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Science Meets Communication: Understanding Differing Sides and Complex Issues

Science Meets Communication: Understanding Differing Sides and Complex Issues

December 21, 2018

A pair of Biological Sciences and Communication Studies professors are teaming up to deliver an interdisciplinary course whose aim is to clearly communicate science-based topics.   

The course, in its second year, is taught by Scott Franklin, Ph.D, from Biological Sciences and, for the first time, by Lin Allen, Ph.D., from Communication Studies. It’s part of a growing number of interdisciplinary courses at UNC, joining about 25 other classes where two or more different departments or colleges come together and develop a curriculum on a specific topic.

Classwork involves engaging in different types of activities, such as verbal debates, to build a scientific understanding of complex topics. By combining both science and communication, this class helps bridge gaps in understanding among students who aspire to be writers or scientists.

Lin Allen“We see it as both journalists writing about science as well as scientists communicating,” said Allen. “It’s crucial for people in positions of delivering information to the public to understand how to communicate such topics in order to be wise in their decision-making.” 

One assignment Franklin and Allen are planning to incorporate spring semester resembles a courtroom. Students raise an argument about a specific scientific case, and a jury of students debate on the presentation and interpretation of the evidence from both sides. Other typical assignments include panel discussions, pamphlets and brochures, and translating science into comprehensible languages and visuals.

One guest speaker from the spring 2018 semester was Marie Lee, a doctoral student at the time in the UNC Theatre Department who helped run a couple of improvisation classes. Improv is training for understanding your audience, empathy, listening and thinking quickly where it teaches a ‘yes, and’ response instead of a confrontational response, said Franklin.

Scott Franklin

“It's wonderful that we can get two very different groups together in a classroom to go over a variety of activities with both sides and knowledge to create something that helps everybody understand,” said Franklin. “It's pretty unique when you have such a diverse array of students.”

It is vital for researchers to understand and practice using communication skills to translate complex information to non-technical audiences. Students are understanding how vital these skills are no matter where they wind up later in life.

According to a blog post from American Chemical Society, “Researchers’ ability to explain their work and its importance will influence what kinds of projects are funded. Researchers’ testimony can affect the kinds of laws and regulations put in place. Most importantly, being able to explain the impact of your research can help shape the public perception of science and even change people’s lives."

By considering different viewpoints, students are learning to have empathy for the other side in a debate and “an open mind on how they try to communicate with these other groups,” Allen said.

Allen and Franklin are working on making the subject of scientific communication into a minor or certificate. For now, students can find the Scientific Communication special topics class listed as BIO 495 and 595 and COMM 461 and 561.

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