I’d heard through my colleague that Katherine McClellan was doing exciting work with social media, so I sat down with her to hear about how she’s upskilling her in blogging, Twitter and podcasts.
How did this work with social media come about?
I convene a Master of Research (MRes) unit called Research Frontiers in Biology (BIOL700) and it’s one of the first units that the Biology MRes students take. It’s increasingly important for graduates to have strong Science Communication skills, not only for writing media releases, grant proposals and community engagement activities, but also for networking and job seeking. So this year I’ve developed and embedded into my unit (and assessment profile) skills-building workshops and activities covering blogging, Twitter and podcasting.
The use of social media is increasing in all aspects of life and is something that is now expected of academics.
When you’re writing grants, the applications usually require a public summary, where you have to be able to explain your research objectives to the person on the street, so that they know their tax payer money isn’t being wasted. I think that’s really important for students to be able to distil down what it is that they’re doing into a single sentence, the way you do on Twitter, because that shows they really understand something. I’m conscious too that not everyone who does an MRes or a PhD actually goes into academia at the end, so I really want to skill my students up for jobs both within and outside academia. For example, it would be really great if scientists were actually the ones doing the Science Communication, and not just journalists.
A real push for me to make changes to the unit came from a discussion on “Pursuing future activity to address the science communication problem” organised by Wade Tozer on behalf of the Research Enrichment Program discussion. During this round-table discussion, which included members of staff from faculties across Macquarie University, we all agreed that communication skills are something we should be teaching our students. We discussed how science communication might be taught; should there be a degree in it, should there be a capstone, or should it be embedded in degrees along the way?.
Regardless of what happens to degree structures in the future, I thought it was important and that Masters students should be learning how to communicate science to a wide audience.
So, I decided to embed it my unit, and give my students a little head start.
How did you incorporate these ideas into your unit?
I wasn’t very skilled in podcasts or Twitter myself, so I got some experts to come in, who all very generously gave their time. We developed a full day Science Communication Workshop which was delivered in Week 1. This workshop introduced students to different media: blogs (WordPress), Twitter and podcasts (Audacity). Previously in the unit the only science communication that the students were doing was blogging and writing a research proposal. This year I added Twitter and podcasts to increase their skills portfolio. The basic premise of the blogs and tweets is that students attend weekly departmental seminars and discussions, with academics who are active in their field, often doing cutting edge research. The students further explore the seminar topic by reading research papers and write a blog that summarises the seminar and places it in the context of the field of research. Along with the blog the also write a Tweet about the seminar, aiming to distil the main concepts and add insight. In addition to the departmental seminars the students also attend seminars on their own interests outside of the department, investigate the literature and open up further discussion in the form of a podcast
During the workshop, the students learned what Tweeting is all about with Lizzy Lowe (a current post-doc here). They learned how to have a professional Twitter portfolio; how to use it to increase networking for research, and how to promote their own research and others’ research through the platform. James O’Hanlon, who produces “In Situ Science”, an interview based podcast, talked to the students about different podcast styles, how he gets people interested in being interviewed for his podcasts, how he does the sound editing, how to publish the podcasts online, and why you might produce a podcast in the first place. Manu Saunders, from the University of New England, talked about blogging, what she blogs about and why, and how she structures her blogs. Following these talks, we then had a workshop where
we helped students set up Twitter and WordPress accounts, looked at the structure of good blogs, how to compose effective, snappy Tweets, and the best way to approach a podcast. I then sent them away and made them do it!
What have you learned through this work?
Over the years I have learned that students won’t necessarily spend time developing skills if those skills are not assessed, and they often don’t see the skills behind an assessment. So, if I can break down assessments and explain to the students what skills they will develop and be assessed on they are usually more receptive and develop the skills I intended. For example, writing a blog is not just for the sake of a creating blog.
The reason that I ask students to write a blog (a tweet, or a podcast) is because I want them to go and engage with a topic that they are not necessarily familiar with, and not only gain knowledge but also, connect what is being presented to things they already know, then see if they could use the information or methods in their future research.
If I just said, ‘the requirement of the unit is to go and listen to all these different talks’, they would sit there, playing with their phones, sleep, or whatever. So by giving the students these assessment tasks not only ensures that they are engaging with the material but also developing communication skills that will be useful in their careers.
Having an online presence is very useful for young academics because it gives them the ability to connect with people around the world. Lizzie gave an example of finding research collaborators on Twitter by looking at research being done by people that she wanted to work with, then liking, retweeting or commenting on tweets about their research. Then once they have had the chance to ‘acknowledge’ that she exists in the Twitter sphere, she would say “hey I read this paper of yours, I thought it was really cool, maybe we could do this other research thing together”.
Through the Twitter presence you can show people that you have common interests,
before you just say “hey I want something from you”, and that’s a good thing for the students to learn.
The LEU survey results for this session are still pending, but informal feedback from the students indicate that they really enjoyed the challenge of the podcast and have improved their science communication skills via the blogs and tweets!
Do you have your students engaging with social media? Share your experience in the comments section below or send us your story at firstname.lastname@example.org.