Popular Science Journalism: Facilitating Learning through Peer Review and Communication of Science News

Article excerpt

Educators have suggested using written assignments other than lab reports to increase science communication skills in students (Miele, 2010). Effective communication of research findings to professional and lay audiences is a critical attribute leading to lifelong success in scientific careers. Additionally, the development of science communication skills in nonscience majors (e.g., journalism) will help them become more effective science communicators while enhancing their scientific literacy. A course in science journalism, in which students research current science topics and write articles for public dissemination, facilitates student learning in an engaging way while teaching students critical communication skills.

By accessing the primary scientific literature independently and in group collaborations, students learn skills necessary for future success in research careers. Skills acquired include the ability to search and review, the ability to accurately interpret and communicate scientific findings, and the ability to learn independently. Through interpretation and critique of primary science literature, students develop critical-thinking skills that reinforce fundamental ideas underpinning the scientific method. Additionally, when writing with peer review in mind, and by practicing peer review, students increase their understanding of the audience and thus their communication skills.

Previously, an increase in student science literacy was demonstrated after incorporating journalism assignments into science courses (Hallowell & Holland, 1998). However, students in the classes requested more instruction in the genre of journalistic writing. At Clemson University in the 2011 spring and fall semesters, students participated in a Popular Science Journalism course with the stated objectives of (a) discussing, learning, and practicing the craft of writing science articles for a popular audience; (b) producing science news articles for the Clemson University newspaper, The Tiger; and (c) participating in the peer-review process.

Materials and methods

Students generated material for articles by accessing popular science news websites and blogs (e.g., Short Sharp Science at the New Scientist website), peer-reviewed science journals (e.g., Nature), and interviewing Clemson campus researchers. One article was produced every 2 weeks by each student, and one article per week was published in the school newspaper. At the end of each semester, all articles were compiled into a glossy magazine for distribution on and off campus. At the beginning of the second semester, "veteran" students (from the previous semester) were promoted to editorial and guidance roles.

The class met once per week for 2 hours. Course structure consisted of one or two short, directed lectures ([less than or equal to]30 minutes) and associated class exercises (see Figure 1), and group discussions with follow-up resources provided for independent student discovery (lectures were not given with each class meeting). Any remaining time (sometimes the entire class time) was devoted to writing. In the first semester, class activities were guided by an instructor; however, in the second semester, classes were led by the veteran students. There were no required readings, but texts available in the university library were suggested (Bauer & Bucchi 2007; Blum, Knudson, & Henig, 2006; Burkett, 1973; Murray, Schwartz, & Lichter, 2001).

Students were not assigned grades for typical items in a writing course such as grammar and spelling. Rather, to emphasize the necessity of deadlines in good science communication and effective peer review, students could only lose points for assignments turned in late.

An integral component of the course was peer review, with each student receiving one in-depth review of each article draft from a peer and the instructor. Additionally, all drafts were subject to a "roundtable review" method designed by students in the course; during a dedicated part of class time, each rough draft was sent to every other student in the group for approximately 5 minutes per person for a rapid group review. …