5 Steps for Integrating #SciComm into STEM Graduate Education

By Liz Neeley and COMPASS

Mar 31, 2015


Minute Read


By Liz Neeley
Published March 31, 2015
Title: 5 Steps For Integrating #SciComm Into STEM Graduate Education
Categories: About COMPASS, Leadership
Tags: collaboration, community, culture, evaluation, facilitation, GradSciComm, graduate school, more resources, tools, trainings, workshops, Liz Neeley

Last month, an article in The Atlantic stated, “Beginning this year, the Medical College Admission Test [MCAT] will contain questions involving human behavior and psychology, a recognition that being a good doctor “requires an understanding of people,” not just science.”  The same is true of being a good scientist. Understanding people is essential for succeeding in everything from teaching, collaboration, and grant writing to media interviews, public engagement, and Congressional testimony.

Yet traditional training in medicine, science, engineering, and other technical disciplines is not helping students to develop the suite of communication skills they need to succeed. How should graduate training shift to better equip STEM professionals for their future careers?

Click to download the GradSciComm Report

Since late 2012, COMPASS has worked on the #GradSciComm project to understand what kinds of science communication training are currently available to graduate students in the STEM disciplines, and how these skills might be integrated into graduate programs. Our initial NSF grant culminated in a Roadmap Report, which you can download here, which summarizes our findings, case studies, relevant literature, and the conclusions of our expert workshop. Most importantly, it proposes concrete actions for agencies, institutions, and individuals to undertake to integrate science communication skills into STEM graduate education. This post summarizes our five key recommendations.

1. Expand training access
Our snapshot of communication trainings and courses suggests that graduate students encounter wildly variable access to communication resources depending on their department, discipline, university, and geographic location. While not all students require or will take advantage of the expertise and coaching available to them, all students should have the ability to enroll in graduate-level coursework and/or professional development programs.

Specific implementation actions we suggest include requiring Individual Development Plans (IDPs), cataloging and publicizing existing institutional offerings, and getting creative about combining internal and external resources to meet demand. See pages 19-21 of the report for more.

2. Foster a community of practice
We have identified an informal network of individuals and organizations currently offering science communication trainings for STEM graduate students. Across the board, these instructors and leaders are hungry to know who else is working in the space, and what they are teaching. Their interest in connecting to each other should be supported so the network can transition to a robust community of practice, in which knowledge is personalized via increasing member participation and connectivity, and is institutionalized via the creation and compilation of archived resources.

We suggest a variety of options for providing support, including both technology and social infrastructure for online and offline networks. One possible home for these discussions might be the AAAS social network Trellis, now in beta testing. For further specifics, see pages 21-22 of the report.

3. Define core competencies
One of the most striking findings of the GradSciComm project was the broad and inconsistent set of definitions of what science communication training is intended to achieve. Our initial attempt to categorize content revealed a pastiche of skills (verbal, written, graphic), audiences (K-12, lay public, journalists), and channels (live events, social media, video).

For students to achieve minimum proficiencies, and institutions to identify and fill key needs, we must develop consensus around foundational and functional competencies. We are strongly encouraging collaborations with scholars and education planners, and integrating further work on this front with Individual Development Plans (IDPs). Pages 22-24 of the report explore the topic in further detail.

4. Develop integrated evaluation
Effective education requires continuously asking two fundamental questions: 1) How well are students learning? and 2) How effectively are instructors teaching? For science communication skills, we should further consider whether the skills we teach actually achieve their intended communication impacts. Consider “clarity” in writing, for instance. We should be able to evaluate:

Impact – Does clarity in written materials demonstrably improve metrics such as audience comprehension and/or retention?

Teaching – Does a specific training program demonstrably improve students’ ability to write clearly?

Learning – How is an individual student progressing on dimensions of clarity, such as use of jargon, readability, and type of explanation?

For this recommendation, we again strongly encourage interdisciplinary collaboration, and we discuss how to strengthen evaluation requirements for funding training programs, as well as the need to provide funding support for evaluation itself. See report pages 24-26 for more.

5. Increase career incentives
Any discussion of changes to STEM graduate education must consider both practical and cultural dimensions. Even if all the necessary resources were somehow immediately available, a lack of faculty buy-in would stall or undermine the effort altogether. As supervisors, as issue authorities, and as role models of what it means to be successful in a discipline, faculty wield tremendous influence. Their attitudes and day-to-day habits are powerful social signals, because graduate training is not only the explicit technical knowledge imparted in the formal curriculum, but also the implicit professional norms of the “hidden curriculum.“

When it comes to creating meaningful incentive structures for students, advisors, and their institutions, our suggestions include creating competitive grant programs, recognizing excellence with awards, and revisiting key policies, legislation, and tenure and promotion criteria. For further detail on what that might entail, see pages 26-29 of the report.

We are incredibly grateful to colleagues, collaborators, and funders on this project. To all who took our surveys, granted us informational interviews, attended our workshops and meetings, and spent time reviewing and revising our materials, THANK YOU.

We very much look forward to where these conversations lead! Please share, discuss, and post updates for us here, on Twitter using the #GradSciComm hashtag, or via email!

Liz Neeley worked at COMPASS from 2008-2015. This post was transferred from its original location at www.compassonline.org to www.COMPASSscicomm.org, August 2017.

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