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We need to talk about science

Lookup NU author(s): Dr SarahJayne Boulton


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An increasingly competitive graduate job market for entry-level positions presents challenges for students in their final year of undergraduate study. At interview, students are expected to articulate their professional expertise and interests to a panel of strangers, who may or may not have any experience in the student’s chosen field. In the Biomedical Sciences, as in many specialist disciplines, students are immersed in a technically demanding world of complex terminology and nomenclature, where the pursuit of precise, accurate and concise presentation is paramount. After 3 years of biomedical scholarship, students trained in the use of a highly specialised vocabulary find themselves struggling to articulate their accumulated knowledge to a largely non-specialist wider world audience. Through the use of enhanced digital learning strategies and public engagement, I sought through a module called Science Communication at Newcastle University (originally designed by Dr Vanessa Armstrong) to develop the intrinsic communication skills of level 6 Biomedical Science students. The aim was to get them talking about their scientific learning and interests using clear, simple language. A ‘two-tier’ approach to written communication training was devised using an existing Personal Development Planning tool familiar to the students, the University’s ePortfolio system [1], alongside an externally-hosted public-facing website, Having first explored other examples of good scientific blogging practice online students were tasked with writing short blog posts on any scientific topic of their choosing. Initially, these were shared with the course participants via a closed, private ePortfolio-based community. After peer appreciation and submission editing, blog pieces were then published on the public facing website for comment and sharing on social media as the students wished. ePortfolio presented a safe environment where students could share examples of their work to receive peer-to-peer feedback along with comments from the module leader, while the website provides an opportunity for moderated interaction with the lay audience. Blogging was supported in the classroom with training from a journalist, press office and museum curator guest lecturers. An open, accepting and honest class culture was established through transactional analysis and informal discussion of good communicative practice [2]. By creating space for playful interaction with serious topics within the Biomedical Sciences field such as disease and morbidity, the students reported a sense of ease with the subjects and were able to think creatively about contextualising and coding high-level research findings for a lay audience. The integration of peer-to-peer learning opportunities with assessment criteria provided gentle motivation to engage with peer learning activities while encouraging the adoption of personal development practices for improving communication skills. This two-tiered ‘inside-and-out’ approach to honing and demonstrating learning outcomes has instilled wider spread cultural change in student perception and critical thinking patterns, as evidenced by analysis of the reflective summaries generated by students on completion of the Scientific Communication module. An unintended outcome of this learning was that many students reported that they discovered newfound ability to summarise and assimilate information sources in other areas of their studies, allowing them to engage more efficiently with revision practices and essay writing. Participants also reported improved confidence in communicating and contextualising their own studies, improving interactions with family members and friends.References: 1. QAA (2009) Personal development planning: guidance for institutional policy and practice in higher education. 2. Ashcroft, K., and Foreman-Peck, L. (1994) Managing Teaching and Learning in Further and Higher Education, Falmer Press.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Boulton SJ

Publication type: Conference Proceedings (inc. Abstract)

Publication status: Published

Conference Name: North East Universities (3 Rivers Consortium) 2016 Learning and Teaching Conference

Year of Conference: 2016

Print publication date: 18/03/2016

Online publication date: 18/03/2018

Acceptance date: 12/02/2018