10 Big Things We’ve Learned

NYU’s Science Communication Workshops

10 Big Things We’ve Learned

We’ve been at this since 2009, and over that time our science communication program at NYU has settled on 10 bedrock principles to guide our efforts.

1. Free and Not-For-Credit

We fundraise vigorously in the foundation world and within NYU, so we can avoid charging enrollment fees and thus encourage maximal participation. While we may eventually also develop for-credit classes that last a full semester, we think shorter, free workshops are the best way to reach this extremely busy cohort of science doctoral students, post-docs, medical students and faculty.

2. Four Classes, Four Weeks

We have considered various formats and have settled on four weekly sessions, each three hours long, on consecutive weeks. Every locale and program will have unique logistical contingencies, but we have found that once-a-week sessions establish a rhythm of work that is demanding but not overwhelming. It is long enough to allow students to establish work patterns, yet incorporates a little down time, which is an important part of the creative process. Since one of the fundamental precepts of our program is to cultivate pattern-recognition habits that improve self-editing, the weekly repetition of that editorial discipline facilitates learning and memory of good communication habits. Early in the program, we experimented with a bi-weekly format but discovered that with a two-week interval between sessions, students were less likely to complete their assignments, and the momentum of the more-intense format was lost. For these same reasons, weekend workshops can be enormously valuable, but the compactness of the experience does not allow the cultivation of habit that occurs in a weekly setting. Similarly, weeklong science communication workshops have the virtue of engendering community and promoting skill development, but the intensity of the instruction, lack of down time, and one-off quality of the experience may not produce durable results.

3. Small Classes, Detailed Feedback

We enforce a strict cap of no more than 11 students per workshop to encourage rich in-class discussions and to give our instructors enough time to provide the detailed editing of student work that is the bread-and-butter of our program. Our students tend to learn more from each other’s successes and deficiencies than from expert examples. While we do incorporate outside readings and encourage interactions with visiting experts, we concentrate on giving students rigorous (but encouraging!) feedback on their own work.

4. Interdisciplinary Participation

We make a big effort to place doctors, biologists, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, nurses etc. all in the same room because we see the spectacular results these mixtures can engender. If there is a secret sauce to what we do, it is our serendipitous discovery that great things happen when you make scientists from different fields communicate with each other. A diverse group of participants acts as a proxy for the ideal general audience—smart, curious, eager to be educated, but not conversant in the specialized concepts and jargon of a given field. When a biologist attempts to explain a concept like epigenetics, for example, and a physicist finds the explanation utterly confusing and unclear, scientists and doctors begin to understand how to “pitch” an explanation to the needs of the audience.

5. Open Door

Like many research institutions, NYU attracts students and postdocs from all over the world. Many are quite proficient in English, but a sizable number are not. In our experience, these students gain an enormous amount of useful instruction—and confidence—from being in a workshop with their more fluent peers. For this reason, we do not have any minimal English proficiency requirements for our workshop participants. Since our instructors do not give formal grades, just very detailed feedback, the atmosphere is relaxed, and everyone can focus on improving, not competing.

6. A Two-Pronged Approach

All communication, scientific and otherwise, balances on two criteria: what you say, and how you say it. Another word for “what you say” is content, and we emphasize the big-picture gist of what you are trying to say. “How you say it” refers more to style and voice, so we also devote a huge amount of time to the nuts and bolts of communication: word choice, everyday language, economy, and structure, all in the service of clarity.

7. Advanced Training and Continuing Ed

Once our workshoppers start using their newly-honed skills, they usually don’t want to stop – just as we hoped. To keep them fired up and learning, we typically offer one Advanced Workshop per semester for students who have completed an Introductory Workshops (we typically offer four or five of those per semester). Advanced students tackle more challenging assignments, culminating in a book review. We are also experimenting with a new workshop focusing on advanced oral communication (TED-style) skills. Finally, in response to long-standing student requests for even more learning opportunities, we are implementing what we call CLE (for “Continuing Literary Education”) sessions, which will combine writing workshop exercises with guest visitors (magazine editors, literary agents, podcasters, bloggers, and other communication specialists). All of this work is aimed at building an extended community of scientists eager to keep improving their communication skills even as they pursue their own research and other professional endeavors.

8. Encouraging Publishing

Science communicators are like any other writers: they want their work to see the light of day. We actively encourage our students to publish in respected outlets and sometimes connect them with editors. Workshop participants have published in a broad variety of scientific and popular outlets, including Nature, Science, Slate, The New York Times, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Story Collider and many others (for a partial list, please see the Alumni Story Gallery. We also have created a website, The Cooper Square Review, that for several years published essays, book reviews, artwork, and other creative pieces by workshop participants.

9. Rigorous Self-Analysis

After their final session, every workshop student fills out an anonymous evaluation form, which we scrutinize very carefully. We never stop looking for ideas to improve future workshops; our students are the best sources of those ideas.

10. Open Source

As you can already tell from reading this, our goal is to encourage better science communication not just at NYU but all over the world. We’re eager to learn from other folks who are doing this, and to encourage them to draw on our experience as they develop their own programs customized to the needs of their communities. If you have questions about what we’re up to, just ask us! Our email is scw@nyu.edu.