Public health science communication is back

Yes, Public health science communication is back again – and in more than one way. First of all, after a way too long time of silence on this blog – Public Health Science Communication 2.0 – I intend to be a bit more active in the time to come. There are lots of good articles, blog posts and experiences from the past couple of months to follow-up on, and now a bit more time to do so.

Public health science comm pageThe other public health science communication which is back soon (takes off from early February) is the short Masters course ‘Public Health Science Communication’ at the Institute of Public Health Sciences, University of Copenhagen. In the fall of 2012 I was given the opportunity to develop and teach the course (read more about it here) to students of public health sciences. However, being located in Bonn and busy with many other things in the spring to come the course will now – in a new and great version II – be orchestrated by my colleague from Medical Museion, Associate professor Louise Whiteley. Louise has a Masters in Science Communication from Imperial College London and is one of the coolest people I know in Science Communication. She was a great help in developing the first version of the Masters course Public Health Science Communication, so version II will surely be great.

I would have loved to take on the course myself, but am happy that I get to teach one session on Public health risk communication. It’s a topic I have always found super interesting so it fits me well. My younger sister Caroline has enrolled in the course, which means that I will get to teach my own sister. A bit surreal, but hopefully someone who can give me some unfiltered feedback.

Anyhow, it is great to be back on the blog and I look forward to blog away, with my posts also featuring on Medical Museion’s great website.


Experiences with teaching Public Health Science Communication

On my list of things to do writing a blog post about my experiences with teaching Public Health Science Communication to graduate students at the University of Copenhagen has been high-up for a while. However, moving to Bonn, Germany and other minor things have somehow managed to overrule the writing of this post. But its time – also to avoid the experiences being stored too far back in my mind to be brought forward.

So how did it go? Did the students find it useful? What went well? Would I repeat a course like this again? And if so, what would I do differently? There are lots of questions to answer, so I thought I’d go through them one by one.

How did it go?

Overall, I think it went quite well. At least all students passed and it wasn’t criticized apart by the students. I’d even like to think that the students learned something new and useful. And just as important: I learned a lot! Both about science communication in relation to public health and about teaching public health science communication.

Did the students find the course useful?

It is very often difficult to get a clear impression of whether students found a course useful or not, and the fact that only few students filled in the online evaluation questionnaire and that only about half of the class attended the last module, where we did a short oral evaluation of the course, makes it even more difficult. However, based on the students who did participate in the evaluation I think it would be alright to conclude that the students on the whole were happy with the course. From the online evaluation most of them indicated that the study objectives of the course were met (and I assume they to some extend joined the course on the basis of these), and they rated their overall study-relevant benefit as ‘very good’ or ‘good’. I was also very happy to see that a most of the students who filled in the online evaluation found the course very relevant to their general Public Health education.

From the oral evaluation the comments were also in general positive. The students expressed that it had in many ways been a very different course, with much less hardcore theory than many of their other graduate courses. Some also mentioned that the fact that the centre of attention to a much higher degree than in other courses had been on themselves as individuals and researchers, had been interesting but at the same time a challenge. They expressed that they were more used to focus on the objective of Public Health, which is usually the public and not so much on their own role in this. I found this interesting, and recalling my own time as a Public Health student it is true that it was rarely about ourselves and our current and future roles in public health (one could talk about our subjective role), but much more about all the other players in public health, of course including the public itself.

examAnother thing I found interesting, was that when asked about the syllabus, the students in general seemed happy with the selected literature, except many of them expressed that they found the blog posts too chatty and recommend them taken out in future courses. I myself had put a lot of thought into allowing different kinds of literature. In part to illustrate that science communication is not just about text books and peer-reviewed journals. I guess they as university student have by now just been a little brainwashed to prefer good old scholarly texts over the more ‘chatty’ and personal writing styles…

What went well?

videnskab.dkMedical museionIn my own opinion, many things went well. The balance between having myself as the main lecturer and having great guest lectures (thank you to them!) was good (I taught about half of the modules). It also worked well and was a good change to get out of the class room and go on field trips. One to Videnskab.dk, a Danish popular science news website, and to Medical Museion.

I’m happy also that I chose to make a compendium rather than assigning a textbook. Partly due to the fact that there isn’t yet a book out there on Public Health Science Communication, but also because it was good to be able to through different kinds of texts to illustrate the many forms of science communication.

Another things I found was successful was trying to use as many real life examples. Ranging from case studies (although it would have been nice to have more), to YouTube clips, podcasts, blogs etc.

