STS.034 | Fall 2011 | Undergraduate

Science Communication: A Practical Guide


1 Introduction: Why Be A Science Communicator?  

Course Aims

  • Personal introductions (teaching team)
  • Personal introductions (students)
  • What is this course all about?
  • What will you do in the course?
  • What will the course do for you?
  • What are the course requirements?

Introduction to Science Communication

  • Why be a science communicator?
  • An ecology of science communication

2 In the Elevator or the Hallway: Talking Informally About Science

Willingham, Daniel T. “Trust Me, I’m a Scientist.” Scientific American, May 5, 2011.

agillesp123. “Dawkins vs. Tyson.” November 22, 2006. Originally recorded November 5-7, 2006 at Beyond Belief: Science, Reason, Religion and Survival, La Jolla, CA. YouTube. Accessed May 14, 2012.

How should we talk about topics in science and engineering so that people can best understand their importance and relevance?

How can we effectively talk about our interests or work in science in informal settings?

Students will share brief chats about a topic in science for group discussion and quick feedback.

We will watch/listen to, and discuss select AV clips of scientists talking about science and discussion of strengths and weaknesses.

3 Workshop: Talking Science  

In small groups or pairs, we will practice speaking about the topic in science, technology, or engineering you have prepared.

Take notes and provide feedback to your counterparts. Attempt to deliver your own version of an informal explanation of another student’s topic.

As a class, we will ask students to report on others’ topics.

4 Workshop: Talking Science (cont.)    
5 What Does It Mean to Write About Science for the Public?

Watson, J. D., and F. H. C. Crick. “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid.” Nature 171 (1953): 737–8. (PDF)

Watson, James D. The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. Littlehampton Book Services Ltd, 1968, pp. 7–20 and 198–216. ISBN: 9780297760429.


Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers in the Greater Himalaya

Guest speaker: David Breashears, director of Glacierworks

7 Telling a Tale, Painting a Picture: Writing About Science Using Special Techniques

McGrath, Susan. “The Vanishing.” The Smithsonian, February 2007.

Burge, Tyler. “A Real Science of the Mind.” Opinionator: Exclusive Online Commentary From The Times, December 19, 2010.

Crichton, Michael. “This Essay Breaks the Law,” The New York Times, March 19, 2006.

Angier, Natalie. Excerpts from The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007, pp. 87–91. ISBN: 9780618242955.

How can storytelling and other literary techniques help communicate science?

What techniques can be used in opinion writing to communicate science?

We will discuss the readings in detail, picking out elements that worked well and did not work well for us as readers.

8 Workshop: Writing Science Carpenter, Sir. “David Dobbs examines a Provocative New Theory of How Genes Shape Behavior.” The Open Notebook, October 24, 2010.

In small groups or pairs, you will react to and edit each other’s writing, providing feedback on what worked best and where elements might be strengthened.

As a class, we will share the written work aloud and discuss.

9 Workshop: Writing Science (cont.)  

In groups or pairs, we will edit and provide feedback to each other on the written work.

If time permits, you will also discuss and brainstorm a plan for your final project — whether it is an exhibit element, op-ed, or policy memo. What is your plan for carrying out the project? What research or tools do you need?

10 Exhibiting “Unfinished” Science Durant, John. “The Challenge and the Opportunity of Presenting ‘Unfinished Science.’” In Creating Connections: Museums and the Public Understanding of Current Research. Edited by D. Chittenden, G. Farmelo, and B. V. Lewenstein. Altamira Press, 2004, pp. 47–60. ISBN: 9780759104754. [Preview at Google Books] Many museums of science and technology focus principally on the history of science and technology — that is, on finished science. In this class, we will discuss the distinctive challenges involved in trying to display current science and technology — that is, unfinished science.
11 Critiquing Science on Display (reviews of exhibits)   In class, we will be joined by Broad Institute Creative Director Bang Wong and Koch Institute Gallery Curator Alex Fiorentino, who will discuss some of the challenges that were involved in creating their galleries.
12 Put Me Through to Washington: Communicating Science to Policymakers

NASA Moonshot Memo after Sputnik [NASA Van Braun memo] (PDF - 1.9MB
Nisbet, Matthew, and Chris Mooney. “Framing Science.” Science 316, no. 5821 (2007): 56.

