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Curriculum and Speakers

SHERP's customized curriculum is centered on case studies and real-world reporting assignments, as well as conversations with dozens of prominent guest speakers every semester from the worlds of journalism and science. Some visitors appear as part of SHERP's "Inside Out" evening discussion series (we've posted videos of many of these), while many others speak during classes. SHERP alumni and emeriti faculty are frequent guests. We also host special events such as a forum on whether and how reporters should cover so-called "intelligent design" and a symposium on the scientific and journalistic challenges posed by the rise of synthetic biology research.

SHERP organizes seminar field trips every year to Brookhaven National Laboratory, The New York Times, The American Museum of Natural History and CNN. Many SHERP students also attend the annual conferences of the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Association of Health Care Journalists or the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (SHERP's faculty includes current or former leaders of all three journalism groups.) There are also fellowship opportunities for students to attend other conferences, including the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative and the Society for Neuroscience.

The program's award-winning student-run webzine, Scienceline, is fully integrated into coursework. SHERP students assign, report and edit stories, blogs, videos, audio podcasts and data visualizations, some of which begin as class assignments.

Multimedia training, including video production in Final Cut Pro, audio podcasting and data graphic design, begins in the first semester and continues throughout the first year of instruction.

The SHERP sequence consists of 12 classes (including one elective) over 16 months, for a total of 44 credits.

Curriculum quick links: first semester, second semester, summer semester, third semester, recent guest speakers, current faculty and past faculty.

 First Semester (Fall) Classes

Writing and Reporting Workshop I (Prof. Michael Balter, syllabus, four credits) introduces students to the tools of the trade, while helping them report, write and, most importantly, think like journalists. Students learn the ingredients of a great news story, along with basic reporting techniques such as how to find story leads, track down information sources, and nail an interview. They also learn the principles of how to write with clarity, accuracy and style, and how to make the most of the editing process. In this class, SHERP students are also introduced to the burgeoning world of digital journalism, including blogging, video production and interactivity. They put their new skills into practice with varied assignments, with the aim of publishing their best work in Scienceline.

Current Topics in Science, Health and Environmental Journalism (Prof. Dan Fagin, syllabus, six credits) introduces students to the world of science journalism by looking at scientific topics that are at the cutting-edge of research and have profound implications for the way we live. In other words, they are the raw material for great journalism. As students immerse themselves in some challenging areas of current science, they read the work of highly accomplished researchers and journalists and also hear from them directly in class. The goal throughout is to understand and adopt the practices that the best science journalists use when they cover controversial science. Students learn how journalists interact with scientists, conduct research, organize information and write stories. Just as importantly, students sharpen their analytical skills by writing almost every week for Scienceline. Covering an assigned beat, students follow the peer-reviewed journals and other sources to stay on top of the news as it happens.

Investigative Science Journalism (Prof. Charles Seife, four credits) gives students the tools they will need to see through lies and shed light on facts that certain people would rather keep hidden. By the end of the semester, they will be able to sniff out deception and find the facts to uncover it; they’ll also be relentless -- unwilling to let go once they seek their teeth into a juicy story. SHERP students will get the mathematical knowledge, investigative reporting techniques, and computer skills that will help them cut through hype and obfuscation, and it will do so by having them perform first-rate investigations on important scientific or medical topics. After completing this course, students will be formidable -- and dangerous -- reporters.

 Second Semester (Spring) Classes

Writing and Reporting Workshop II (Prof. Stephen S. Hall, syllabus, four credits) is an introduction to long-form science journalism. Drawing on the narrative techniques of great fiction, students produce news features, books (proposals and outlines), reported essays, stand-alone videos and explanatory pieces. In addition to these major assignments, there are extensive in-class writing and reading exercises, including character sketches, op-eds and close textual analysis. Most classes also reserve time for an informal "story meeting," where students will pitch story ideas. This culminates with a formal query letter pitched to a specific media outlet.

