Students minding the science gap in public health

I have previously written about the use of blogs by students and researchers at schools of public health (I called them Schools of Public Health 2.0). One example was School of Public Health at the University of British Colombia.

This week, I came across another school of Public Health Sciences that is actively using blogging in communicating with the world, and in giving students communication skills.

For ten weeks between January and April 2012, ten Masters of Public Health students from the University of Michigan (UM), have taken on a blogging challenge. On the website Mind the Science Gap they are posting weekly articles about various public health related news, research studies etc. The aim is for the students to learn how to translate complex science into something a broad audience can understand and appreciate. The objective of this whole blogging exercise is an ambitious one:

“to help ensure that UM School of Public Health graduates are some of the best communicators around when it comes to translating scientific evidence into something that others understand, and can act on.”

As part of the initiative, readers of the blog have been encouraged to write comments, both on the content and the form. So-called mentors from all backgrounds have signed up to comment on a weekly basis (you can still sign up here). With the comments the aim is for the students to improve their communication skills though the ten weeks.

I have read a few of the blog post and also commented and my impression is so far very good. Both because the blog posts are interesting and well written, but also reading the many comments to each of the blogs is great. There are good tips from experienced science bloggers that others than the ten students can learn from. And then I do in general appreciate the ambitious tone of the blog initiative: ensuring that UM School of Public Health graduates are some of the best at translating scientific evidence into something that others understand, and can act on. Imagine if they are succesful in this. Not only will that be an advantage for the work places that will later on recruit these ten students, it could potentially put pressure on other schools of public health to make sure that their students are even better – and are they succesful in that imagine all the benefit that could be achieved to public health! Okay, maybe this is a little naive – but one can always hope…

A blogging school

In addition to Mind the Science Gap, the MU School of Public Health also has a student blog where students blog about life as students of Public Health, and a long list of blogs from several SPH faculty, alums, and student groups. For example: Rackham Graduate School blogs, run by two Ph.D. students, a Risk Science Center blog, a Public Health Library blog, a UM SPH Epidemiology Student Organization blog, the blog 2020 Science about emerging science and technology and many more (see the complete list here).


Communicating the doubtfulness of Public Health Sciences

Asbestos causes lung cancer. Smoking is responsible to the majority of lung cancers. A specific genotype increases your risk of breast cancer, and measles is a virus that if not prevented can cause brain damage or in sever cases death.

All the above statements are scientifically supported facts, identified through public health research. Unfortunately, the world of Public Health Sciences is not all facts. Lots of possible connections, probably associations and complex causal structures determine our wellbeing, health and life span. Read any peer-reviewed health journal and many of the articles will have titles such as ‘indication of…’, ‘probable…’, ‘likely association…’ and the conclusions will be full of reservations and expression of the need for further research. In many ways it illustrates the premises of science: that answering one questions gives rise to a whole bunch of new ones.

The complexity and uncertainty in much health research is one of the reasons that headlines on news papers may change between “Chocolate can kill you”, “Or this is how chocolates saves your life”. In addition, public health is not ‘owned’ only by scientific researchers. Public health is exactly public health and the public may contribute to the picture with their own experiences, such as “Soya milk cured my child from chronic ear infections” or “My child became autistic shortly after it had its first measles immunization.” All of which may contribute to confusion on what is true and what is false.

Research studies are only very rarely 100% conclusive and it is therefore practically impossible for researchers to make clear-cut statements about health risks of various exposures. And this can be used to the advantage of industries or people for whom doubt is enough to sell a product or an idea. This is very well illustrated in this small video called “Doubt” made by The Climate Reality Project. The video shows how scientists inability to draw unambiguous conclusions can be turned to the advantage of for example tobacco companies and climate change sceptics. Add to that a lot of propaganda and the scientific community are up against a tremendous challenge, illustrated by this short quote from the film:

If doctors smoke – are the scientists wrong?

They [the tobacco companies] realised that the science doesn’t need to be disproven – it was enough to create doubt in the minds of the public to keep them from recognising the truth”.

The video, which takes the case of smoking as an example of how disagreement among scientists or their inability to make non-debatable conclusions (at least in the early stages of research), illustrates that public scepticism towards and doubt in what scientists argue has existed and flourished long before social media came into existence. In this case it is the damaging effects of smoking, but acid rain or nuclear risks are other examples.

