Teaching Science Communication to Biology students

Adriane here-

This semester, I was given the opportunity to do something new: lecture to an undergraduate Biology writing class about how to communicate science to non-scientists! I was invited to speak to this class because the professor knew about my education outreach and blogging experiences with Time Scavengers.

One assignments the class had to do was summarize a published scientific paper for the general public. So I thought it would be a good idea to put together a short slide show for the students about who I am, how I got involved in science communication, and an overview of Time Scavengers. I also told the students about some of the lessons I’ve learned as a science communicator, and some best practices. Although there are several tips and tricks for writing for the general public, here are the four I chose to focus on:

  • Science writing for the public should be the opposite of formal scientific paper.
  • Explain figures in the figure caption, even if it is repetitive with the text
  • Use figures that are simple, labeled, and not too overwhelming
  • Reduce the jargon- include explanations and define any jargon words that are used
The students working on their summaries.

The paper the students summarized was about the amount of microplastics, or very small pieces of plastics, that are found in the southern part of the Marianas Trench. The paper and it’s findings are very important because it highlights the fact that our plastic waste is making it into the farthest reaches of our oceans, into the food chain, and affecting our wildlife. So it was a great paper for the undergrads to practice their science communication skills. There was only one catch: they could only use the ‘ten hundred’ most common words from the English language to write their summaries, thus ensuring they couldn’t use any science jargon words. This was done on the Up-Goer Five Text Editor, which allows you to type text directly into a word box, but notifies you if you use a word that is not part of the 1,000 most common words.

When we began the activity, the students were a bit frustrated at first, as words such as ‘ocean’, ‘Earth’, and ‘salt’ aren’t words they could use! But then, they got creative and began coming up with ways to explain some of the more difficult concepts!

Needless to say, this was a really fun activity that resulted in quite a few laughs! I was impressed at how well the students’ summaries really captured the messages in the paper they were summarizing. This activity really highlighted the fact that we (scientists) don’t have to use large jargon-y words to get across important messages!

Below are some of the students’ summaries:

“Lots of small pieces of things you would find all around you are in deep water where they are hurting animals. Deep water animals are hurt when they eat things that they should not eat. People put these man made things in the water and they break down into small pieces that shouldn’t be eaten. There are lots of different things that can break down, and they’re in bags, computers, phones, clothes, and food packs in stores. The small pieces are all around the animals, and they are eating them all the time. People are worried and are finding lots of truth saying that this is going to make the animals die and hurt how they act with each other and what they eat. It also makes them sick because they can’t get bad things in their body out, and can’t make important things that help the brain and body talk to each other. People lost a lot of the bad things that are in the water, and we have now found them in the really deep water, and it is hurting animals in both deep and upper water now.”

“The fine pieces thrown away by human after using are getting into the deep water and hurting the animals that live in the deep water. Many kinds of these used pieces are found in different places of the water, even in the deepest part. This is because that the pieces on the top of the water would go deeper when the land shakes or water moves. Studying these piece can help us better understand them and clean them from the water, keeping animals save in their home.”

“Humans use a lot of stuff that eventually finds its way into the water. These small pieces of stuff start on land and eventually move to the water where it takes a lot of time to break down. Eventually this bad human stuff finds it’s way to the deep parts of the water where it is not supposed to be. Animals living in the water can easily be hurt and get sick by this bad human stuff. With this stuff in the water it will be very hard to take away. In order to keep a lot of life, humans must do something to clean the water. Clean water will help human life as well.”

“We studied problems in bodies of water like bad things on the ground under water. Further down we go, more build up of the bad things is seen. The deeper down in the water, the worse the problem is. Many pieces of bottles and other man made things sit and bother surrounding life. Another problem that was presented in the reading was the ground taking in the man made things-which makes it harder for animals to eat, breathe, and live. The changes that have happened because of the man made things are still not known and being looked into.”

“A big problem that is growing is making the bodies of water, and what lives there, sick. These bad things are small and can be found more in deep water. Humans are bad because they are not safe with throwing away these things so it hurts water animals by making them sick. The well-being of water and animals needs to be helped by humans. Cleaning up water is good, as well as watching what is put into water to stop the problem before it happens. Water is very important to human and animal life, so bad things being put into bodies of water needs to stop. ”

“Lots of small pieces of things you would find all around you are in deep water where they are hurting animals. Deep water animals are hurt when they eat things that they should not eat. People put these man made things in the water and they break down into small pieces that shouldn’t be eaten. There are lots of different things that can break down, and they’re in bags, computers, phones, clothes, and food packs in stores. The small pieces are all around the animals, and they are eating them all the time. People are worried and are finding lots of truth saying that this is going to make the animals die and hurt how they act with each other and what they eat. It also makes them sick because they can’t get bad things in their body out, and can’t make important things that help the brain and body talk to each other. People lost a lot of the bad things that are in the water, and we have now found them in the really deep water, and it is hurting animals in both deep and upper water now.”

Humans placed too many bad things like bags and bottles in the deep water. This, in the end, hurts the tiny animals living in the water. If this goes on, it will even hurt our entire home later on. We first thought that the bad things were only near the top of the water, however it seems that the bad things are even in the deepest parts of the water as well. The people who study this are explaining how they found this out in this paper.

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