SciCom Meets SciTS. Interdisciplinary Teamwork for Science Communication Training

Dr. Jack C. Schultz, University of Toledo; Dr. Suzanne Burgoyne, University of Missouri; Dr. Bimal Balakrishnan, University of Missouri; Dr. Jonathan Stemmle, University of Missouri; Dr. Shellly Rodgers, University of Missouri

We train scientists, engineers and physicians to solve complex problems, and increasingly to do so as members of interdisciplinary teams. But the complex problem of how to communicate across disciplines and with the public receives little or no attention in training. As a result, STEM practitioners are often ill equipped to succeed in an environment requiring communication skills not normally acquired during training. Success in both academic and non-academic settings as well as while interacting with the public requires communication that reaches broader audiences. Researchers are increasingly concerned about communicating the value of science to a broad constituency, and personalized medicine is making personalized communication between physicians and patients ever more important.

This need is now widely appreciated and numerous training programs have appeared, especially aimed at improving STEM practitioners’ ability to communicate outside academia. Federal agencies, NGOs, for-profit enterprises and universities all offer science communication (SciCom) workshops and ‘boot camps’. Each typically offers a particular approach or point of view to SciCom training, for example emphasizing “storytelling”, communication training, or improvisation skills. Instructors and trainees of many of these programs report satisfaction with the results, and there is little doubt that at least some of these programs are helpful. But are the impressions of workshop participants really indicative of progress in communication? Evaluating SciCom training is yet another complex problem we must address. A lack of relevant evaluation means that trainers and trainees alike remain unsure about the effectiveness of training itself, not to mention individual approaches.

We report on an NSF-sponsored project that brings together a highly interdisciplinary team from biology, strategic communication, journalism, theater, visual design, education and statistics to develop a controlled test bed for communication training in STEM graduate programs. The program focuses on oral presentation skills because these are among the most challenging aspects of communication for STEM trainees and are particularly suited to quantitative evaluation. It is innovative in assembling a team that can base training on a deep body of cognitive psychology and communication research, applied theater, and visual design from outside the sciences. It is unique in  the using impact of training on audience perception as the ultimate success metric.

Our panel comprises our project’s four instructors:

Jack Schultz, PhD (Prof. Emeritus, University of Missouri; Exec. Director of Research Development, Univ. of Toledo) will moderate and outline the structure of the project, emphasizing its unique approaches to training and evaluation. The entire project includes a complex experimental design that triangulates evaluation from both internal and external sources. Schultz will also briefly illustrate the role of cognitive science underlying the training, and show how it links the diverse disciplines and perspectives the 4 instructors bring to the program.

Suzanne Burgoyne, PhD (Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor; Director, Center for Applied Theatre and Drama Research, Univ. of Missouri) will illustrate the approach she uses to teach trainees to see themselves as playing roles based on their own identities, while identifying specific communication goals and approaches. Using interactive exercises, Prof. Burgoyne encourages trainees to envision interacting with others – their audiences – in creative ways that are appropriate to audience identities (roles). This training has been critical and very successful in giving trainees a feeling of confidence in defining and meeting communication goals.

Bimal Balakrishnan, PhD. (Assoc. Prof, Department Chair and Director of Graduate Studies, Dept. of Architectural Studies, Univ. of Missouri) brings fundamental design principles to our program. His approach is based on his research in design processes and cognition, a perspective that builds upon Schultz’s introduction to cognitive aspects of communication. This aspect of the program focuses on uses of visual illustration and tools to provide effective support for oral presentations.

Jonathan Stemmle, MS Journalism (Assoc. Prof. and Chair Department of Strategic Communication; former Director Health Communication Research Center, Univ. of Missouri) focuses on how to assess and interact with audiences. Jonathan has extensive experience in designing effective health related messages for diverse audiences. His extensive research experience on how messaging influences health behaviors and science communication provides real-world, practical evidence about successful strategies. He is able to place the trainees in the situations they will encounter as they address different kinds of audiences and help them tune their messages appropriately.

The team is made effective by regular meetings and joint sessions with trainees to make sure that the different approaches are integrated and common themes are clear. The trainees are exposed to interactions among the instructors in which alternative strategies are discussed and potential conflicts are resolved. Workshop plans are written by each instructor and sessions are evaluated for compliance with the plan. This, too, assures that the team members are all on the same page throughout. And a data analysis evaluation sub-team (not participating in this workshop) provides feedback about whether goals are being met and assesses the end results.

The panel discussion will include what we have learned by working together, the ease (or difficulty) of working this way, issues in STEM communication training that remain to be resolved and suggestions and recommendations for others wishing to develop training.