“Communicate” is a Verb: Helping students put science communication into action

When I started teaching science communication at Stanford four years ago, I had one major goal: to give graduate and undergraduate students first-hand experience with writing about environmental science for the public. After more than a decade working as a science journalist, I knew that effective popular communication is a skill that must be practiced to be mastered—that theory is not enough, and that there’s no substitute for doing work that finds a broad audience.

I was lucky: Leopold Leadership Fellow Terry Root had already beta tested an environmental advice column, a writing and research project that would solicit questions about environmental issues from the public, and train students to research the best available answers and write them in a clear, engaging and—hopefully—motivating style for a general audience.  All I had to do was come up with a curriculum, find an outlet for publication, and work out how to take the students from novice to pro in ten short weeks.

SAGE photo safari at the Stanford Recycling Center

That core of an idea has become a course, E-IPER 200, and a regular column called SAGE: Sound Advice for a Green Earth. We publish monthly with several outlets, including Stanford magazine and the Stanford MA journalism program’s Peninsula Press news site. We’ve received nearly 900 questions to date, and published rich, detailed answers to 70 of them. More than six dozen students, from advanced undergraduates to 5th year doctoral candidates, have been trained, and more than a few former students are applying the lessons of SAGE professionally.

The course changes a little each time I teach it, but six key points have emerged as crucial for the success of the project:

1. Balance accuracy with engagement. If the writing isn’t concise, interesting and at least a little entertaining, no one will read it. And if it isn’t exactingly accurate and cleanly argued, it will be torn apart by experts, knowledgeable readers and professional deniers alike.

2. Understand the audience. We focus on the “movable middle” audience of readers who are neither particularly knowledgeable about, nor antagonistic toward, environmental issues. That shapes everything from the questions we choose to answer to the way we write.

3. Leverage peer critiquing. The peer workshop can provide a friendly first audience, highlight weak and strong points in an answer, and provide unexpected ideas for solutions. Even students who are novice writers of popular writing are usually experienced, sophisticated consumers of it. I’ll write more about effective techniques for turning that sophistication into transformative feedback in a future post.

4. Address subjects your audience cares about. Answering readers’ questions is inherently interactive, and helps ensure students are writing about their readers’ interests, not just their own. A bonus feature of the advice column is that it creates the expectation that advice will be given – the genre provides permission to be prescriptive, and at least some motivation to read is baked into the process.

5. Publish. Writing can be a private experience, but communication is a public act. Nothing underscores the stakes and potential impact of communicating with the public like actually doing it.

6. Partner. Finding an audience might be your biggest challenge. Rather than building one from scratch, look for potential partners who already have one. Alumni magazines, student newspapers, and local news outlets might all be receptive. You may find you’ll get technical and editorial assistance, too.

Outreach is built into the advice column's question-and-answer format

During the class, work on answers for the SAGE advice column is enhanced with writing exercises, readings in sustainability science and the science of persuasion and behavior change, and practice with fundamental journalism skills including research, interviewing and photography. Each piece of writing goes through at least three revisions, after a round of small-group peer workshopping, and two rounds of instructor feedback and editing. And we investigate all of our assumptions along the way, especially that individual action is an important part of environmental solutions, that there is a knowledge gap between desire for change and effective action, and that merely reading about solutions can spur changes in behavior.

The SAGE project remains primarily a platform for teaching science communication. But it is also achieving communication, and that’s crucial. Careful, effective, strategic writing is hard work. Stanford students don’t usually need a lot of motivation to do their best. But seeing one’s work — and name — posted boldly in a public forum emphasizes the stakes, cements the lessons and spurs even the most dedicated students to try just a little bit harder.

Are there risks to publishing student work in a public forum? Absolutely. And once or twice we’re slipped up. (You can find a painful example by searching for the headline “Opinions on genetic engineering that aren’t worth a bean” at Forbes.com.) But those slips represent the real stakes of public communication, and become some of our strongest learning episodes in the classroom. The example above deals with genetically modified crops, a topic where debate too often involves more emotion than knowledge, on all sides of the issue. In the original answer, the student – and I – got one fact wrong, and several other points were left insufficiently clear or poorly substantiated. Correcting outright errors is easy – change the text and make a note that you’ve done so, and why. But realizing your own biases have gotten you into trouble, and fighting innuendo, ad hominem attacks and selective argumentation?  That’s graduate level communications training – and the stuff future environmental leaders are made of.

You can find a copy of the course syllabus in the Resources section of the Leopold Leadership website. Meanwhile, the SAGE project continues – and we’re always eager for more eyeballs and fresh questions. Please take a look yourself, and let me know what you think. And please, feel free to submit your own questions, or circulate the link to our question submission form to your students, family and friends.

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