New minor preps students to better communicate on science

Students wading a river in Alaska

With misinformation too often clouding important issues, a new UO minor in science communication will teach students how to research and better present scientific findings to the public and prepare them for careers in the field.

Offered by the School of Journalism and Communication, the minor is open to all UO undergraduates and offers the opportunity to gain research experience and production skills. Students will learn how to tell engaging stories in any medium — audio, photography, social media, video and written stories — or specialize in research on science communication topics.

“The science communication minor is an extension of what has been happening in the School of Journalism and Communication for quite a while,” said Hollie Smith, associate director of the Center for Science Communication Research and an assistant professor of science and environmental communication. “We have so many amazing faculty doing work in the area of science communication, from career faculty doing professional projects to researchers engaging in different areas of science communication research.”

Students can tailor the minor to fit their interests in learning about the research behind science communication topics, how to communicate about science more effectively, and how to improve understanding between scientists and journalists.

“We definitely have communication barriers around science, thinking about how science is communicated, what kind of language is used and how issues are represented,” Smith said. “This is a perfect line of coursework to explore some of those issues and ask questions about how we move forward. How do we do better?”

Science communication is broad, so each term students can take courses on a variety of topics within the field, such as health communication or environmental communication, or judgment and decision-making. Many of the classes, such as The Science Story and Science & Memory, take students into the field to practice what they learn in the classroom.

Taught by journalism professor of practice Torsten Kjellstrand, The Science Story allows students to create stories about science under the guidance of expert mentors. Unlike most elective classes, The Science Story is a two-term course spanning 20 weeks, giving students time to complete comprehensive science-based stories for their portfolios.

Noah Camuso, a fourth-year journalism student, produced three audio episodes on two people’s experiences on the night of the Holiday Farm Fire. Through the course, he developed his audio storytelling skills, learning from KLCC reporter Brian Bull what makes a good story and how to find those stories.

After the course, Kjellstrand connected Camuso and Eden McCall, another student in The Science Story class, with Smith and journalism professor of practice Mark Blaine to work on the podcast “The Fire Story.”

Wesley Lapointe, a fourth-year journalism student, also took The Science Story this past year. He learned more about wildfires and how forests in the Pacific Northwest are designed to burn. In his project “Life in a Flammable Forest,” he told stories about how homes can survive in a flammable landscape.

“I learned the timber industry, one of the most powerful industries in Oregon, is super invested in promoting the fact that logging will protect communities,” Lapointe said. “There is more science saying that’s not true and, in some cases, it will actually do the opposite. There are much more cost-effective and attainable ways to protect our communities than the ways we have been doing it.”

Kjellstrand said the length of the 20-week course ensures students have enough time to learn how to make sure their stories are accurate.

“You cannot get your facts wrong in science journalism,” he said. “You can’t get your facts wrong in any kind of journalism, but there are more layers of fact-checking in science journalism than in most kinds of journalism. We made this course 20 weeks so that we can teach thorough pre-fieldwork research and have enough time to really shape and sculpt what we’re doing and vet the information very carefully.”

For Anna Mattson, another fourth-year journalism student, the science communication minor ties together everything she learned in Science & Memory and serves as a natural extension to her reporting.

“As journalists, we should all learn how to interpret data, talk to scientists and understand them so that we can work together to uncover the truth and inform people to the best of our abilities,” she said. “Most of the stories we are learning about in mainstream media focus on science, climate change and the coronavirus pandemic because that’s our world now.”

—By Alli Weseman, School of Journalism and Communication