Encouraging science communication through research and discussions

In this post, Dr. Shahir Rizk of Indiana University – South Bend talks about embedding discussion on science communication within biochemistry course recitations to develop majors that are able to communicate science beyond the scientific community. In a world of polarized politics and “anti-science”, we must teach our student to engage respectfully with non-scientists in the community. 


Beyond the lab…skills for chemistry graduates

So much of what we do as science professors focuses on getting our students ready for their careers. We take every opportunity to introduce them to advanced topics and involve them in undergraduate research opportunities whenever we can. In my work as a biochemist, it is important that students understand major fundamental concepts about biomolecules and the mechanisms that govern their behavior. Like other professors, I provide examples they can relate to through homework assignments, quizzes and exams, along with special projects and hands-on exercises to solidify their understanding of the subject.

“As political views become more polarized, important scientific issues, like climate change, divide communities along political lines. The result? No room remains for meaningful discourse.”

Dr. Shahir S. Rizk
Image courtesy of hellobio.com

I agree, the technical side of career preparation is important, but are we also preparing students to participate in diverse communities made of scientists and non-scientists? As our students leave college, they need to know chemistry, but it is equally important that they are able to represent sound scientific views when engaging the public. As political views become more polarized, important scientific issues, like climate change, divide communities along political lines. The result? No room remains for meaningful discourse. This reality is acutely evident in the rise of anti-science views, for example the so-called “anti-vaxxers” and even “flat earthers” (those who believe the earth is flat!).

“…the students are assigned reading material on controversial topics in science. Such topics include drug prices, the science and ethics of gene editing and the role of scientists in the political process.”

Dr. Shahir S. Rizk

Discussion within the Curriculum

Over the past three years, I have used a portion of the discussion (recitation) sections in upper-level biochemistry courses to encourage research on topics that relate to the practice of science beyond the classroom. These are weekly one-hour long discussion sections traditionally used for work on problems, quizzes or group projects. My goals have been to use a few of these discussion sections over the semester to introduce students to the everyday aspects of practicing science, help them become more aware of the social and political impact of their chosen field, and to become more engaged members of their community with strong science-communication skills.

Image courtesy of Stellenbosch University

First, the students are assigned reading material on controversial topics in science. Such topics include drug prices, the science and ethics of gene editing and the role of scientists in the political process. The students are then expected to participate in an open discussion expressing their views and presenting reasonable arguments to support their position. These discussions are designed to provide context to the material they learn and give an opportunity for students to participate in a debate on issues relevant to what they are learning. The discussions are often followed by a guest lecturer who is an expert in the field on the topic. For example, after a discussion on the legal battle surrounding the CRISPR/Cas9 technology, the class hosted Dr. Derek Jantz, CSO of Precision Biosciences, a company at the forefront of gene editing. Dr. Jantz spoke about the technology as well as its potential impact on society.

“The discussions are often followed by a guest lecturer who is an expert in the field on the topic. For example, after a discussion on the legal battle surrounding the CRISPR/Cas9 technology, the class hosted Dr. Derek Jantz, CSO of Precision Biosciences, a company at the forefront of gene editing. Dr. Jantz spoke about the technology as well as its potential impact on society.”

Dr. Shahir S. Rizk

Once the students become aware of the policy and impact of the various dimensions surrounding scientific concepts, they are asked to come up with ways to engage non-scientists in meaningful conversations. Guest lectures by faculty from the Social Sciences, Political Science and Communication help my students connect scientific concepts to their impacts on society and perception by the public. For example, discussions on climate change skepticism were led by sociology professor Dr. Zachary Schrank who spoke about how culture – not scientific data –shapes our views on climate science.

“The students take turns making suggestions on how they should present data, form arguments, and be sensitive to the cultural and political background of those in the community…”

Dr. Shahir S. Rizk

At the end of the semester the students are tasked with identifying difficulties in communicating with non-scientists (often citing their own experiences with family members at Thanksgiving dinner). The students then work as a group to put together a list of instructions on ways to engage those in the community who do not agree with accepted scientific views. This proved to be a very effective exercise. The students take turns making suggestions on how they should present data, form arguments, and be sensitive to the cultural and political background of those in the community without being condescending. The product is a set of instructions on how to engage non-scientists in discussions. Every semester, the most prominent advice is simply: be kind!

Communication builds community within and beyond the classroom

Dr. Rizk engaging students in discussion

Class discussions on science communication have been well received by the students. Based on a class survey, an overwhelming majority saw it beneficial in preparing them for their careers and in expanding their knowledge on new topics. Importantly, the students agreed that they are more likely to discuss these topics outside the classroom with others in the community. This is particularly important in smaller and/or predominantly undergraduate institutions where few classes specifically address science policy, ethics or its impact on society. When added to traditional lectures, labs or undergraduate research experiences, this addition to the curriculum provides future scientists with valuable perspectives on their relationships with and responsibilities to the larger community.

Dr. Shahir S. Rizk, is an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Indiana University South Bend. Dr. Rizk’s research is on protein engineering with the goal of rescuing enzymes affected by disease causing mutations. Work in the Risk lab also aims to develop engineered proteins for reversible self-assembly of nanostructures and biosensors for environmental pollutants.

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