Executive Summary of Report to President Obama on K–12 Science Technology Mathematics and Engineering Education. (PDF)

Policy Issue analysis for web audience: Pool, Sean, Matt Woelfel, et al. “Climate Change Could Create New Risks to Nuclear Safety.” Science Progress (2011).

What makes science resonate with policymakers and politicians, who have many competing demands on their time?

How can science be best communicated to influence the course of policy?

We will discuss the critical elements and contexts for communicating science to policymakers, including providing recommendations, testimony, and policy analysis.

13 Workshop: Projects    
14 Guest Speaker: David Goldston    
15 Science in the Blogosphere  

In class we will discuss some of the relatively new and utterly distinctive forms of science communication that have emerged on the web.

Why has science come to have such a prominent place in the new social networks, and what impact are these having on the larger world of science communication?


Seeing is Believing: Visualizing Science for Communication

Guest Speaker: Jonathan Corum, science graphics editor at the New York Times


What can visualizations of data or concepts in science do to enhance public understanding and engagement with science?

Is it enough for visualizations to be beautiful?

What makes visualizations effective or not?

We will discover through dialogue the critical elements and the process of creating effective visualizations and go through various examples in class.

17 Workshop: Projects    
18 From Cancer Cells to String Theory: Communicating Complex Material

The Elegant Universe: Einstein’s Dream.” Part 1 of NOVA Series. Originally aired November 2, 2011 on PBS.

Johnson, George. “Cancer Cells Come Into Sharper Focus,” The New York Times, August 15, 2011.

Venkataraman, Bina. “Finding Order in the Apparent Chaos of Currents,” The New York Times, September 28, 2009.

How can we communicate complex topics in science without “dumbing down” the material?

In a world where knowledge is increasingly specialized, how can we best communicate the nuances of ideas to people in other disciplines or fields?

We will discuss useful tools for communicating complex subjects, including the use of metaphors, narrative, visual elements, and providing context.

We will talk about what elements worked and did not work in the readings/videos and what tactics might be used in your final projects.

19 Workshop: Projects    
20 Communicating Controversy Buy at MIT Press Durant, John. “‘Refrain from Using the Alphabet’: How Community Outreach Catalyzed the Life Sciences at MIT.” In Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision. Edited by David Kaiser. MIT Press, 2010, pp. 145–163. ISBN: 9780262113236.

What challenges face science communicators when they come to deal with subjects on which scientists themselves disagree?

In this class, we will discuss some of the tough problems that communicators have faced in areas such as evolutionary biology, stem cell research, and climate change.

Using a famous controversy about recombinant DNA technology that took place in Cambridge MA in the 1970s, we will explore the many opportunities that controversies also provide for creative science communication.

21 On the Record: Communicating to the Media Please review the news section of the MIT website

What are the aims of this news section?

What audience(s) is it aimed at?

What sorts of editorial criteria have been used in selecting and writing the stories carried in this section?

How do you suppose these stories were researched and written?

We will talk about tactics for providing interviews and giving scientific information to the media as a source.

Director of Communications at MIT Nate Nickerson will join us to discuss examples of how he communicates and works with faculty to communicate the scientific research and projects at the Institute.

22 Workshop: Projects    
23 On the Witness Stand: Communicating Science in the Courtroom Read background on Ken Miller, evolution and the Dover Trial (be sure to read the questions at the bottom about Dover): NOVA. In Defense of Evolution. NOVA. October 10. 2007.

What role do scientists and science play in the courtroom?

What considerations are important to communicate science to judges and juries to best influence the justice system?

We will discuss ethical and practical considerations of communicating science in the courtroom.

We will also watch excerpts from a re-enactment of scientific testimony on evolution during the Dover Trial and discuss what elements were effective.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2011
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Presentation Assignments
Written Assignments