the end of year almost every professor in the department had visited. The second format is billed as more of a professional development session. In the Fall semester the topics were a bit all over the place, but I found most of them helpful. They included opportunities for funding your research, ways to get involved in science outreach while in grad school, and how to take advantage of career services on campus. Many of the sessions involved guest speakers or representatives of different organizations who were expert in the day’s topic. In the Spring, the PD sessions were all focused on effective teaching practices to support those of us who had little or no teaching experience.

    Although there was a faculty member officially listed as professor for the course, the course was actually run by two older graduate students, one of whom was the departmental teaching fellow. It was their responsibility to schedule visiting professors every other week and to plan the PD sessions that happened in between. They also provided dinner and beer.

    The course was definitely NOT focused on scicomm training. I interpreted its primary objectives as 1) familiarize first year students with the resources and opportunities that are available to them (in a pretty broad sense) and 2) build a strong, positive community among first year students and also between students and faculty. I thought it was pretty successful in accomplishing these goals. In fact, my cohort liked it so much that we decided to continue running it for ourselves as second year students. We’ve used our time together this year to discuss ergonomics and wellness, diversity and inclusion in our department, the grad student unionization effort on campus, and preparing for qualifying exams. I feel comfortable speaking for my peers in saying that overall, our experience in the course was extremely positive.

  10. Pingback: What factors influence whether “Professors on Parade” courses are useful? | Dynamic Ecology

  11. I cannot speak as a Professor or academic staff but I can speak as a student who receive this class. Although my fellow graduate students did not find the course really helpful due to the lack of structure and coherence of the contents (so that we have difficulties in the exam, hahaha) and overlapping contents, I find the course interesting as it gives me various point of view on the same topic at one course.

    For a reference, you can check out our program, EES-LMU (http://www.ees.bio.lmu.de/the_program/index.html). Most of our courses involved the collaboration of several professors in the faculty (two of them, Evolutionary Ecology and Systematic Data and Evidence, really gives us extensive point of view on the lecture materials).

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