Filling the science communication gap

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On July 14, 2017

Science communication can be hard to define, and even harder to teach. But an academic book co-edited by a technical communication professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology hopes to make the subject easier for instructors, and their students, to teach and learn.

Dr. Kathyrn Northcut, professor and co-director of technical communication programs at Missouri S&T, co-edited Scientific Communication: Practices, Theories and Pedagogies. Routledge will publish the book in the early part of 2018.

As a broad definition, science communication is the sharing of science-related topics with experts and non-experts alike.

“Scientists often just have to explain what they are doing to their peers. So how do you get a student who has learned something in a lab to disseminate it?” says Northcut. “Scientists also have to explain their research to people who aren’t specialists in their field.”

The book uses case studies and real-life examples from experts in the technical and science communication fields to make students and instructors more aware of the various types of science writing.

“It’s writing about science topics in a few different ways for a few different audiences,” says Northcut.

Certain chapters were written specifically with instructors in mind, and address topics like the delivery of rhetorically informed instruction, online teaching and developing appropriate curricula.

“Ideally, at least one of the chapters will resonate with them,” Northcut says in regard to instructors. “Maybe the case study about federal regulations, or the case study about the pharmaceutical company, or the case study about somebody who taught their students how to author Wikipedia. We’re hoping one of those chapters will resonate with them and they’ll use it as a springboard to develop their own expertise.”

At most universities, science writing is taught by English and communication faculty rather than science faculty. Often times, these instructors have minimal experience in science disciplines.

“It’s complicated because a scientist who’s a really good writer is never going to teach writing to scientists, except really obliquely,” says Northcut. “The writing in science is from the English department because we are the writing teachers and the writing experts. So then you have to find people in the English department who are more qualified to teach science writing. At Missouri S&T it’s not that difficult, but at some places the science writing course is taught by less qualified people.”

Northcut hopes that these under-qualified instructors will use her book as one of many resources for learning and teaching science writing.

“I hope it doesn’t scare people off, but I think there are a lot of people in the situation where they’re teaching it and they don’t have a science degree or they haven’t been in the world of science for a long time,” she says. “This book should have resources for them. It’s designed to be a part of their pedagogical development to be better science writers. If you are nominally qualified or want to get more qualified, this book can set you on the right trajectory.”

Scientific Communication: Practices, Theories and Pedagogies was co-edited by Han Yu, professor of technical communication in the English department at Kansas State University.

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