Teaching Science Communication

In this section, Prof. Michael Short discusses the importance of teaching science communication and shares challenges students in 22.THT NSE Undergraduate Thesis Tutorial faced in this domain.

What is Science?

If an individual discovers a law of nature, but doesn’t communicate it, that information dies with the individual and it returns to the domain of nature—it doesn’t become part of science.

— Michael Short

During the course, I posed the following question to students: “What is science?” Students responded, “It’s following the scientific method,” and “It’s discovering the laws of nature.” I pushed them further, asking, “If someone does science in a forest, but doesn’t make a sound, did science actually happen?” This question confused students. “What the heck do you mean?” they asked.

I explained that individuals uncover the laws of nature and bring them into a collective body of knowledge, called science. If an individual discovers a law of nature, but doesn’t communicate it, that information dies with the individual and it returns to the domain of nature—it doesn’t become part of science. Science is equal parts careful discovery of the laws of nature and effective communication. They’re inseparable. Without either component, understanding does not advance.

Recognizing the Need to Teach Science Communication

In surveys, MIT Nuclear Science and Engineering alumni tell us that we need to improve our science communication efforts; they note that science communication is essential to the work they do in their careers and that they don’t feel adequately prepared.

I think the School of Engineering is now recognizing just how important it is to actively teach science communication. A few departments—so far, Biological Engineering, Nuclear Science and Engineering, and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science—have launched communication labs staffed by Graduate Fellows who are both excellent communicators and content experts. This is progress.

We try to support our students in the course by requiring that they have their prospectuses reviewed by Graduate Fellows in the Nuclear Science & Engineering Communication Lab. Among other things, these Fellows help students communicate effectively with audiences in their specific academic fields.

Contextualizing Research for an Audience

Contextualizing their writing and oral presentations for specific audiences is one of the biggest communication challenges students in 22.THT NSE Undergraduate Thesis Tutorial face. Students tend not to have been taught to think about their audiences. I see this even at the graduate level. When students are asked to give a seminar, they present their research in its entirety. Sometimes, it’s just a slide full of words, and the goal seems to be to make it to the end of the seminar. That shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be to communicate their knowledge effectively. Students need to think about how to ensure that their audience is engaging with the information they are presenting.

In written communication, writing for a particular audience is of central importance because it shapes the content of the paper, including the paper’s citations. Most students tend to assume that their readers understand what they’re writing about (which is not necessarily true) and, as a result, they don’t cite sources extensively enough. And then some of them cite sources too extensively. They’ll cite Ohm’s law, or the ideal gas law. If their audience is comprised of scientists, they can assume their audience knows these laws. No citations are necessary. It became apparent during the course that knowing when and how much to cite was a struggle for students. 

Identifying Credible Primary Sources

Students also struggled with identifying credible primary sources. Many, for instance, considered Wikipedia to be a credible primary source. Wikipedia is not a credible primary source. Wikipedia can lead students to credible primary sources, but it can also lead them to blogs and magazine articles – sources that are not peer-reviewed. Students were aware that the peer review process existed, but not all of them understood it in-depth. We showed them examples of peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed sources to help them learn to distinguish between these two different kinds of resources.

And then we complicated things: we told students that not every peer-reviewed source is credible. As an example, we showed students a list of predatory open-access journals, and selected articles at random to show what absolute garbage they were. There’s a running list of about 600 indexed scientific journals that are complete hogwash. They promise review in three to seven days. You have to pay to publish. New ones pop up every day, and you’ll find that you can trace most of them back to maybe 100 people that are running them as scam businesses. Students can easily mistake papers from these journals as legitimate scientific articles, if they don’t read carefully.

During one class session, we played journal roulette. I randomly selected journals from online sources, and asked the students how they could tell if they were credible or not. Students learned to look for certain clues, such as the use of flashing text, having to pay money to submit an article, promises of 3-7 day review turnaround times, or a disreputable or falsified editorial board, to help them know when a journal was not legitimate.

Honing Hypothesis-Based Writing

Students generally know that their prospectuses should include hypotheses, but almost none of the them had one in their first drafts. To help them, I asked questions, such as, “What are you testing?” and “Can you give me a yes or no answer at the end of your study?” Students were able to describe the phenomena they were investigating, but they had to think hard about the specific mechanisms they were testing.

It’s a wide-spread problem. I’ve spoken to program managers at the Department of Energy who have said that many times even experienced principal investigators don’t frame their work in testable ways. I was amazed by how much they had to stress the need for hypothesis-driven proposals. It helped me realize that we don’t explicitly teach this aspect of science communication here at MIT. We assume students pick it up along the way, or remember the importance of including hypotheses in their writing from their high school experiences. We shouldn’t make those assumptions. Just as we expect our students to know their audiences, we, as educators, should know our own audiences and realize that this particular aspect of science communication needs to be actively taught to the novice scientists in our classrooms.