Following-up on my blog post from August 19, 2012 (“‘Microblogging’ Science in 140 Characters or Less: A Twitter Primer”) I gave two microteaching lessons on science communication to my Delta Program summer course The College Classroom. Below is a reflection on that experience. Thanks to my fellow learners and colleagues for being an engaging audience and for the very insightful feedback.
In planning for the microteaching activity, my goal was to develop a lesson, on the theme of “Using Social Media to Communicate Science,” that would be salient to an audience of graduate students in the bench sciences. To make my lesson learner-centered, I engaged in backward design to first develop the learning outcomes:
1. Students will come away from the lesson with an appreciation for the “science” of communication and the value of communicating science with broader publics via social media, specifically Twitter.
2. Students will understand the principles of “tweeting” and be able to write about science for Twitter.
I wanted to focus on using Twitter and its utility for communicating science. However, I recognized the need introduce the underlying communication theory. In the interest of time, I decided to focus on deliberation, framing and trends in news consumption via social media platforms (see here for a blog post based on my lesson). I outlined the lesson to first give a short introduction to science communication, social media usage trends and Twitter best practices, then engage in a Think, Pair, Share (TPS) activity to have students chose a life sciences news story and write sample tweets based on the content. I had planed to have students discuss the exercise with a partner, based on the following questions, but we ran out of time:
1. How did you choose what content from the article to highlight? Did you focus on the facts and/or add your own opinion in the tweet? Why or why not?
2. How would you hashtag (index) this material?
3. Where did this activity fall on the continuum of easy to challenging? Why?
4. How might you apply (or not) social media to communicate your own research?
One of the strengths of my first round of microteaching was that I started out my presentation by asking the class how many of them had heard of Twitter (a handful) and how many used Twitter (no one). One thing I could have done better from that point would have been to narrow focus to either the key communication theory concepts or the mechanics of how to use Twitter (e.g. set-up an account, what are hashtags, etc.)
The major weakness of my lesson was that I tried to fit way to much material into 15 minutes. We ran out of time to complete the activity and the peer feedback I received indicated that I had rushed through the material, talked too fast and not fully explained the relevance of Twitter to their science outreach work (the primary learning objective). For example, one person wrote about learning from the lesson, “It’s kind of hard to judge since I don’t know anything about Twitter” and another wrote, “I’m not clear on why Twitter is particularly relevant to scientists.”
On the positive side, feedback indicated that I did a good job of showing my enthusiasm for the topic, engaging students in discussion and presenting a diversity of resources.
Reflecting on the experience and in conversation with Professor Balster about the core concepts I would want the class to remember ten years from now, I realized the extent of the disciplinary knowledge we develop as scholars. Topics which seem basic to me as someone who thinks everyday about communication theories such as “framing” and “deliberation” will not be so obvious to even a highly educated audience of scientists (likewise I learned so much from the lessons of my colleagues).
Thus, I revised the core learning objective to hone in on fostering student understanding of key communication theory concepts and the policy implications of science communication, focusing on:
1. Students will gain an appreciation for the importance of communicating their research to broader public(s).
With this in mind, as well as a better sense of the time constraint to cut the amount of material done to what could be covered fully in 15 minutes, I revised my lesson to focus some of the major concepts behind science communication: the need to base science communication on what’s been shown to be effective through empirical research, moving beyond a magic bullet (transmission) model of communication, knowing your audience (demographics, values, knowledge, attitudes, etc), framing and trends in digital news consumption. Then keeping with my teaching philosophy centered on learning as collaborative and active, I kept the Teaching, Pair, Share (TPS) element but modified the activity to allow students to draw on their personal experiences communicating about their research and brainstorming ways in which they might construct narratives (frames) with specific target audiences in mind, discussing:
1. What have been your experiences communicating about your research? To family? Friends? Outreach?
2. What public perceptions have you encountered and how did you address them?
3. How might you “frame” your work based on what you know about your target audience?
Based on the feedback from my classmates, the strengths of my presentation were that I used less material, made the learning objectives clear, focused on big ideas and reinforced the main take-away message “know your audience,” as well as engaging the class in question and answer discussion, pacing the instruction by writing on the white board rather than clicking through a Powerpoint and providing handouts.
For example, one student said, “You used an appropriate volume for writing on the board – it would have been easy to be quiet, but you kept your voice up nicely. Your pace and use of [the] board actually made me want to take notes on what you were saying,” in addition to writing, “I did learn about aspects of communication that I had not been exposed to before, I’ll actually be able use this in the future.” Another student wrote, “I felt like it was important to you that I understood the material and why it was important for me. Great!” and another said that I “engaged the class well and used comments to move the lecture forward. Encouraged students by affirming their answers.”
Engaging “Teaching as Research” has been eye-opening. I learned that to continually strive to be a better teacher I need to be reflective and mindful of putting into practice what I know to be effective as a communicator, knowing one’s audience, and presenting material in a way that is meaningful to them. It was also instructive to step outside my own comfort zone as a learner and go back to the basics of biology, physics, environmental engineering, logic and more through my classmates microteaching lectures.