Review: Core Skills for Effective Science Communication: A Teaching Resource for Undergraduate Science Education

Authors: Lucy Mercer-Mapstone and Louise Kuchel

School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

In today’s world, having useful and practical communication skills among undergraduate science students is gaining importance. Science communication is defined as the process of translating complex science into language and concepts that are engaging and understandable to non-scientific audiences. These may include educators, government policy makers, businesses, journalists and even lawyers. An effective science communicator requires skills from a wide range of disciplines. These disciplines cover education, psychology, philosophy, and sociology. Being a science communicator no longer involves just the public understanding of science but also in facilitating public engagement with science.  Promoting interaction, dialogue and two-way discourse with non-scientific audiences are some examples in engaging the public.  

Bray et. al. conducted a study and identified 10 essential elements of effective science communication. A panel of experts in 3 different fields; science, education, and science communication, reached a consensus through a Delphi study. It involves three rounds of feedbacks, questionnaires, and surveys. These 10 essential elements provided a firm framework to provide proper curricula to teach science communication at a post-graduate level. Yet little study was done to determine exactly what skill are required for undergraduates. Despite the fact that the number of courses introducing science communication is increasing worldwide, there is little evidence to support what content should be considered core skills required in undergraduate science students. Thus, there is a need to create an evidence-based resource of core science communication skills that science undergraduates should acquire upon graduation.  

Lucy and her team reviewed literature articles about science communication or communication in general to identify 17 key elements that are important for effective science communication. These key elements identified must fulfil three main criteria; The number of scholarly citations must pass a certain threshold set by the researchers, relevance to an undergraduate science education and context and complexity of the skill relative to undergraduate studies. After rigorously comparing each of the 17 key elements against the stated assessment criteria, 10 key elements were distilled and given to a panel of experts for constructive feedback. 

A survey of expert practitioners using the Delphi method was conducted to seek expert feedback and assessment of the 10 key elements identified earlier. A total of 15 experts from the fields of Science, Education, Science Communication, and Communication volunteered to participate in the study. The survey is a mix of open-answer, multiple-choice and Likert-scale questions. The survey was sent to them anonymously. Lucy and her team conducted two rounds of surveys, with the second round containing a revised list of key elements based on reviewing the feedbacks written by the experts from the first survey.  

The Delphi technique used is a very effective quantitative study method aimed at generating consensus. It solicits opinions from groups, preferably a panel of experts in a particular field of study. The solicitation of opinion is an iterative process of answering questions. After each round, the responses are summarized and redistributed for discussion in the next round. Eventually, through a process of convergence involving the identification of common threads and inspection of outliers, a consensus is reached.  

In the first round, experts rated the list of 10 key elements on a 5-point Likert scale. The survey also contained an open-ended question given before being asked to rate the 10 key elements. The open-ended question attempted to provide their expert opinion on what key elements they think are important for undergraduate science students to communicate science to non-scientific students. The researchers found that the answers from the open-ended question generally aligned with the list of 10 key elements. Incorporating the feedback from the experts in the study resulted in the redrafting and rewording of the original key elements that is more closely aligned with the experts’ feedback. 

In the second round, based on the feedback of the first round, the key elements were expanded from 10 to 12. The final list of 12 core skills for effective science communication was given to experts for them to rank based on essentiality for undergraduate science students. As the end of the study, the 12 core skills and their average rankings are shown below.

rankedskill

Based on the survey findings, the top 6 essential skills that all science communicators should have based on expert opinions all centered around the audience. This is in line with the growing trend that there is a greater need to engage with them. This is done through identifying and understanding the target audience, using appropriate language and considering the levels of prior knowledge of the audience for effective engagement. All these skills are highly ranked in the survey. This emphasis on the audience is also highlighted in a similar study conducted by Bray and her team. She found that ‘the audience comes first in any interaction and this focus is non-negotiable.’ In other words, the two studies showed that the ability to identify and understand a target audience was ranked as the most essential skill for science communicators, from undergraduate to post-graduate level and beyond. The high ranking of identifying and understanding the audience was also closely aligned to literature reviews as ‘audience’ was cited most frequently in scholarly articles as important for effective science communication.   

The expertly ranked skill list is a reflection of the importance these skills are to an undergraduate science students. The list also takes into consideration the difficulty and relevance to an undergraduate. For instance, despite the fact that science communication requires a two-way dialogue between the communicator and the layman, the skill of encouraging a two-way dialogue is ranked last. This is because such a skill is difficult to teach to an undergraduate and it is expected that upon graduation, science graduates will most likely engage in one-way or asymmetrical two-way communication rather than a true dialogue about science. Such skill requires experience and developing their own view of science before truly mastering the skill.  

This study validates the experts view of the essential skills required of an undergraduate science student. There is consensus among experts in the fields of science communicators, educators, and general communicators. The rankings of these skills can serve as a guide to create a framework to identify the essential communication skills that are important for science undergraduates.  

[Link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21548455.2015.1113573]

Supporting Paper: Identifying the Essential Elements of Effective Science Communication: What do the experts say?  -Belinda Bray, Bev France and John K. Gilbert-

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2 thoughts on “Review: Core Skills for Effective Science Communication: A Teaching Resource for Undergraduate Science Education

  1. zhihan says:

    Interesting and useful reference!
    Is the survey participants the same for the 2 rounds?
    The results of the 2 rounds of survey differs slightly. But what is glaring is the rank of “Promote audience engagement”, which drops from rank 3/10 to 10/12 (from one of the most important to one of the least important!) This may be correlated with the additional skill item of “Encourage a two-way dialogue with the audience”, which is essentially a subset of promoting audience engagement.
    My personal feel is that audience engagement is important but the engagement can come about by various ways, not necessarily through dialogue. Engagement can be expressed through eye contact, facial expressions, body language, etc from both the presenter and the audiences.
    (Constructive) Dialogues are great, but yea, generally difficult…

    Like

  2. Thanks for the comments Zhihan! Yes, the participants are the same for both rounds. However, the number of participants have been reduced from 15 in the first round to 10 in the second round. The second round of survey was administered 10 months after the first one and naturally, there will be participants who would drop out of the study due to other commitments.

    I am quite surprised as well that the skill of promoting audience engagement dropped in ranking quite drastically. It is true that there is a shift in the role of science communicators from just communicating science to the public to public engagement as a two-way conversation, and it is exactly this skill required for an effective public engagement that experts feel is too complex a skill to master as an undergraduate. The experts who did the survey felt that it is a skill that requires a lot experience and that undergraduates may not have the experience or level of scientific expertise to effectively engage an audience through a conversation about science. They felt that most undergraduate will employ just the basic science communication skill, which is simply a transfer of scientific information to the public early in their careers.

    As the study pertains to the skills required as science communicators at an undergraduate level, most expert in the survey felt that promoting audience engagement is too difficult a skill to teach and master, thus the drop in ranking.

    Liked by 1 person

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