Discovering science communication at the Science Communication Unit, UWE Bristol

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I’m a junior assistant professor at Utrecht University, which means I split my time 50/50 between teaching and PhD research. The moment I knew I wanted to specialize in science communication was when I was attending a lecture about an – at that time – recently published study as part of my training in Ecology. I remember being upset by the fact that no one outside the academic world had caught onto the study that the researchers had spent six years on. So many more people could benefit from the new insights!

That’s why I specialized in science communication through a graduate program in Writing and Communication at the University of Amsterdam. It involved a year of training in Communication Studies and Argumentation Theory as well as a six-month internship. For my internship, I worked at the science department of a Dutch national broadcasting agency (VPRO): I worked in communication, was an editor for the website and assisted in the production of Labyrint, a weekly science popularization program on national television.

After finishing my training, I worked as a teacher both at the University of Amsterdam, where I taught science communication and academic skills, and at Utrecht University where I taught in interdisciplinary research skills and academic writing. In my role as a teacher, I became interested in teaching practices and wondered why science communication played such a small role in academic programs. In the Dutch educational context, science communication training is part of graduate training although it is mostly confined to dedicated science communication programs or electorate courses. I especially noticed the lack of structural training in science communication and a lack of attention being paid to skills associated with communication in undergraduate training programs. As such, I wanted to know how science communication training could be implemented in the undergraduate program where I taught: Liberal Arts and Sciences at Utrecht University. Liberal education students are trained in interdisciplinary research skills and use insights from different disciplinary fields to study societal issues. These are real-world problems that often need societal awareness to come to a solution. Because most liberal education students pursue a career that enables them to make an impact on society, it’s important for them to learn how to communicate outside of their academic specialization.

In my PhD project, I get to explore science communication for interdisciplinary research settings. As my passion as a teacher is on teaching writing skills, they are the focus of my project. I use insights from both Linguistics and Educational Sciences to discover how writing skills in the genre of science communication, or popularization, can best be taught in liberal education settings. I use Liberal Arts and Sciences at Utrecht University as a case study.

I found out about the Science Communication Unit (SCU) when I was applying for the Julie Johnson Kidd Travel Research Fellowship. This grant allows teachers in liberal education to spend time at another university. Although Utrecht University has a highly regarded Linguistics department, it does not have a research group dedicated to science communication research, which is why I felt I could really benefit from input from the Science Communication Unit at UWE Bristol. What attracted me to the SCU was the fact that the research group combines insights from theory and practice, being known internationally as a leader in academic research into science communication, as well as producing its own science communication efforts. What made me especially enthusiastic about a stay at the Science Communication Unit was the MSc Science Communication that offers training to a new generation of science communicators.

In terms of my PhD, the literature told me that explicit teaching of science communication skills would lead to better scores and a higher self-perception of writing abilities. The next step was finding teaching interventions that are effective in teaching these writing skills, and the Science Communication programme was the perfect way for me to see teaching activities in action. The module ‘Writing Science’ was of specific interest to me as it is unique to have a course that focuses solely on writing skills in science communication. As part of my sabbatical I could sit in on teaching in this course and observe best practices in teaching. I was also able to ask students taking the module to participate in my research by letting them write one-minute papers and reflect on learning goals, the content of the classes and the results of the teaching efforts. Furthermore, I let students fill in a questionnaire about self-perception of their science communication skills and writing abilities. This gave me insights into the self-perception of their writing skills as well as their likes and dislikes in the way that the curriculum was built. I’ve never seen a more enthusiastic group of students! They loved everything about the programme and had no dislikes.

Left to right: Clare Wilkinson, Emma Weitkamp, Andy Ridgway and Hannah Little

I was also able to interview Emma Weitkamp, Hannah Little and Andy Ridgway, staff who teach on the module, about their didactical frameworks, educational vision, how to build a science communication curriculum, and educational techniques. I got to sit in on teaching for undergraduate programmes at UWE Bristol and on masterclasses, continuing professional development aimed at those working in the field. What really stood out to me is that in all their teaching, the SCU team would actively make the connection between theory and practice, offering many examples of science communication efforts to their students, as well as enabling students to participate in real-world science communication themselves.

More generally, my time in Bristol gave me insights into effective teaching techniques for science communication within the context of a specialized graduate programme. I will bring these insights with me to inform my further research. The next step in my own project is implementing teaching interventions in the undergraduate programme Liberal Arts and Sciences, and my stay in Bristol gave me some great insights into how I might construct this part of my research.

I felt like a research stay at the start of my second year of research was a great time for me to spend some time at SCU. This stay gave me some great insights into theory and practice and helped me bring more focus to my project. The entire team made me feel very welcome during my time at UWE, with academics  Andy Ridgway, Andrew Glester, Clare Wilkinson and Kathy Fawcett, letting me sit-in on their teaching. Furthermore, it was great to spend time with fellow PhD students David Judge and Elena Milani, who became real friends and helped exploring Bristol. In short, I would highly encourage any PhD student thinking about spending time at UWE Bristol to say yes to the opportunity!

Florentine Sterk stayed at the Science Communication Unit from September to November 2019 as a visiting PhD student. You can find out more about opportunities to spend a PhD sabbatical in the SCU here: https://www1.uwe.ac.uk/research/sciencecommunicationunit/coursesandtraining/postgraduateresearch/phdsabbaticals.aspx

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