Establishing a Baseline of Science Communication Skills in an Undergraduate Environmental Science Course
Bergan-Roller, Heather E.
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Background Seminal reports, based on recommendations by educators, scientists, and in collaboration with students, have called for undergraduate curricula to engage students in some of the same practices as scientists—one of which is communicating science with a general, non-scientific audience (SciComm). Unfortunately, very little research has focused on helping students develop these skills. An important early step in creating effective and efficient curricula is understanding what baseline skills students have prior to instruction. Here, we used the Essential Elements for Effective Science Communication (EEES) framework to survey the SciComm skills of students in an environmental science course in which they had little SciComm training. Results Our analyses revealed that, despite not being given the framework, students included several of the 13 elements, especially those which were explicitly asked for in the assignment instructions. Students commonly targeted broad audiences composed of interested adults, aimed to increase the knowledge and awareness of their audience, and planned and executed remote projects using print on social media. Additionally, students demonstrated flexibility in their skills by slightly differing their choices depending on the context of the assignment, such as creating more engaging content than they had planned for. Conclusions The students exhibited several key baseline skills, even though they had minimal training on the best practices of SciComm; however, more support is required to help students become better communicators, and more work in different contexts may be beneficial to acquire additional perspectives on SciComm skills among a variety of science students. The few elements that were not well highlighted in the students’ projects may not have been as intuitive to novice communicators. Thus, we provide recommendations for how educators can help their undergraduate science students develop valuable, prescribed SciComm skills. Some of these recommendations include helping students determine the right audience for their communication project, providing opportunities for students to try multiple media types, determining the type of language that is appropriate for the audience, and encouraging students to aim for a mix of communication objectives. With this guidance, educators can better prepare their students to become a more open and communicative generation of scientists and citizens.