Summer Term course helps students understand, navigate science communication challenges

Last summer, Kunlung Wang landed an undergraduate research position in a UW–Madison biochemistry lab. Wang, a biochemistry and computer sciences double major, found himself passionate about the work, which focuses on synthetic biology.

“[The goal is] to study how to combine basic molecular components into a functional cellular robot,” says Wang, a senior who plans to graduate in spring 2021. “It’s a very interesting lab, and I found myself very devoted to the research topic.”

But it’s not an easy thing to explain to others, and Wang says he especially struggled to instill his sense of excitement.

“When I try to explain to my family or friends about research, they sometimes get very overwhelmed by the topics—and sometimes they even misinterpret things,” says Wang. “I also see in the news that people can have very big misunderstandings and misconceptions about science. This made me want to learn about communication strategies I could use to better garner support for the research I’m doing—and the research of other scientists.”

Fortunately, Wang found the perfect Summer Term course to help with this challenge: Life Sciences Communication 251.

LSC 251: Science, Media and Society gives a broad overview of science communication and how it intersects with politics and society. During this three-credit course, students consider controversial public debates about science and emerging technologies, such as GMOs or climate change, and then explore the factors that influence public opinion on these topics.

During the summer, LSC 251 is offered as an eight-week online course. It features pre-recorded lectures that students can watch when it works best for them, readings, quizzes, writing assignments and small-group online discussion boards.

The course’s writing assignments were a favorite part for Nicole Gathman, a computer engineering major interested in robotics. Gathman ended up being most proud of her final writing project, which explored policy approaches to try to encourage mild vaccine skeptics to embrace vaccinations.

“The papers were really good practice because a lot of the prompts were: Here’s a [controversial science topic], what challenges do you face, and what can you do to raise support for it? I enjoyed the process of considering the various communication theories we learned in the class, and then applying them to a real-life situation in the papers,” says Gathman.

Wang, for his part, liked the online discussion boards, impressed by the high quality of the comments posted by his fellow students who had time to consider and compose their thoughts in the online format.

“One of the things that I really appreciated about the course was being able to have some in-depth conversations with other students,” says Wang. “We had pretty frequent discussions and also peer review of [two of our] writing assignments. I was able to gain a lot of insights from other students.”

Engaging with fellow students’ ideas is a key aim of the course. Discussion prompts, for instance, are designed to elicit a variety of viewpoints, so that students are exposed to multiple perspectives other than their own.

“We encourage students to make arguments supported by evidence and to communicate [with each other] in a manner that addresses flawed reasoning or insufficient data, rather than attacking people as individuals,” says LSC graduate student Nicky Krause, who was LSC 251’s instructor last summer.

The course also aims to be as relevant as possible to students’ lives. Last-minute changes may be made to readings or discussion prompts, depending on what’s going on in the news.

“The cool thing about the course is that it changes almost weekly based on what’s happening [in the world],” says Dietram Scheufele, professor of life sciences communication, who created the course a handful of years ago. “The more [messed up] the world is, the more interesting the course gets, unfortunately.”

2020 certainly provided a lot of fodder for discussion. Students considered the use of artificial intelligence in predictive policing during a time of significant public protest about police practices, as well as vaccine skepticism in the context of a global viral pandemic, amongst many other topics.

“It was exciting to see in some of the discussion threads and the writing assignments they submitted just how relevant a lot of the material ended up being,” says Krause. “They were clearly able to apply the course concepts to a wide variety of issues affecting their daily lives, their other coursework at UW, and their possible career paths.”

The online course provided a good learning experience for both Gathman and Wang.

“I feel like I have a backstage glimpse of what’s going on,” says Gathman. “For instance, it was exciting to [learn that] motivated reasoning is why people defend themselves, their identity. I thought it was really cool to assess these things I’ve observed throughout my life, but now I know why they happen and what causes them.”

“This course was very useful for me,” says Wang. “It changed my perception about how science, media and society are really intermingled. This course definitely helped me to prepare for my future research career, for any potential [communication] challenges that I might face.”