Despite some worrying comments from some of the participants prior to finishing the exam, I also think that the task of writing an introductory chapter on Public Health Science Communication worked well. Some students expressed that they found that an exam more focused on actually trying to communicate a specific public health challenge would have been more appropriate and useful instead of what they regarded being an assignment to refer theory of science communication. I (of course) tend to disagree. Writing an introductory chapter on Public Health Science Communication is also an example of communicating a scientific field – it just happened to be a field (and a way of thinking) that was new to them.

What would I do differently? 

It is funny what time does. Looking back at the course now, with some months having passed, I have a hard time recalling all the things I would have changed. Because at one point I thought there were many. However, some do come to mind:

I think I would have tried to include more real life examples of science communication – both good and bad examples, and perhaps have challenged the students to analyse both and suggest why they worked and why the didn’t.

Despite having the primary focus on the communicator (the public health professional) rather than looking at the receiver, I think I would in a future course try to incorporate a little more on how publics benefits from public health science communication, and perhaps try to allocate some more time to going through how one can become better at understanding and writing to a specific target group. This will present a different challenge, because the course is not a writing course.

Actually, I found the that finding a balance between being a course on principles, trends and theories in science communication and a writing, hands-on course quite difficult. I am sure that in a repetition of the course, this would again be a difficult balance to get right.

It’s always difficult to get students to discuss, but in a future course I’d try to make room for more discussion and student involvement. My own take-home message from teaching this course, is that I should keep in mind, that science communication is not an exact science and that I, despite being the teacher, does not have all the answers…

Would I repeat a course like this again?

Yes, I think I would. For many reasons. One, I thought it was fun and inspiring to teach. Second, I was confirmed in my belief that introducing public health students to the importance of science communication is very much relevant – if not essential. And finally, I learned a lot from the process and I would love to see how a version 2.0 of the course would go about.

Did I forget to mention something important in the post? Probably – but I promise to add them (or do an additional post) if and when things come to mind. I also welcome my students to share their views and correct me if I’m wrong, and I would be happy to answer questions from anyone interested in hearing more of my experiences with teaching Public Health Science Communication.

Public health science communication


Successful exam in Public Health Science Communication

All students passed!

Not only are the students who took the graduate class in Public Health Science Communication this fall semester probably relieved – so is the teacher! The exam was perhaps a test of the students knowledge but just as much was it test of how well they were taught.

examIt has been fun going through the exam papers. The assignment given to the students was to write a short introductory chapter on science communication for an imagined new textbook on Public Health Sciences targeted public health and medical students.

13 students handed in an exam paper and having never corrected exams before it felt all ceremonial seating myself at the desk equipped with a hot coffee, some cookies, a red pen (okay it wasn’t red, but blue actually) and with my critical glasses on. I must admit that it felt strange all of a sudden to be the one to pass judgement on other people’s work.

Luckily, I didn’t have to swing the sword very hard on any student, and as said all students passed. Some papers were of course better than others. On the Danish 7 points grade scale three students were given the top grade of 12. All three papers were so good that they could almost go straight into this imagined textbook. Despite being assigned the same grade they differed a lot, and it has been fun to see that there, as I told the students several times, is not one right way to complete the assignment.

Something that characterized the best exam papers was that they had taken the assignment of writing an introductory book chapter seriously. They had a good understanding of the targeted audience and many of them had used figures and tables to illustrate their points. Secondly, they had managed to have public health as a recurrent theme throughout the paper. Not all papers were equally good at this. For some the public health perspective felt like an added appendix and not as an integrated part of the chapter.

It was also great to see that even in the less good papers the students overall demonstrated a good understanding of the different models of science communication. I guess this is where the new teacher-side of me becomes particularly happy.

Having been a student myself and constantly heard repeated the importance of making sure that your exam papers are free from spelling mistakes, that they grammatically are correct and that you follow the formalities of the exam I can now confirm that this is important. The overall impression of a paper is just heavily influenced by the annoyance of typos, spelling mistakes etc.

All in all, I am very content with the outcome of the exam and with the assignment given in the exam. It was fun to do an exam that sort of had a foot in reality and could potentially be published in a book one day rather than having them write a paper which had me and the co-examinator as target audience.

Despite it being an exam (exams are rarely fun) I hope the students enjoyed writing this introductory chapter just a little bit. I at least enjoyed reading them!


Exam in Public Health Science Communication

Wow, I can’t believe time has passed so quickly. Next to me is a pile of exam papers completed by the students of the graduate course in Public Health Science Communication at the University of Copenhagen. I feel like I just had the first introduction module, but yet I am almost done reading all these papers.

