Active learning in research perspectives and science communication

Science is a lot more than measuring and testing ideas. It is a rich social endeavor with its own language, its own standards, its own ethics, and its own literature. Undergraduates miss out if they do not learn this. But they must also learn to communicate more broadly.

We attempt to help students learn both their own field and how to communicate it with a course that meets one evening a week, which we call Research Perspectives. Last semester was mixed models in R. This semester it is science communication. We will do a lot of different activities. Some people wonder what to do in class besides lecturing, so here I’ll share a few things we do, week by week.

Today, the first class, we read a paper recommended by mBio for effective writing. It is called Important Science – It’s all about the spin. This is by Arturo Casadevall and Ferric Fang. Even though it is only 3 pages long, it is unrealistic to have students just sit in class and read it. We did something else. We took the 4 points of the paper and assigned each to a pair of students. They were to read those few paragraphs, discuss them with their partner, then present that bit to the group for discussion.

It worked well. The first pair took on S, or size. It is the size of the potential audience and makes the important point that your study should be framed to interest the largest possible audience. The second pair took on P or practicality. They decided that what this really meant was importance of the findings. What good does it do to have a huge audience if you don’t have anything cool to tell them? The third group took on I or integration. This one is about the crucial point that science builds on what went before. Any new results must be put in context. Students need to read the literature and convey that in their writing. Finally, there is N, or new, which the final pair of students worked on. The piece is mixed on this one, first arguing against all the people that claim newness for their work. But it does have to be true that the work should be new at some level.

If from this little exercise the students really absorb the importance of interesting a broad audience with your work, making its importance clear, setting it in the frame of what went before, and identifying its advances, then they will have learned a lot. I think this level of learning does not come from a single activity. But consistent exposure combined with writing will ultimately make these students better scientists, I hope.

This one hour class followed a familiar formula. I or the TA say something for maybe 5 or 10 minutes. Then the students work independently for 7 or so minutes, then discuss with their partner, then present to the group. This gives them group speaking experience in a really low pressure way. I really liked the way they naturally had both partners speak. Katie and I could give opinions and perspective on each point after they and others spoke in ways I hope were more effective than if we had just lectured it. Now wait to see what next week holds!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in class, Science writing for the public, Teaching, Uncategorized, Writing, Your lab group. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Active learning in research perspectives and science communication

  1. Thank you, Joan! You just gave me my lesson plan for tomorrow. πŸ™‚

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