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.