Students Reflect on New Science Communications Course

by |March 11, 2021

In the fall of 2020, the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development launched a new course in Science Communication. A small, upper-level seminar, the course was co-taught by Lisa Dale and Francesco Fiondella. Students explored the particular challenges associated with communicating science to a non-scientific audience.

The final assignment was (agonizingly) simple: students had to communicate a scientific finding of their choice in whatever format they felt would be most effective. From among a number of excellent and creative submissions, four students are profiled here for their outstanding contributions. We asked them to reflect on their experiences with the course and on the importance of communicating science in complex settings.

Sonia MahajanSonia Mahajan

Sonia Mahajan is studying political science with a special concentration in sustainable development. For her final assignment, she wrote about the hidden mental health crisis of COVID-19, and how the pandemic offers an opportunity to change the way we think about mental illness. Read the full piece here.

What made you take a class on science communications?

Part of the reason I chose my areas of study—I’m a Political Science major with a special concentration in Sustainable Development—was because I wanted to be able to bridge the gaps between research in the sciences and policy and/or law. So this class, which is aimed towards people interested in communicating science but not necessarily towards people who want to become communications professionals, was perfect for me. I’m also glad I took a class on science communications focused on sustainable development. While these lessons are applicable to any field, there is so much misinformation and fake news about climate change in particular that makes communicating about it particularly complex.

How did the class change the way you think about science communications (either as a consumer or a producer of such information, or both)?

Before taking this class, I always thought of communication as visual, verbal, or written. But we studied a wide variety of creative communications methods, from the Climate Clock in New York to interactive art installations and even video games, which redefined what I thought of as “communication.” While I stuck to more traditional written communication, it was so cool to see the creative ways my classmates communicated science.

What drew you to communicate about COVID’s impact on mental health for your final project? What particular challenges did you confront in communicating it?

There are a lot of stories being written about the impact COVID-19 is having on mental health. But I noticed that most of them are focused on people without mental illnesses, and there’s actually very little out there about the impact COVID-19 and social distancing are having on those with anxiety and depression, two of the most common mental health conditions. At the same time, there’s quite a bit of academic research showing that the coronavirus is taking a toll on people with mental illness in particular. I wanted to talk about those studies and shed some light on the situations of people with mental illnesses, without dismissing the suffering that those without these conditions are also facing at this time. One of the most challenging aspects of this was writing about a topic that has been so stigmatized and ignored—I was constantly thinking of how I could convince someone who doesn’t believe in mental illness of this very real scientific finding.

erich eberhardErich Eberhard

Erich Eberhard is a Ph.D Candidate in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology (E3B). For his final assignment, he wrote about the use of bioacoustic technology to monitor the soundscape of logged forests in Indonesia as a way to measure changes in biodiversity. He also created information graphics to explain the research. Check out the full piece here.

Why are you interested in science communications?

My interest is two-fold. Personally, I find the drama of science really compelling and enjoy drawing on my creative background to tell engaging science stories. Pragmatically, given that the impact of research is determined in part by how well its insights are communicated to stakeholders and decision makers, I wanted to learn more about developing effective communication strategies. If science lives only in the pages of niche academic journals, it’s likely that only a niche academic audience will appreciate it and benefit from it—this need not be the case.

How did the class change the way you think about science communications (either as a consumer or a producer of such information, or both)?

Perhaps the biggest takeaway for me was that simply providing information, even if it is presented clearly, is rarely sufficient for engaging an audience. In contrast to the objectivity we strive for in scientific research, the best science communication is imbued with a certain attitude, opinion, or call to action—it has something to say to the audience. Of course, the way you do this—and to what extent—is determined by your specific goals and audience.

What drew you to communicate about bioacoustics for your final project? What particular challenges did you confront in communicating it?

I’m working with bioacoustics in my own research on land-use change, so the topic was the natural choice for my final project. The greatest challenge was presenting technical information in a way that was clear and interesting. This required cutting out much of the minutiae, which can be difficult to identify when you’re immersed in a subject, and framing the technical information within a relatable, engaging story. I chose to compare the decline in acoustic activity in logged forests to the decline in acoustic activity in NYC during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. That this project was challenging just goes to show that science communication isn’t easy—it’s a skill that needs to be developed!