Until the students have received their results I will of course not comment on the actually exam, but what I would like to do is to share the assignment which the students were given with you. The exam was done through a course paper, where the students were presented with the task already on the first day of the course. They have therefore had the opportunity to let it simmer in the back of their minds through out the course.

Course paper in Public Health Science Communication

Assignment: Write a short introductory chapter on science communication for an imagined new textbook on Public Health Sciences. The imagined textbook is directed both to public health students and medical students. The chapter should provide a broad overview of principles of science communication and explain the relevance of looking specifically at public health science communication.

Requirement: Reference needs to be made to at least 60% of texts in the syllabus. Other literature (book chapters, blogs, articles etc.) may also be included, with clear references.

Language: The course paper can be completed either in Danish or in English.

Maximum length: 1 student: 10 normal pages, 2 students: 16 normal pages, 3 students: 20 normal pages

Evaluation: The paper will be evaluated on a 7-points scale

Additional guidance

In addition, the students were given the following guidance:

  • The course paper should illustrate that you have obtained a broad understanding of the principles of public health science communication (not public health communication) and its many dimensions. This means that you know of different medias, different target groups and different objectives/motivations for communicating science.
  • Since a requirement for the exam is that you have to refer to at least 60% of texts in the syllabus, your job is to put the texts into play with each other and demonstrate how their content are relevant for public health science communication – please also feel free to include other references (articles, blog posts, illustrations, radio programmes) if you find that relevant and as long as the references are clearly indicated in the reference list.
  • Apart from living up to the reference requirements and from demonstrating that you have understood basic principles of science communication, the evaluation of your papers will include how you combine your knowledge of public health sciences with your knowledge about science communication.
  • As the assignment is to write and introductory chapter to science communication, you will of course not be able to go into very specific details, but how you weigh different themes, topics etc. is entirely up to you.
  • As for the form of the paper, there are no requirements, rights or wrongs. You may want to write an introductory chapter as you would like to read it yourself (the target group for the paper is yourself and other students of public health related sciences) or try out a new style.  You can choose to write academically, personally, journalistic, with a dash of humor. It is up to you. Please also feel free to include figure, boxes, pictures and other illustrations if you find it relevant for your text.
  • There is no ideal way to complete this assignment and no rights or wrongs when it comes to format, disposition, language or structure for the paper.
  • You are also free to choose what reference system you like, as long as they are clearly marked and complete.



No simple recipe for translating science

The second module of the course in Public Health Science Communication focused on Translating Science to Traditional Media. On paper a nice and concrete topic – but both choosing literature for the syllabus and preparing for the class proved a little bit more challenging. Because what does ‘translating science’ mean? And is there a recipe for doing so?

The simple answer to the last question is: no. There is no formula to follow or an optimal way of doing it. It depends on the scientific topic, the scientist, the context, the targeted audience and the chosen media. This was one of the take home messages for the students. Not a very helpful message I fear. Hopefully, they did get something out of the module despite the lack of clear-cut facts and recipes. As a theoretical background, the students were presented with some perspectives on historical developments in the theories of public communication of science. The idea was to show the students how motivations behind communicating to the public had changed over time, and how the perception of the public influences how and why scientists communicate. For me personally, understanding developments in different approaches to translating science helps me think about how science can be translated today.

Framing

The power of ‘framing’ in translating science and reaching target groups was also talked about. The article by Myers, Nisbet et al A public health frame arouses hopeful emotions about climate change gave a nice public health context and demonstrated the power of health topics which is something all people can relate to. It was however just an appetizer for the extensive ‘framing’ approach.

We also had a nice discussion about whether and why scientists should communicate to the public. And what advantages the scientist may have for communicating (as the common perception is that scientists are bad communicators). The discussion was helped along by the article Of course scientists can communicate by Tim Radford. Again, there is no right or wrong answer for this, but the discussion gave a good feel for the challenges in translating science, but also some of the mechanisms that could help this communication along.

A lot of video clips, sounds clips and images were used to inspire and illustrate different ways of translating science:

Some more examples were shared by readers of this blog in the comments section. Thanks to all, and keep’m coming.

Some practical writing tips and tools

Although the course is not a practical communication or writing class I chose to spend some time on some basic communication tricks. Tricks that I was introduced to at the Danish School of Journalism and which I have found useful – especially for my written language. Many of the concrete writing tips can be found in Roy Peter Clark’s book Writing Tools – 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (short online version is available and podcasts). Simple things like thinking about making your verbs active, choosing your verbs with care, walking up and down the ladder of abstraction, remembering the inverted news triangle, reading your text aloud while walking etc. It was all a bit rushed and a whole writing course would have been relevant – but unfortunately it could due to time restraints only be an appetizer.