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


2013, Science Communication, Public Health, Bonn

Some new years bring with them just a change of numbers – other new years bring bigger changes. 2013 seems to be of the later categories. At least if you consider moving to a different country a change. Starting from later this January, I will exchange my Copenhagen address for an address in Bonn, Germany. I guess you could claim that I’ll start a new life as a Bonn-girl.

To those who are unfamiliar with German geography

To those who are unfamiliar with German geography

I have on previous occasions moved abroad to take on new jobs (in China, Switzerland and Japan) but this time no fixed job awaits me. Rather, I have the opportunity to explore different options, try out my freelance skills and at the same time live with the person dearest to my heart.

I must admit that I know very little about Bonn. Both in general but also when it comes to the activities in science communication and in public health. Actually, I know very little about the status of science communication in Germany in general. However, since I plan to stay in the field of Public Health Science Communication, which I find to be both super interesting and a an important topic for public health, I truly can say that look forward to exploring it.

Apart from finding out what goes on in Science Communication in Germany, I still plan to have my feet planted into Danish Public Health Science Communication – as well as into global Public Health Science Communication. One of the wonders of social media (and the internet in general) is that it really doesn’t matter where you are – you are free to  work and stay connected with the entire world.

So far I haven’t got a clear-cut plan for my Bonn life, but lots of ideas, already a few assignments and a long list of opportunities. Bonn is a UN-city with a bunch of UN agencies present, so it is likely that I can engage with them. Especially due to the fact that I have experiences working with them already. The United Nations University is located in Bonn and several German Universities are close by (Bonn University, University of Cologne to mention a few) as well as a number of international NGOs and other organisations are based in Bonn. If they are not already working on science communication and social media then there is certainly a lot of new ground to made there!

Should any reader of this blog know of relevant people to in Germany to engage with,  Institutions working on science communication and social media, University courses related to science communication etc. please don’t hold back. I’d love to hear about it.

I promise to keep you all on posted on my doings in Public Health Science Communication in Bonn and in the rest of the world. So far assignments with the Department of Public Health, Medical Museion, and the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at University Copenhagen will take up my time as will communication assignments with the European Regional Office of the World Health Organisation (WHO). I would also love to explore opportunities for continuing teaching Public Health Science Communication. Perhaps the course Public Health Science Communication which I taught last year at University of Copenhagen can be adapted to other universities….

Anyhow, with this first blog post of 2013 I would like to wish you all a Happy New Year where ever you are based. Bonn adventures awaits and I look forward to you being a part of them. If not in any other ways, then by following my scribbles here on this blog.

2013-free-wallpaper-06


New Public Health Blog from PLOS blogs!

I can’t believe that this is my post number 101. Actually, I had planned to do something special with blog post no. 100, but I only realised that it was my anniversary post when it was published. So the celebration will have to wait for post number 500.

However, post number 101 can also be special and actually I think the topic is quite appropriate: A public health science blog hosted by PLOS blogs has arrived! It is simply called ‘Public Health‘ and has five contributors coming from different backgrounds but all with an interest in Public Health.

PLOS Blogs public healthThe blog looks very promising and the posts currently posted are well written and interesting. I look forward to following the blog and hope for many discussions.

Public Health 2.0

Not surprisingly, I am especially happy to see that the topic of social media and public health is discussed on the blog. In the post Public Health 2.0: Electric Boogaloo by Atif Kukaswadia of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada draws attention to strengths and weaknesses of social media in public health. It is clear that Atif comes to this with an epidemiologist’s perspective (being and Ph.d. candidate in Epidemiology), but he raises some important questions about acknowledging that social media exists and that regardless of whether people with scientifically founded knowledge make use of social media or not, people spreading untrue or perhaps even harmful public health information will continue to do so. This is in my opinion an important argument which needs to be made also to the social media skeptics.

The post is full of great links, so newcomers to the topic of public health 2.0 should take a look at the post and join the discussion.

Social media and science conferences

Atif Kukaswadia opens the blog post with discussing what makes a good conference, and how it not necessarily what happens during the presentations and in the conference room, but rather the discussions that continue (or perhaps first starts) in the lunch room and during the coffee breaks. This make me wonder, if Atif Kukaswadia has been to the Science Online conferences, which acknowledges exactly that. These conferences are built up following a so-called ‘non-conference’ format and brings more space for the in-between-sessions-stuff. Based on my experiences the ScienceOnline people are the most advanced users of social media before, during and after conferences. For newcomers to social media in conferences it is actually quite overwhelming and a little extreme – but none the less a great eye-opener for the power of social media in conferences.


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!


Social media: putting the public into public health information dissemination

I can’t think of a more appropriate place than Twitter to come across an article about the use of social media to disseminate public health information.

I regularly do a Twitter search for ‘public health social media’ and very often come across new interesting initiatives, reports, meetings etc.

Today’s finding was the article Putting the Public into Public Health Information Dissemination: Social Media and Health-related Web Pages. The article, written by Professor Robert Steele and Dan Dumbrell, both from the Discipline of Health Informatics at The University of Sydney, takes a closer look at social media as a tool for the dissemination of public health information.

The paper discusses the novel aspects of social media-based public health information dissemination, including a very interesting comparison of its characteristics with search engine-based Web document retrieval. I especially find the below table from the paper interesting:

To me, this table captures in a very precise way many of the advantages and new possibilities of social media. The ‘push’ and ‘pull’ analogy for the mode of disseminating information is very telling. I also find the interaction difference of ‘community and peer-post-based’ vs. ‘individual’ based interesting and particular relevant to the field of public health sciences.

