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!


Why should we do public health science if we can’t communicate it?

The course Public Health Science Communication went live Wednesday last week! And based on the first experiences it survived the encounter with the students, is still in good shape and looking forward to moving on to module two this coming Wednesday.

Since the concept “public health science communication” is still not a household concept and does to my knowledge not (yet) have a Wikipedia entry or a crystal clear definition, I found it useful during the first lesson to ask the students what they, in one sentence, considered public health science communication to be. It gave some interesting responses, of which I here share a few:

In one sentences: What is public health science communication?

  • Simplifying public health science so that it is easier to understand for the public
  • Public health science communication is the science of communication of scientific research to the public
  • Communicating the essence of public health research to the public
  • It’s an interaction among public health workers, public and policy makers to improve health of general public
  • Ways to create greater understanding amongst public, governments and general public about advances in science in particular and relevant formats
  • Communication of scientific health information translated into understandable messages to the public
  • That it is important – why should we do public health science if we can’t communicate it?

Most of the responses are not surprising, and combining them gets us around several aspects of the concept. I do however still find it a little surprising that focus is so heavily on communicating to the public. Where is communication with researchers? Only a few mention e.g. policymakers and public health practitioners. Of course the word public could be understood in its broadest sense – but my feeling is that many are thinking about Mr and Mrs Smith/Jensen/Sanchez when they say “the public”. Some also understood public health science communication to be communicating for behavioral change, which would probably fall more under health communication. Secondly, it seems that science communication is regarded as being about communicating to the public and not with the public. I look forward to expanding the students’ perception of this in the coming weeks.

All the responses are interesting, but my favorite response is this one: “That it is important – why should we do public health science if we can’t communicate it?” In my head it nails it completely.

I also asked the student what they expected to learn. Below some of their responses:

What do you expect to learn?

  • How to be a better communicator of science
  • I expect to learn something about how to communicate public health science to the public, what information is interesting for ”the public” and which strategies are useful in communicating and how I do it
  • Something about the relation between the scientific world and the public – the role of science communication
  • How to better communicate health related information to individuals  (with diverse backgrounds) + communities in an effective and respectful manner
  • A broader way of thinking/analysing/communicate science so it is easier to implement them locally/nationally/internationally
  • How to make research tangible for people outside the field. How to sell the message
  • How to communicate to the public 1) what is public health science, 2) communicate results of public health sciences
  • Challenges of communication with policy makers from public health workers point of view
  • Theories and practical stuff about communication

I’m exited about what the responses. Hopefully, the students will feel that they have been given a few tools, and a better understanding of the role of science communication in public health when the course is over. I also hope that they will have seen that public health science communication includes more than reaching the public and ‘selling messages’, but is just as much about engaging and interacting with the public (understood in its broadest sense) and that communication is not only in aimed at educating the public but may also serve a purpose for their research and for themselves as researchers.

Although the students’ expectations and the objective of the course weren’t all that different I still clarified what the course was not – and what it was intending to be. Perhaps this may be useful to readers on this blog as well.