Science communication: a key skill to encourage in our students24/06/2014
We need to improve written communication skills at a secondary level for a science-literate society, according to IAN SHAW and DAVID ZEHMS.
Based on 30 years’ experience in academia, it is our opinion that the ability of first year undergraduate students to write their science well is plummeting. They are often not able to string sentences together in a way that enables the reader to understand what they have done in their experiment and what the results mean. Communication and science go hand in hand; therefore, this will be a significant problem when today’s students become tomorrow’s scientists.
What’s going wrong?
The question is why are many tertiary-level science students no longer good writers? Perhaps their school teachers are not teaching them effectively? Or is it they can only communicate in sound bites or text speak now? Perhaps it’s a combination of both Apropos of sound bites? John F Kennedy’s biographers Robert Dallek and Terry Galloway realised the importance of ‘proper’ sentences arranged in ‘real’ paragraphs when they said of JFK, “He did not speak in sound bites. The phrase had not yet been invented. He spoke in literate paragraphs …” The sound bite issue is a problem of today, as are paragraphs that might only be one sentence – this has all been brought about by copy-length-conscious newspaper journalists and the desire for short and simple messages for an increasingly rushed readership – or perhaps, clipped social media communication. Our language is, no doubt, evolving; we must accept this and go with the flow. This article is not about writing turgid old scientific English. It’s about writing today’s English in a science communication context.
Before we explore what might have led to the diminution of our science students’ writing skills, we will look at the styles of communication scientists need. Then we can attempt to address where the problem lies … we hope.
What communication skills do scientists need?
To be effective, a scientist must communicate to his/her peers in a precise, highly structured language fit for prestigious – some might think, hifalutin – science journals. It is not the role of school to teach this, but a good grounding in how to write up a science experiment in sentences and paragraphs sets the groundwork that the tertiary educators can build on. Just as important is the need for scientists to write for the lay public.
If science is not translated into something understandable by Joe Public, its importance will not be realised and its messages won’t be enacted. For example, if people don’t understand the health implications of environmental chemicals – e.g. bisphenol A (BPA – a molecule that mimics the female hormone 17β-estradiol and is being blamed for myriad health effects in humans) in plastics, they will not change their behaviour by buying BPA-free plastics. Such changed behaviour is very persuasive to the manufacturing industry. Direct communication to the industry is likely to be less effective because of the all-important vested financial interest. Another good example is melanoma caused by exposure to short wavelength ultraviolet (UV) light. Communicating the implication of lying in the sun to New Zealanders is important because it might lead to behavioural changes that reduce disease burden. These two examples highlight the need for clear accessible science communication.
Starting early: Merrin Primary School
In keeping with the idea that scientists should communicate important issues based on their research, Merrin Primary School in Christchurch has a Term 3 inquiry unit entitled ‘UV you and me’, which will incorporate health, science, and literacy. This will include studies on UV light, its properties, and its positive (e.g. needed for vitamin D biosynthesis) and/or negative (e.g. link to melanoma) effects on people. It will convey a key health message using diverse communication strategies (e.g. posters, videos, e-presentations) to students throughout the school. The students will be asked, as part of their communication, to focus on actions that will make a difference (e.g. advice on how to reduce the risk of contracting melanoma).
The important concept that communication is a key function of scientists is brought out very well in a New Entrants science programme at Merrin Primary School in which the students ‘become’ scientists – they explore what a scientist is and what a scientist does. The key learning concepts are:
- Share & Discuss.
These are achieved through a series of simple experiments (e.g. mixing different dyes to make new colours). The students’ findings are communicated through a school blog and displaying results on the class window so that their parents can view them.
This is excellent because it introduces, at a very young age, the importance of science communication to peer groups and to other interested people – i.e. communication at different levels.
A very important philosophy underlying Merrin School’s approach is that it connects literacy and science. In this context, the children are being given a good start on the road to becoming science communicators.
Writing, of course, is only half of the communication story. Oral communication – public talks, radio presentations, and TV appearances – is equally, if not more, important, but our anecdotal evidence suggests that, if anything, students are getting better at talking – ask their parents! This is surprising in the context of their increased reliance on non-face-to-face communication (Facebook, etc.) but might reflect youngsters’ undying confidence.
Disciplines in isolation?
So back to the all-important question: ‘why do our tertiary students not write as well as they used to?’ First, we explored science teaching at primary and high school levels. In particular, we looked at basic writing skills. Do students connect the writing they are doing in English classes with the writing they need to do in science? The answer is probably a resounding “no” at the secondary level, but a rather gratifying “yes” at the primary level.