In addition to the comparison of social media and search engine-based web document retrieval, the paper presents the results of preliminary analysis of a sample of public health advice tweets taken from a larger sample of over 4700 tweets sent by Australian health-related organization in February 2012 and discusses the potential of social media to spread messages of public health.

All in all the paper has a lot of very interesting perspectives and makes a call for more research in the area. I’m looking forward to hearing more as they get deeper into the analysis. For example it would be interesting to learn about which hashtags (#) the analysed tweets were assigned, if any.


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.

Technical report: Social Media & Public Health Research

This blog was set up as part of a research project conducted at the Medical Museion at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Public Health.

The research project was focused on the use of social media in the communication of research in public health sciences. The technical report, completed by myself and Professor Thomas Söderqvist, is now ready, and I’m happy to be able to share it with you all here on this blog.

Technical Report: Social Media and Public Health Research (find abstract below)

The report is a working report and the basis for more research. We therefore look forward to critical comments, debate and suggestions for future work.

Abstract

Ten years after its introduction, web and mobile based social media have become an integral part of modern society. The point of departure for this report is that social media will also play an increasingly important role for public health researchers.

One obvious use of social media is for communication between scientists and the public. In contrast to traditional one-way dissemination, social media can foster a more intense, engaging and democratic discussion about public health problems between researchers, public health officers, general practitioners, and the general public.

By providing platforms for knowledge sharing and scientific discussions, social media also offers great opportunities for public health science networking. The cross-disciplinary and community-oriented features of social media make it ideally suited for informal and rapid communication among public health researchers globally. In addition, social media can also be utilised for data collection and data sharing and as a tool in public health teaching programmes.

Like all other modes of communication, social media has its advantages and problems. Its major strength – the rapid, informal and open structure of communication – also opens up for potential misuse and lack of quality control. Another perceived problem is that social media allegedly takes time away from research; however, as this report points out, social media, when properly used, can be yet another support tool for research.

The report ends with an overview of research topics that can help foster a deeper understanding of how social media can facilitate public health research and public communication.

The thrust of this report is that public health research communication goes beyond the mission and capacity of university communication departments; that science communication is a continuous component of the entire research process; and that public science communication is a task for individual researchers as well.



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.


A course in Public Health Science Communication is born…

… or at least it’s in labour… and hopefully ready to be live and kicking on Wednesday 5 September when the first lessons will be start.

When I earlier this summer asked for inputs to public health science communication literature lots of people were so kind to respond to me. Thanks to their suggestions and my colleagues at Medical Museion‘s excellent help and suggestions a reading list has now taken shape. Its been really difficult to select the literature and the final list could have taken many forms. This is a first go at it. As there to my knowledge to date only exist very little literature focused specifically at public health science communication, the below is a mix of literature from different fields.

And even though the compendia have already been printed, comments and suggestions to the below list are more than welcome!

The syllabus for the course ended up looking like this:

Public Health Science Communication – an introduction

  • Chapter 1 – The recent ”Public Understanding of Science Movement” (p. 1-18) in Science In Public: Communication, Culture, And Credibility – By Jane Gregory and Steve Miller. Basic Books, 1998. 294 pp. ISBN 0-7382-0357-2.
  • Chapter 10 – A protocol for science communication for the Public Understanding of Science (p. 242-250) in Science In Public: Communication, Culture, And Credibility – By Jane Gregory and Steve Miller. Basic Books, 1998. 294 pp. ISBN 0-7382-0357-2
  • Communication at the Core of Effective Public Health by Jay M. Bernhardt, PhD, MPH, Am J Public Health. 2004 December; 94(12): 2051–2053.

Translating science to traditional media

How science communication benefits research

 Journalism and science communication

  • Chapter 4 – Science Journalism (p. 69-96) in Media, Risk and Science by Stuart Allan. Open University Press 2002. ISBN 0-335-20662-X (pb)
  • Chapter 5 – Media issues in the public understanding of science (p. 104-117) in Science In Public: Communication, Culture, And Credibility. By Jane Gregory and Steve Miller. Basic Books, 1998. 294 pp. ISBN 0-7382-0357-2
  • Inverted pyramid (basic of structure for journalistic writing). Wikipedia (31. July 2012)
  • A manifesto for the simple scribe – my 25 commandments for journalists – By Tim Radford, The Guardian, 19 January 2011

Public Health Science Communication and social media

Science communication, museums and objects

  • Chapter 8 – Science in Museums (p. 196-219) in Science In Public: Communication, Culture, And Credibility. By Jane Gregory and Steve Miller. Basic Books, 1998. 294 pp. ISBN 0-7382-0357-2
  • Chapter 1 – Museum Materialities – objects, sense and feeling (p. 1-17) in Museum Materialities – objects, engagements, interpretations. Edited by Sandra H Dudley. Routledge 2010. ISBN 10: 0-415-49218-1 (pbk)

Public Health Science Communication and engaging the public

Public Health and risk communication 

  • Chapter 6 – Not 100% sure? The ‘public’ understanding of risk (p. 90-100) in Successful Science Communication – telling it like it is. Edited by David J Bennett and Richard C Jennings. Cambridge University Press 2011. ISBN 978-0-521-17678-1