Stanford students learn how to explain science

The new Notation in Science Communication program offers students a way to develop their ability to share technical information with a variety of audiences, from prospective employers to the general public. Through coursework, advising and reflection, students learn ways to convey complicated ideas – leading to a better understanding of the material for themselves and for their audience.

When Laurie Rumker began writing her honors thesis at Stanford, she remembered the advice two professors had given her: One encouraged her to use a storytelling approach in writing; another suggested that she imagine explaining her research to her grandmother.

Through the university’s new Notation in Science Communication (NSC) program, Rumker, now a master’s student in biomedical informatics at Stanford School of Medicine, has developed strategies and skills for achieving both aims – in the written and spoken word.

Human biology undergrad Keeten Rutledge in a course for preparing for his portfolio in science communication

In the portfolio preparation course for the Notation in Science Communication, human biology major Keetan Rutledge plans for the artifacts he will include to demonstrate his ability to reach technical and non-technical audiences. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

The NSC program offers students a new way to develop their ability to share technical information – and explain science in clear and compelling ways – to a variety of audiences, including people within their academic disciplines, prospective employers, government agencies, journalists and the general public.

And grandmothers.

Rumker, who is concurrently earning a bachelor’s degree in human biology at Stanford, said she pictured herself sitting next to her grandmother at a cozy kitchen table while writing her honors thesis, “Before and After the Flood: Stability and Resilience of the Human Gut Microbiota.”

“My Grandma Agnes is a careful listener who is unafraid to call out her children or grandchildren for saying something unclear or uninteresting,” she said. “She would be the perfect sounding board for the kind of accessible and engaging prose I was striving to write.”

Students accepted into the NSC program can earn a special designation on their official transcript that says, “Earned Notation in Science Communication.” The first cohort of students to earn that designation – 14 students – graduated in June 2015.

Adam Banks, faculty director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, said the NSC program helps students understand that the “messiness” of human life – politics, social priorities, funding abilities, government policies – affects the science and technology landscape.

“You can have all the science or engineering in the world, but if you can’t convey how a product or a cure or an innovation meets a compelling human need, you won’t be successful,” said Banks, a professor of education who joined Stanford six months ago.

The program includes coursework, advising and reflection, and, as a capstone project, an electronic portfolio, or ePortfolio.

Each student creates an ePortfolio using “artifacts” that demonstrate an ability to reach technical and non-technical audiences. Artifacts have included research papers, podcasts, videos, slide shows, posters and honors theses. One student described volunteering at the Pacific Free Clinic, which is run by Stanford School of Medicine. Another reflected on participating in a national competition to build a low-cost, solar-powered home.

Each portfolio includes a cover letter that explains how the artifacts work together to tell a story – about the student’s skills as a science communicator, about his or her journey through the program, or some other narrative they have decided to highlight. In addition, students write a reflection for each artifact in their portfolio.

Jennifer Stonaker, the coordinator of the NSC program, said producing an ePortfolio is a powerful experience for students, because the exercise helps them form a clear idea of who they are as a student and as a science communicator.

“By the end of the program, we find that the students are very articulate in describing what they’ve done, what their goals are, and what they want to do afterward,” said Stonaker, who has taught an NSC podcasting course. “It’s quite impressive.”

Stonaker, who has a PhD in plant biology and genetics, said the portfolios themselves are beautiful.

“It’s amazing to see what kind of work these students do,” she said.

Aspiring science communicators

An interest in public health issues propelled Martine Madill, a senior majoring in psychology, to pursue a notation in science communication.

“There is a lot of exciting health and medical research happening around the world – much of it on this campus – and yet it means little if this information can’t be transmitted to the general public in a way that’s useful to them,” she said.

One of the artifacts in Madill’s portfolio will be a research paper she wrote on the effects of Medicaid expansion on the Stanford Pediatric Emergency Department.

Biology major Carolina Downie in a science communication class

Carolina Downie, a senior majoring in biology, said the program has taught her to be more thoughtful about every aspect of her writing – from the main idea she wants to convey and how word choices could influence a reader’s understanding. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Carolina Downie, a senior majoring in biology, said the program has taught her to be more thoughtful about every aspect of her writing – her audience, the main idea she wants to convey and how word choices or phrasing could influence a reader’s understanding.

“Often we discuss those things in the context of presenting scientific information to an uniformed or non-expert reader, but I’m in the process of writing my biology honors thesis right now, and because research topics and techniques are often so specialized, all of these things hold true, even when communicating to an audience that understands general biology,” said Downie, a member of the Seung Kim Laboratory at Stanford Medical School.

“The program has also forced me to think about all the different ways I can say the same thing – modulating for different audiences and understanding levels, and the amount of time or the context in which you will be presenting something – which is a pretty useful skill to have in all disciplines.”

One of the artifacts in Downie’s portfolio will be a paper she wrote for an NSC class, titled “When Mistakes Are Made: The Rhetoric of Retraction.”

Nick Troccoli, a senior majoring in computer science, said he was attracted to the program because he believes that conversations about the ethical, philosophical and societal issues surrounding technology are just as important as the technology itself.

“All of those conversations – from the ethics of self-driving cars to whether machines can be conscious, and what consciousness means – require the ability to communicate my technical knowledge in a non-technical way,” he said.

Troccoli said he has learned to keep his writing simple and to focus on the audience.

“Being able to convey complicated ideas in simple terms indicates a much better understanding of the material on the author’s part, and the reader is able to learn more as well,” he said. “I’ve tried to take this idea and apply it to all of my writing, from a paper on a significant historical computer failure for my computer ethics class, to my opening statement for a mock climate conference.”

One of the artifacts in Troccoli’s portfolio will be a slide show he used to teach a group of middle and high school students how to think and solve problems like computer scientists, by breaking down complex tasks into smaller steps. To illustrate, he paired up the students and asked one to teach the other how to walk. Fun and laughter ensued.

“This class embodied many skills I learned in the notation program,” he said. “I communicated technical knowledge to a nontechnical audience, and I came up with creative ways to convey information that challenged the students, as well as myself, to more deeply understand the material.”

Earning a notation in science communication

Currently, 59 undergraduates are enrolled in the NSC program, which the Program in Writing and Rhetoric launched in the 2013-14 academic year. The majority are biology and engineering majors. The program has attracted a growing number of students majoring in computer science and Earth systems, along with a few students studying math, physics, psychology, symbolic systems, and science, technology and society.

To earn the notation, students accepted into the NSC program complete Introduction to Science Communication and two advanced science communication courses. This year’s advanced science communication courses include Technology and Human Values, Design Thinking and Science Communication and Communicating Climate Change: Navigating the Stories from the Frontlines. In addition, NSC students take one course outside the program that is focused on science communication.

Applications for next year’s Notation in Science Communication program will open at 9 a.m. on April 8. The deadline is April 22. Priority will be given to freshmen and sophomores.