Today, social media surely plays an important role in the scepticism towards eg. vaccines and climate change. And it enables it to spread quickly. What is the solution to that? That we close our eyes and say that social media is dangerous because it spreads non-scientific ideas? That seems a bit naive. Social media is unlikely to disappear, and so are all the blog posts, Twitter discussions and Facebook postings warning against measles vaccines etc. From my perspective the solution is for scientists, research institutions and others representing the scientific community ALSO to get out there, and make their view, knowledge and opinion head. Just like social media is a platform to quickly spread incorrect knowledge, it is equally good for spreading correct (in the eyes of science) knowledge and not let the allegations go unanswered. Of course social media would or could never stand alone, but it is an important communication channel not to overlook or rule out because of fear. If fear of misunderstandings of researchers blogging or tweeting or doubt in the credibility of social media rules the science community’s use of social media then the researchers are no better than the public who responds to doubt and fear…


Dear students: In this class you will have to have your mobiles turned ON

Do term papers have to be written with pen and paper? No, luckily not anymore. Is it necessary to hand in a printed version of your exam paper? No, universities (at least in Denmark) now let you submit online. Would most people use programmes like Word etc for writing their assignments? Probably yes. But how about putting it all online? And making it public. By using a blog format?

The idea seems very relevant in a course on Public Health Science Communication, which will also cover how social media can play a role in communicating science. At least the idea is very inviting to me. And several universities have already tried out the concept. For example the University of British Colombia used student blogging for their course on Social Media in Health and Medicine.

Since I myself have no experience with using blogs in teaching situations, I was happy to learn that Science Online 2012 had several sessions relating to using the blog as a tool in lecturing. Unfortunately, I only managed to make it to one of the four sessions that circled around the topic. Blogging in the Undergraduate Classroom. As with other sessions at #scio12 there was no ‘fixed’ agenda or presentation, but more an informal sharing of experiences, ideas and questions, led by two moderators (Jason Goldman and John Hawks), who both have used blogs in their teaching.

I have tried to but together a small Storify of the tweets from the session. A link to the Storify is here and at the end of this post. I’m not sure that I managed to capture all tweets, so apologies to those who feel their tweets have been overlooked).

In summary some of my main take-home-messages were:

Advantages

  • The goal of having the students blog is to teach them to communicate themselves – it is as simple as that!
  • Blogging can also be a tool for teaching students how to read papers! By asking them to blog about the papers they read it teaches them not just about writing but also about reading papers and commenting on them.
  • Students are much more aware of their audience (their peers and others who had access) and therefore work harder at their writing. (As someone commented: Their mothers might be reading along!)
  • Using blogs, Twitter etc in the classroom makes you the teacher where it’s OK use mobile devices during class – you’re the cool teacher and may create a new classroom culture, which in return can be inspiring/motivating for the students.

Challenges

  • Consider the privacy issue carefully. Should the blogs be public or restricted? Should the students blog under their own name etc.
  • One of the risks of introducing blogs is that you may end up spending all your time training to use platform, become technical support. Take this into consideration and choose your platform carefully
  • In grading it is important to be sensitive to the students technical skills, internet access, time frame for assignment etc.
  • The blog may invite to more informal, loose behavior. Make sure to make deadlines for “handing in” assignments – and stick to them.

Suggestions for how to use the blog

  • Forming student blogging teams can be an advantage. Eg. in teams of three where on student posts a blog, one person edits it and, one person comments on the final product. It can also be a way of involving the more shy students and give them room to express themselves
  • Let the students choose a topic of interest to blog about. They write much better if it is something they have an interest in and care about. Highlight that If they wouldn’t want to read it no one else would!
  • Blogs can be used to assign readings and students may be required to post and comment
  • Start out with a scaffolding the process, eg. Reading & commenting, later on write blogposts
  • Wiki-entries is a good alternative to blogs.

Other experiences

Doing a Google search of using blogs in the classroom, reveals that there are lots of experiences to learn from and also tools made available. (as with any Google search it can be a little chaotic to find out what is useful and what is not). One thing that looks useful that I just came across is something called Edublogs.org, which is an educational blogging services. Will have to explore that some more. There seems to be many ideas and services. And should any of you have experiences, lessons learned etc. you’d like to share they’ll be more than welcome!

Before I end I thought I’d also just share this SketchNote that, one of the participants in the #scio12 bloggin session (Lali DeRosier) did the below SketchNote:

Link to the Storify (Collection of tweets from the Session Blogging in the Classroom)

[View the story “Blogging in the classroom” on Storify]

Update 6. February 2012: Andrea Novicki, from Duke Center for Instructional Technology wrote his conclusions from the session here – very useful overview