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Science communication training prepares STEM students for employment

Program helps young scientists learn to communicate research to general public.

Many employers of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professionals are requiring new hires to communicate their research to the general public. However, most schools and graduate programs do not provide communication training to STEM students, according to an announcement from the University of Missouri.

Now, a multidisciplinary research team from the University of Missouri has found that after completing a science communication training program, STEM graduates are more likely to be successful in communicating their research to the general public.

“Science foundations and STEM researchers might find it difficult to get funding if they have difficulties explaining what their research is about and how it will make a difference,” said Shelly Rodgers, professor of strategic communication and senior research adviser for the Health Communication Research Center at the University of Missouri. “We’ve found that in order to advance society’s understanding of science, you have to work to improve how you communicate science to a wide audience in a way they will understand.”

Rodgers and University of Missouri professor emeritus Jack Schultz led a 10-week science communication training, “Decoding Science,” for graduate students. Each researcher involved in the training addressed a different aspect of communicating science to a general audience, from how to create a short presentation that is visually appealing to how to use theater practices to keep an audience engaged. Students also were taught to weave their research into a story and to use metaphors to make science jargon easier to understand.

Results of a rigorous program evaluation showed a significant improvement in STEM students’ confidence in communicating science and presenting findings orally, Rodgers and Schultz said. In addition, survey results showed that students had a more positive attitude toward preparing presentations post-training and indicated that they would continue to use the skills they learned in the future.

In a series of experiments involving a representative panel of the general public, audience members who viewed the STEM students’ presentations before and after training rated the presentations as significantly improved after the training versus before and said post-training presentations seemed more credible.

“It was inspiring to see the transformations the students went through and how confident they were at the end of training,” Rodgers said. “The crucial takeaway is that these students are going to take what they learn with them in their careers.”

Rodgers is currently drafting a manual on the Decoding Science training program so other schools might use the training to better prepare STEM students for employment. “Decoding Science: Development & Evaluation of a Science Communication Training Program Using a Triangulated Framework,” was published in Science Communication. Funding for the program was provided by the National Science Foundation.

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