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Designing a science communication course for science and non-science majors

Ananya Mukherjee & Rukma Prince

Ananya Mukherjee, who teaches Biology, and Rukma Prince, who teaches English Literature to undergraduates at Azim Premji University, have co-created a Science Communication course for science and non-science majors, which will be offered in August 2024. In this article, they share what prompted them to create this course and the kind of educational issues that the course aims to address.

Scicomm course APU title image
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The Indian classroom has seen a number of changes in recent years. Be it the demographic composition of students following the enshrining of education as a fundamental right, or the introduction of technology into our — admittedly, few — smart classrooms, the educational landscape has been anything but stagnant. The traditionally segregated study of the arts” and the sciences” has also started to sample the infectious interdisciplinarity of the times, particularly at the university level. Alongside this, the prevalence of alternate truth models, aided by moves such as revisions in high school textbooks, has put in jeopardy the sacred objectivity of science. Educators on both sides of the aisle have felt the need to revisit their approaches to ensure that the future cohort of students retains the ability to critically think about science. 

This prompted us, the faculty at Azim Premji University, to acknowledge the importance of shedding our primary disciplinary allegiances and formulating a course that provides a well-rounded approach to science communication to our students. In the process, we found ourselves as the test subjects of this interdisciplinary experiment: a biologist and a literary theorist, constantly checking that our ingrained disciplinary sensibilities were harmonised in making the course, which aims to teach students this same balance. The Science Communication course, which will be on offer in August 2024 for undergraduate students, aims to fill the chasm created by strictly positivist attitudes towards science by injecting it with a healthy dose of contextual critique. 

The need for better science communication

The course will highlight how science communication on popular media frequently runs the risks of oversimplification and possibly merging into fake-news territory. In a world where everything is reshared and retweeted by trigger-happy fingers, where do we pause and think if the science even makes sense? Not everyone can or will be able to make such distinctions. This course will focus on what loopholes to look for when reading an article that may masquerade as real science. 

The course will be designed to appeal to the students’ interests in bringing change.

Public service announcements (PSAs) in the form of advertisements, written notices, short films or radio addresses (and its modern avatar, the podcast) have been some of the common modes of communication. Taking a cue from science comics — humorous and instructional — we shall encourage students to look for alternative ways in which science can be communicated. The assessments too shall be a reflection of this. They will be designed to appeal to the students’ interests in bringing change, such as group projects using vernacular languages to communicate science to an audience that usually does not engage in scientific discussions, without compromising on the essence of the information. Students will also critically read popular science articles and provide peer feedback. The primary and supplementary readings will guide them towards case studies on topics that are usually missing from common discourse. 

Modelling the course on interdisciplinarity

Several universities around the world offer courses and entire programmes on science communication. We want to do this and more, by offering it to students from different disciplines. 

The course aims to disabuse students of the myopic vision of disciplinary boundaries.

The National Education Policy (2020) has brought urgency to the discussion on interdisciplinarity among the liberal arts and the sciences in higher education. As instructors on a course titled Critical Reading and Writing” for first-semester undergraduate students of several disciplines, a common complaint we hear from our students is I’m a biology student, why do I need to be here?” Similarly, we have several students from non-science majors who express interest in how discoveries are made or experiments are conducted in the sciences. Someone with a background in social sciences or humanities may question the narrativising of science, borrowing from their disciplinary training in deconstructionist methodologies. Conversely, a science student will bring in their knowledge of basic and applied science in areas such as studying new organisms, local biodiversity as opposed to disease biology, vaccine development, gene editing, climate change, etc. 

This course can possibly bridge gaps between students of different disciplines and make dialogue easier. It also aims to disabuse students of the myopic vision of disciplinary boundaries. 

Recognising the need for debates on science policy 

Studying science policy in abstraction can lead one to lose sight of its social implications. This is where a comparison of the silence surrounding tuberculosis as opposed to the frenzy around the COVID-19 pandemic, both in the media as well as global scientific chatter (as discussed extensively by Vidya Krishnan in The Phantom Plague: How Tuberculosis Shaped History) can help students understand that all diseases are not created equal, and neither is the funding behind their research.

According to a press release by the Ministry of Science and Technology, the newly passed National Research Foundation (NRF) Bill 2023 sets aside Rs. 50,000 crores for the National Research Foundation over a period of five years to enhance research and innovation in the country. Again, different fields of research are likely to be supported to different extents, depending on the areas that get prioritized. For context, about 70% of our current research funding is concentrated in areas of defence, agriculture and space research. 

The course includes units dedicated to dissecting how science affects society and what biases we need to unlearn, especially in the Indian ecosystem. 

Through case studies such as these, the course will take a deep dive into the policies that shape the course of Indian scientific research. It will also emphasise the need for consistent engagement of the scientific community with the public, sustaining the debate with updates on shifts in research as well as policy, and that a healthy democracy is an essential condition for a flourishing academic ecosystem. 

The course will also include units dedicated to dissecting how science affects society and what biases we need to unlearn, especially in the Indian ecosystem. We intend to bring to the classroom the conversation on gender bias in Indian science, which has been extensively written about by science communicators Nandita Jayaraj and Aashima Dogra in their recent book Lab Hopping: A Journey to Find India’s Women in Science. Chapters from this book will be one of the primary readings for the course. 

The takeaway

The Science Communication course attempts to remind young scholars that communication is a two-way process of encoding and decoding, to borrow Stuart Hall’s seminal formulation. The agenda of the communicator — be it a scientist, the media or a governmental body — is to be interrogated as thoroughly as the message. At the same time, the circumstances of the receiver, in most instances the general public, are also an important facet in deciding the nature and medium of the effective communication of science.