Below, the Nuclear Science and Engineering Communication Lab manager, Dr. Marina Dang, describes various aspects of how she and her colleagues taught 22.011 Nuclear Engineering: Science, Systems and Society.
Marina Dang: In this course, nuclear engineering isn't just about the science; it’s also about using that knowledge to improve many facets of life in our local and broader communities. But making an impact on a societal level requires the ability to effectively communicate complex concepts to lay audiences, including groups who may hold preconceptions about nuclear energy, especially when it comes to nuclear safety.
Marina Dang: The majority of the population does not read academic papers. To reach a broader audience quickly and shape the conversation around a specific topic (such as nuclear energy), an Op-Ed is an excellent format. A successful Op-Ed is relatively short, it is relevant to the readers, and it is timely. It also allows the writer to voice an opinion and broadcast a call to action but, just as with academic papers, it must also present accurate information (which is why the course had such a large technical component).
As for tips: Have plenty of class time for open discussions! This worked out well because we had a small class but even then, we split up the group further later in the semester for more focused discussions depending on students' interests and needs. Together, we explored a lot of audience-centered questions: "Where do you think most people get their information about nuclear energy?" "What would motivate someone to support nuclear power?" "Do people care where their energy is coming from as long as it's cheap?" "How do people assess risk in everyday life?" Feedback is also a critical part of writing an Op-Ed, so we also dedicated class time for students to comment on each other's work and reevaluate their own.
› Read More/Read Less
Marina Dang: Anne [White] and Mike [Short] addressed the technical parts of the course, although Mike also walked the class through an authentic Op-Ed and pointed out specific writing strategies used by the author. As the Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) Communication Lab manager, I handled the communication aspects of the course both directly (hosting lectures and workshops, facilitating discussions, grading) and indirectly (through three of our Communication Fellows). The Fellows are graduate students who are knowledgeable in nuclear concepts and well-versed in effective communication strategies. I coached the Fellows through the visual communication and Op-Ed workshops, which they delivered in class, and I provided them with feedback as part of their professional development. The Fellows drove a lot of the class discussions through their communication training and technical experiences, and provided insights that I (a non-expert in nuclear) could never provide as authentically.
Anne and I worked well together and made sure we were always on the same page regarding the content, expectations, and student support—especially when everyone was abruptly sent home.
A lot of courses at MIT already rely on this partnership between technical and communication experts, but one key to success is having teachers/facilitators who deeply understand both. I recognize that's not always possible, which is why I would recommend partnering with a Communication Lab if that's an option. Aside from the intricate relationship between content and the delivery of that content, our students prefer to receive communication advice from field practitioners, which is a main motivator for our peer-to-peer model. I'll note that in NSE, the Communication Lab also has a close working relationship with our WRAP instructor, Jared Berezin, to make sure our work is complementary.
Marina Dang: The blended learning format could have been a bit more “blended.” Although some students took advantage of the TAs' help online, they might have benefited from seeing some of the technical content during class time as well. We also found out about mid-semester that many students were behind with their online learning, and they did better once we suggested target dates for various milestones.
My recommendations to other educators:
- Keep the self-pacing feature of the online component but, right at the beginning of the semester, have each student create their own schedule. Every week or so, encourage students to compare their status to their goals, and update their plan if needed. These were first-year students and this practice would teach them valuable time management skills.
- Make it easy for the lead instructors to track how far along their students are with the online content. Anne and I didn't have access to this information, and I had to regularly email someone else to look that up for us.
- Carve out time during class to discuss some technical content. It doesn't have to be much: quick back-of-the-envelope calculations to build intuition or "fact check" data we find in the news/Op-Eds would have been enough. Or, because this was an introduction into NSE as a department, we could try and get more faculty to come in and demonstrate how basic nuclear physics can be used to understand something about their research.
Marina Dang: I would have the students express early on what medium they want to use for their final presentations (slide presentation, poster, flyer, video...) and I would partner each of them with a Communication Fellow to work toward that specific task. There were also a few things that were on the original syllabus but didn't happen because of the pandemic, including having a science reporter speak with the students, and having a panel of humanities professors share their views on Op-Eds (one is "for" and has written plenty, the other is "against").
The students' grades were based on the following activities:
Under MIT’s emergency grading policy during the Covid-19 pandemic, passing work for the course (70%–100% based on the elements above) earned a “PE” grade; otherwise a grade of “NE” was issued, appearing only on internal records and not on the student’s external transcript. Also as a result of the pandemic, the Op-Ed presentation was made optional, with full credit being given to all students.
Unrestricted elective credits
Every spring semester
Breakdown by Year
First-year students, plus one nonstudent from the MIT community
Typical Student Background
Most of the students had little prior knowledge of nuclear science.
During an average week, students were expected to spend 3 hours on the course, roughly divided as follows:
Met 1 time per week for 1 hour per session; 13 sessions total; mandatory attendance
Out of Class
Outside class, students worked their way through 22.011x on the edX platform, and worked on writing and revising the technical note and Op-Ed.