In my role as director of Columbia University's program in Earth and Environmental Science Journalism, I encounter many students who love both science and writing, and are struggling to find a career that will allow them to combine these disparate talents and interests. This article provides practical guidance for science teachers to help such students explore careers in environmental journalism, science writing, technical writing, science illustration, and informal science education, while they are still in high school.
Provided here are descriptions of career paths, suggestions for exploratory steps, and links to sources of additional information. The common thread running through these careers is that the professional first gains an understanding of some aspect of science or technology, and then helps other people build the same understanding. [Editor's note: Read about and share with students other careers that combine science and communication in The Science Teacher's "Career of the Month" archives online at www.nsta.org/careerofthemonth.]
Prospective science communicators
As a science teacher, how can you spot a student who might be open to advice about careers in science and technical communication? Look for a student whose reports tend to be exceptionally clear and well-organized. You may notice that other students turn to the prospective science journalist for explanations. While the future research scientists want to dig deeper into one topic until they are experts, the future science journalist is the student who is curious about many different topics.
Even if students have access to a guidance counselor for career advice, science teachers are often better positioned to observe students' strengths firsthand and to offer ongoing advice and encouragement about science-related careers. Encouraging students to consider careers that combine language arts and science can help teachers appeal to different learning styles, motivate students who might otherwise see little future for themselves in science, and bring us closer to the National Science Teachers Association and National Science Education Standards ideal that all students participate fully in science learning (NSTA 1990; NRC 1996, p. 13). For descriptions of several science communication careers, see Figure 1 "Career Paths." [Editor's note: Online resources for many types of science communication careers can be found in "On the web," p. 39].
What students can do now
Teachers should encourage students to start exploring their interest in and aptitude for science or technical communication early. While still in high school, students can:
* Take science courses. The most versatile preparation would include a good balance between physical sciences (chemistry and physics), life sciences (biology, ecology, health), and geosciences (geology, meteorology, oceanography, astronomy).
* Take math courses. A solid background in math is needed to gain entrance into college science or engineering courses, and to be able to write knowledgeably about science issues involving analysis of data.
* Take technology courses. Examples are computer and shop.
* Take courses that involve a lot of writing. This includes both fiction and nonfiction writing.
* Take a drawing or computer graphics course. Informational graphics are an important part of most science and technical communications.
* Practice public speaking. Students could take a speech course; join the debate club; or volunteer as a tour guide at a local nature center, museum, or tourist attraction.
* Volunteer to tutor younger students in science or math. While doing this, students should try to figure out what is being misunderstood and experiment with alternative ways to explain the same concept.
* Volunteer to assist in the computer lab. Students could volunteer in an after-school open-lab session for younger students. …