Nathan Detres FarrellNathan Detres Farrell

Nathan Detres Farrell is a B.A. Candidate in Sustainable Development, Class of 2021. For his final assignment, Nathan composed the lyrics and music to a song about COVID’s disproportionate impacts on communities of color. Listen to Nathan perform his piece here.

Why take a class on science communications?

I became interested in science communications as I began to think of myself as more of an artist and storyteller. I began to see that some of the most profound tools for changing that which is broken, or unsustainable, in our world are communication and telling stories. In sharpening my skills as a science communicator, I believed I could better produce knowledge and consciousness about some of the world’s greatest challenges and frontiers: climate change, the coronavirus and other infectious diseases, environmental injustice, cyberspace and artificial intelligence, the human mind.

What did you find most useful (or enjoyable) about the class?

Through the class I became more mindful of methodologies of communication, how they are reflected in different situations, and how they can yield different outcomes. I found this to be especially useful as someone who wants to contribute to sustainable development through the promotion of social equity and justice initiatives, as well as through artistic forms of storytelling.

What drew you to communicate about the impact of COVID-19 on people of color for your final project? What particular challenges did you confront in communicating it?

I wanted to communicate the exacerbated inequities faced by people of color amid COVID-19. Perhaps most of us have heard a thing or two about this on the news, but how often do we hear about the systemic societal change necessary to ameliorate inequities among Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities? I wanted to provide an ethos to this disillusioning narrative that could help transform people’s understanding of this dismaying reality as the greatest problem brought on by the pandemic, rather than as a secondary challenge or collateral. Considering the inherent ties between privilege and resilience to environmental shocks, my biggest challenge in this project was grappling with my own privilege: I am a multiethnic person of color and my communities are among those most affected by these inequities, yet I have the privileges of lighter skin and the resources and experience of my Columbia education, among others. I had to think about how to communicate my investment in these issues, without centering the problems around myself and my own experiences as an individual.

lorenzo sampson Lorenzo Sampson

Lorenzo Sampson is a B.A. Candidate Sustainable Development, Class of  2021. For his final assignment, Lorenzo wrote an article aimed at young adults about how scientists are using data from earthquakes to measure ocean warming. Read his story here.

What did you find most useful (or enjoyable) about the class?

I really enjoyed exploring the different ways you could communicate the same data to elicit various responses in an audience. Oftentimes we think of scientific data as neutral—even somewhat cold—but there is often a human story full of warmth that led to the creation of that data. This class helped me to extrapolate the personality and color behind the data and project it onto a piece to incite fear, motivation, excitement, or even dissonance in the audience. The lectures and readings exposed me to different approaches to science communication while the projects allowed me to implement them in creative ways using real data.

How did the class change the way you think about science communications (either as a consumer or a producer of such information, or both)?

As a producer of science communication, the class really helped me to understand that there are many choices to be made about how one communicates science, all with different effects on the audience. Even having a specific audience in mind makes a big difference. Essentially, I learned that science communication, when done well, is highly tailored; without making intentional decisions about voice, audience, and approaches one is left with a piece that is “one size fits all” yet fits no one well. As a consumer, this class taught me that understanding communication can help us make well-informed judgments about the information all around us.

What drew you to communicate about the connection between warming oceans and earthquakes for your final project? What particular challenges did you confront in communicating it?

I wanted to communicate how seismic ocean thermometry works to an audience of teenagers and young adults. I wanted to showcase a finding that took a new approach to a familiar goal. This discovery fit the bill, especially since it demonstrates some good-old-fashioned innovative thinking that blows expensive technology out of the water. The main challenge here was to take a finding (that was essentially just physics) and communicate the reason why it works in a way that made the audience root for the scientists who came up with it.

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Tony Van Witsen
2 years ago

Very interesting to see the parts of science communication these students struggled with and the parts that taught them the most. Especially interesting: how they learned to use all the tools of communication to tailor their stories to the most relevant audiences, engage people and make an impact.