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Science Communication

Overview: Outreach is an important, and often neglected, component of a scientist’s skill set. A good scientist should be able to explain what he or she is doing and why it matters–and in terms that the general public will both understand and find interesting.

This course will explore the ways scientific information reaches the public, whether communicated by scientists themselves or by journalists, press officers, and other intermediaries. Students will learn what these communications channels are, the strengths and weaknesses of each, and what makes science newsworthy. Students will develop their own work in social media, blogs, press releases, and journalistic writing, and they will study and critique the work of others, both their fellow students and professionals.

Students will also learn about the practices and goals of journalism, including topics such as deadlines, journalistic balance, accuracy, and quotes. This will increase their understanding of what journalists need from scientists and how they approach their craft. Students will participate in interviews–both as subjects and as interviewers–and conduct interviews with practicing scientists.

Research skills: Students will develop writing and communication skills through course assignments, including at least one written article for the general public about the students’ own research or that of other researchers at BMSC or elsewhere. Students will also develop their skills at thinking through research programmes in a logical sequence, since good thinking is a prerequisite for good writing.

Practical Skills: Students will leave the course with stronger skills in identifying newsworthy pieces of science and in communicating them to the general public. Such skills are valuable not only for interacting with the public, but also for clearer, more persuasive writing of scientific papers, reports, and grant proposals. For students considering careers in science journalism, the course will provide a basic grounding in skills, as well as initial experience in practicing journalism.

Boat Use: There will be no opportunity for students to drive boats during Science Communication.  Boat driving is not recommended for this course. Students who wish to drive boats at BMSC must hold a PCOC and valid first aid certificate and will participate in an introductory boat check-out on the first day of orientation.

Prerequisite:  Some research experience or other familiarity with scientific research would be an asset, but is not necessary.

Physical Requirements: None. This course can accommodate any special needs that are compatible with life at a remote marine station.

Required Text: None

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Unlike most courses at BMSC, which involve extensive field or lab research, the Science Communication course will piggyback on other research, whether something you’ve done yourself in earlier courses, or by other researchers at BMSC and elsewhere. You’ll be able to spend as much or as little time in the field or lab as you wish–but you’ll need to find researchers to tag along with as they collect data and you describe what they’re doing.

The rest of our course time will be spent reading, writing, and–most important–dissecting the writing of you, your classmates, and others. We’ll examine what works and what doesn’t work in pieces of writing ranging from brief tweets or Instagram posts to full-length journalistic articles, and everything in between. And you’ll be producing your own tweets, blog posts, press releases, and journalistic articles. To do that, you’ll spend a great deal of time looking for interesting, newsworthy pieces of science, a process that may involve tagging along on field trips, interviewing researchers face to face at BMSC, and interviewing researchers elsewhere by phone or email. And you’ll spend a lot of time writing and rewriting your own work.

In class, we’ll often conduct “post-mortems” in which we look at how you and your classmates each solved common problems (e.g., how to explain a difficult scientific concept, how to grab the reader’s attention with your opening sentence) so that each can learn from the others’ strengths and weaknesses.

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