The reason is likely to be because secondary school subjects are taught in isolation (as they always have been). The NCEA system does not discourage these silos. English is one compartment and science another and n’ere the twain shall meet. Then there are the assessments; they, too, are rigidly compartmentalised, which precludes crossover between subjects like the sciences and English. Indeed, the amount of time taken by NCEA assessments could, perhaps, be put to better use exploring the subject interfaces – particularly between English and the sciences. Therefore, students appear to get a good grounding on the science literacy interface at the primary level, but perhaps this breaks down at secondary school. So when they arrive at university, their science writing skills are long gone.
Looking at how students record their experiments
Another key issue is the way we ask our students to write their experiments up. The NCEA system pushes a fill-in-the-boxes approach: ‘what colour did basic CuSO4 (aq.) turn when boiled with glucose?’ rather than ‘write up your findings’. Sadly, this approach has infiltrated some universities, too; our first year undergraduates have lab books with gaps to fill in. No wonder they no longer know how to write their science.
Lincoln High School has been developing an approach to assessing end of topic tests in Years 9 and 10. This is done in three sections with the goal of developing students’ scientific literacy by building on scientific facts (e.g. the result of an experiment):
Section 1 - Factual answer only
Section 2 – Putting science facts into sentences
Section 3 – Linking multiple ideas and concepts.
This is used in conjunction with a planning template to help students tackle long answer questions. This interesting approach aims to link science and literacy.
When developing scientists hit the real science world, they will confront the conventions of science writing. For science journals, they will be expected to structure papers into sections – introduction, materials and methods, results and discussion, conclusions, and references. Why don’t we instil this into them as part of their school science? Just showing them examples of scientific papers would give them the idea; even better would be to ask them to write their – or some of their – experiments up in this format.
Similarly, preparing posters to communicate the results of their science experiments to their classmates would be a step in the right direction since posters are a key communication style for junior scientists at scientific meetings. Introducing the students to the key features of this communication approach – few words, good illustrations, striking presentation – would stand them in good stead. And it can be fun!
Finally, the all-important communication to non-experts; a good exercise might be to write an experiment up in three formats: a scientific paper, a poster, and a short article for a newspaper. This would show the students the importance of science communication styles and how to choose the right style for a particular situation. We might be able to persuade English teachers to talk about writing styles and how to match them with a particular readership as part of their curriculum. You never know, this might even be acceptable to NCEA …
It is likely that many of our readers already do all or part of what we are suggesting, but it is clear from our discussions with colleagues in schools that this is often not the case, even though there is a deep realisation that written communication is crucial in the sciences and that our current approach does not augur well for the future. The traditional subject-based constraints of secondary school education are the most commonly cited reasons for not doing what needs to be done to redress the science literary slippage.
There is a school of thought that rejects the need to teach conventional science writing skills on the grounds that approaches to science communication are changing. With the advent of e-journals, this is most definitely the case, but we feel it unlikely that within the next 20-years the requirements for written science communication will change so much that it is not worth doing the groundwork in schools now.
In conclusion, in our opinion, it is imperative that scientists can communicate well. From our brief foray into school science, albeit in only three schools in the Christchurch area, it appears that at the primary level the basic concepts of science communication are introduced well and set firmly in the context of literacy. However, as students progress to secondary school, the compartmentalisation of subjects has led to a diminution of written communication in science; so, by the time some science students reach tertiary level, their writing skills in a science context are sadly lacking. This is unfortunate.
We thank Jan Galloway (chemistry), David Newsham-West (biology), John Creighton (technology), Christine Ussher (English), Suzanne Porter (science), Penny Olds (English), Victoria Mentink (English), Julie Kleinpaste (English) from Burnside High School, Christchurch for a fascinating discussion over tea, which gave us a real insight into science writing in a high school; and Willem Tolhoek for sharing with us Lincoln High School’s innovative approach to teaching science communication. We are also grateful to Leslie Black and Jenie Bargh, from Merrin Primary School, Christchurch for providing material on primary science teaching.
This work is outside David Zehms’ position description at Merrin Primary School, and therefore, he was not paid for his co-authorship of this article.
Ian Shaw is Director of Biochemistry and Professor of Toxicology at the University of Canterbury. He is an enthusiastic science communicator and writes for newspapers, appears on radio and television, and writes books for both a technical and lay readership. He won the New Zealand Association of Scientists’ Communicator’s Award in 2009.
David Zehms is a primary teacher with 30 years multinational experience which has taken him to teaching jobs in the USA, Indonesia, and England. He has a particular interest in science curriculum development. He currently teaches ESOL as a member of the support staff of Merrin Primary School in Christchurch.
Ed. Do you agree with the authors about the state of science writing among tertiary students? Please leave a comment below.