Environmental Reporting (Prof. Dan Fagin, syllabus, four credits) has three major components. Students focus on writing -- and rewriting! -- insightful stories about environment-related topics that are often emotionally charged and highly politicized. They also take deep dives into a series of crucial but often misunderstood topics such as risk assessment, epidemiology, environmental law, climate science, framing and the use of databases and other investigative tools. And finally, they read and discuss the work of exemplary environmental writers and thinkers, from Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold to John McPhee and Bill McKibben. As they explore each of these three components, students practice many forms environmental journalism, including news stories, features, topical profiles, blog posts, persuasive columns and descriptive essays. They also critique newly published environmental journalism every week.

Data Journalism (elective) (Profs. Kevin Quealy and Amanda Coxsyllabus, four credits) teaches the skills and techniques necessary for using statistical information effectively in science journalism. Obtaining, interpreting, visualizing and displaying data are essential skills for journalists in the 21st Century, especially those who cover scientific and technical subjects. Students will scrutinize techniques used in previously published projects and will also analyze data on their own, evaluating and producing tables, charts and diagrams using a variety of basic desktop software, web tools and basic scripting and programming.

Alternative electives (four credits each) are opportunities for SHERP students to explore areas of special interest by taking a course offered elsewhere in the Carter Institute (or, by special permission, elsewhere in the university). Possibilities at the institute include graduate courses in advanced television and radio production, investigative reporting, entrepreneurial journalism, business journalism, essay writing, journalism and epidemics, criticism, ethnography and journalism, history of media, literary journalism, cultural reporting,hyperlocal coverage and food journalism, among others.

 Summer Session Classes

Journalistic Judgment (Prof. Robin Henig, syllabus, four credits) is SHERP's press ethics class. It emphasizes the special dilemmas and unique ethical decisions that come with covering science, health and environmental news. The First Amendment, libel, censorship (including self-censorship), transparency and ethical decision-making are key topics in this class.

Entrepreneurial Science Journalism (Prof. Christie Nicholson, four credits), is a project-based course to introduce students to business skills that will help them thirve as science journalism reinvents itself for digital platforms. Through research, interviews and exercises, students gain a foundational knowledge of how to build and defend a business concept. Some students work closely with well-established legacy brands in science journalism to develop new products or services that enhance those brands. Other students conceive and plan their own original startup businesses. The final deliverable is a thoroughly researched and polished pitch deck that is presented to a team of judges, along with accompanying documentation.

Fieldwork in Journalism (Prof. Apoorva Mandavilli, one credit) is the first of two required internships. (A few students also intern in the spring.) Preparatory work for the internships actually begins during the first semester of SHERP, when the program's internship coordinators work with students to prepare resumes and cover letters and assist them in identifying opportunities that fit their interests and aspirations. A Meet the Editors and Producers event, typically attended by more than 30 supervising editors who work with SHERP, is part of this process. 

 Third Semester (Fall) Classes

Medical Reporting (Prof. Ivan Oransky, M.D., syllabus, four credits) provides an in-depth look at many of the most important contemporary topics in the always dynamic field of medical journalism, including the biology of cancer, environment-related illness, epidemiology, and the precepts of sound medical research and peer review. Students write several short pieces on journal reports, medical conferences and community health lectures, and one longer, feature-length piece on a health topic of their choice. Medical researchers and prominent journalists are frequent guest speakers.

Science Writing (Prof. John Rennie, syllabus, four credits) is an advanced class that draws on all the skills students have practiced and polished during the previous year. The goal is to give a realistic preview of life as a working science journalist, from finding a story idea to pitching it to surviving the editing process to making sure the final product is accurate, clear and compelling. The class looks at science journalism from the editor's point of view, and also emphasizes the process of popularizing complex scientific and technical information for the mass media. Students produce at least one feature-length story, as well as several shorter pieces. The goal, as ever, is for students to write stories they can pitch to professional publications.

Fieldwork in Journalism (Prof. Apoorva Mandavilli, one credit) is the second of two required internships. During this final semester, the focus is on transitioning from internships to full-time work on staff or as a freelancer. Every year, several SHERP students land full-time jobs at places where they have interned.

 A Partial List of Guest Speakers Since 2011:

  A Partial List of Former SHERP/SERP Adjunct Faculty: