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Aspiring scientists learning to translate their research into language public understands

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L. Brian Stauffer

A new course co-developed by plant science professor Katy Heath teaches graduate students skills such as communicating about their research with nonscientists and developing educational outreach programs. Part of the Amplify the Signal course: graduate students, from left, front row, Cassandra Wesseln, Jennifer Han and Miranda Haus; back row, Rhiannon Peery, Christina Silliman and Heath.

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4/3/2014 | Sharita Forrest, Social Sciences Editor | 217-244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Communicating the relevance of one’s scientific research to general audiences and developing educational outreach programs are critical to the career success of college professors and researchers, but graduate curricula often fail to help students cultivate these essential skills.

However, a new course at the University of Illinois gives graduate biology students experience in these broader impacts, providing opportunities to learn directly from experts in science communication, curriculum development and grant writing.

The course, called Amplify the Signal, emerged from plant biology professor Katy Heath’s own experience trying to write a grant proposal for the National Science Foundation.

During that process, Heath realized “that I had no training in developing public engagement and educational outreach programs, and I didn’t know where to start. I talked to my friends – senior faculty members and assistant professors – and many of us felt really unprepared for that aspect of our jobs.”

Upon a suggestion by Carol Augspurger, a professor of plant biology who mentored Heath during her undergraduate work at Illinois, Heath decided to create a course for graduate students to better prepare them for these aspects of their future careers.

The course title refers to the importance of communicating scientific information to broad audiences. And during the course, students learn how to communicate their research with nonscientists and get experience writing grant proposals and developing and evaluating educational outreach programs.

Heath’s co-instructor when the course first was offered, in the fall of 2012, was Elizabeth Bagley, who was then a Learning Scientist and postdoctoral researcher in the College of Education. Twenty-one graduate students enrolled in the course.

The first segment of the course focused on broader impacts/public engagement and the NSF proposal development and review processes. Guest speakers included NSF program officers and Illinois faculty members who had experience writing and serving on NSF review panels that evaluated grant proposals.

During the second half of the course, the students learned about designing outreach projects and submitted proposals for learning activities aimed at young children and which were based upon the students’ theses research. Acting as an NSF-style review panel, the class evaluated the proposals, ultimately selecting six to fund and develop as part of a Biodiversity Day that the class hosted at the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum in Champaign.

“Learning how to set up and develop a short lesson for children that could be repeated – as well as evaluating its educational effectiveness – was extremely valuable,” said Laura Stein, a doctoral student in animal biology whose project proposal on keystone species and the impact of extinction was developed for the biodiversity event. “There were also things to keep in mind that I hadn’t considered before, such as looking at schools’ curricula to see what they’re teaching and what kids of a certain age are expected to know.”

“Both Laura and I were heavily involved in outreach before the course” through the Graduates in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology organization on campus, said classmate Rhiannon Peery, a doctoral student in plant biology. “Amplify the Signal really helped us formalize that, learn how to make contacts in the community and write broader impact statements for NSF.”

Magazine editors and science journalists also visited the class, teaching the students the fine art of writing compelling narratives and radio spots about their research for nonscientific audiences.

“I think there’s significant interest in scientific content that’s presented the right way, and I think that’s probably the best way to learn how to do it – to work with experts who already know what they’re doing,” Heath said.

Stein’s essay about her research on the genetics of parenting behavior in fish – and how her data collection in California’s Navarro River was disrupted one day by a water-loving dog – was among those published by the local online magazine Smile Politely and featured on its radio show on WEFT-FM (90.1), a Champaign station.

“I had always found it interesting to relate complex ideas in the sciences in an intriguing way,” said graduate student Christina Silliman, who worked in the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology prior to beginning graduate school at Illinois. “I considered going into teaching before, but I just loved science so much. I never really thought that this was something that you could do for a living.”

Silliman, who expects to graduate in May with a master’s degree in entomology, decided after taking Amplify the Signal to do her doctoral work in curriculum and instruction in the College of Education.

Silliman’s experiences in the course inspired her to obtain a grant from the Melinda Gray Ardia Environmental Foundation to fund development of entomology curricula for primary and secondary school students and teach it at the schools that she attended while growing up near Grand Rapids, Mich.

Since then, Silliman has designed several other science units and applied for other grants to support her work. Silliman and graduate student Katherine Dana also obtained a grant from the Entomological Society of America to develop a workshop and symposium on the topic of broader impacts, which they presented at the society’s national meeting, held last November in Austin, Texas.

“Basically everything that I’ve been doing I learned in or was inspired by taking Amplify the Signal,” Silliman said. “I really enjoyed that class. It was definitely transformative for me. It was inspiring that I could also use what I learned in the course to get grants to do outreach on my own.”

In the post-course evaluations, “100 percent of the students who took Amplify the Signal said they would tell their friends to take it,” Heath said, and attributed the course’s success to its interdisciplinary content and panel of experts.

Heath expects to offer the course every two or three years, with the next offering likely to be during the fall semester 2015.

A paper about the course, co-written by Heath and the students who took the course, appeared recently in the journal BioScience.

More information about the course and students’ essays are available online.

Editor's note: To contact Katy Heath, call 217-265-5473; email kheath@illinois.edu.

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