Free online teach-out to help continue conversation about science beyond the national march

April 20, 2017
Written By:
Laurel Thomas

ANN ARBOR—The March for Science across 500 cities throughout the world is just days away but organizers of the next University of Michigan teach-out say the global call to raise public awareness about the importance of science and research must continue well beyond the April 22 event.

To keep the dialogue going, “Stand Up for Science: Practical Approaches to Discussing Science That Matters” will be offered the weekend of May 5. The free online learning opportunity on the edX platform is for all who are interested in how to communicate or understand the vital role of science in advancing public health, safety, economic and governmental goals.

“The teach-out is an opportunity to try and harness some of the enthusiasm for getting more publicly engaged after the March for Science, as a mechanism for people becoming more engaged throughout the course of their lives and careers. In other words, we want this to be a first step in a much longer sequence,” said Elyse Aurbach, co-founder and co-director of a program called RELATE.

The goals of the teach-out are the same as those of the RELATE program: to help scientists learn how to communicate effectively about the work they do, and to encourage the public to become better consumers of scientific information and understand its importance to their everyday lives.

“As scientists, we can contribute to the civic dialogue about a wide range of issues where science and society intersect. However, we also have much to learn from other participants in that dialogue, and it is essential that we engage with the public respectfully,” said Emily Cloyd, project director for public engagement with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“The RELATE teach-out will provide scientists and science supporters with tools to create messages that are accessible to a wide range of audiences and to plan engagement activities that encourage a multi-directional exchange of information.”

This kind of communication is particularly important in the current political environment in which science is under scrutiny and national leaders have cast doubt on its validity in some arenas, said Brian Zikmund-Fisher, associate professor of health behavior and health education at the U-M School of Public Health.

“With the discussions about the role of science in society today, and the increasing need for universities to be an active part of that larger discussion of scientific issues, this seems to be the perfect moment,” Zikmund-Fisher said. “If we’re going to talk about science, science funding, science results and how science is used in society, we have to understand why. Why is it important?”

Zikmund-Fisher and Aurbach have a passion for helping their peers—faculty, researchers and students pursuing advanced degrees—become better at communicating this importance.

“We aren’t trained for this,” Zikmund-Fisher said. “Very few people ever get training or an opportunity to think about why they should do this. We’re in the lab or we’re in the classroom. With all the competing demands on our time, some people think, ‘Well, I’ll just get to that later.’ If we don’t get to it now, it never happens.”

As a U-M graduate student, Aurbach looked for an intensive, practice-based opportunity to learn how to share what she knew about science with the public, but came up empty. So, four years ago she and several collaborators started RELATE, a workshop-based training for researchers in science, technology, engineering and math. It not only teaches the skills but provides participants with opportunities to practice what they learn through public engagement activities.

“It sets the stage for them to be able to do that throughout their lives and careers,” she said, noting that the team has done extensive training of about 100 early career researchers, and exposed about 1,200 others on campus at all seniority levels to the program through shorter workshops and other opportunities.

Teach-outs, modeled after the U-M teach-ins of the 1960s are short, topical learning opportunities on important current topics. The difference is they are delivered online. These self-paced timely topics are posted only for a long weekend, during which learners can log in and participate at any hour.

Aurbach says the RELATE teach-out will be a “choose your own adventure” learning opportunity with four parts:

  • Overview on why science communication and public engagement are important and how engagement changes for different audiences
  • Discussions about engagement and some of the controversies and concerns that come with it
  • A skill development component that borrows from the lengthier RELATE training to address audience, messages and narratives
  • Opportunities to explore local and national public engagement opportunities and help participants define next steps to becoming better communicators


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