Guest Blog

Beyond the final report: Using infographics to support the development of multiple forms of communication competencies

By Will Valley

First, this is not a piece that slanders the use of final reports. Reading a clear, concise, and coherent scientific report written by a student is, for me, a sensation analogous to runner’s high. Perhaps “marker’s high”? A euphoric state reached through the release of endogenous morphine in response to clarity, insightfulness, and careful reading of rubric criteria. It is my favourite form of noncommodifiable compensation in our system of academic capitalism.

This piece emerges from my experiences with an assignment in my third-year course in which students conduct community-based experiential learning projects. At the end of the term, they prepare a traditional academic report that helps support their development of scholarly writing, but is not a particularly accessible form of communication for broader audiences. To provide an opportunity to further develop fundamental knowledge dissemination skills, students create an infographic to translate their project findings into a different medium, which is then printed and exhibited in a public poster forum, and further disseminated through digital media.

Infographics are graphic depictions of complex information (e.g., knowledge, data, concepts, ideas, etc.). This medium relies upon visual elements to clearly and concisely communicate complex information to diverse audiences. Infographics use evidence and practice based data, compelling statistics, easy-to-read fonts, complimentary color schemes, simple charts, bold graphs, and other graphics to disseminate information in quick and easily digestible format. An infographic can disseminate key findings and implications of a project in a manner that effectively communicates with diverse audiences (i.e., media, scientists, non-scientists, non-disciplinary experts, disciplinary experts, policymakers, voters, etc.).

Essentially, traditional headings and content in a final report can be translated directly into sections on the infographic. This process requires students to distill their report into its basic elements, such as purpose, key terms and concepts, methods, findings and implications. The process is iterative and often results in a first draft that is text heavy and aesthetically unappealing. Students then begin the process of refinement through a “hard prune” (agricultural imagery, Faculty of Land and Food Systems!) resulting in a more parsimonious depiction of their project. For the next step in our course, students develop a two to three-minute elevator pitch to compliment the infographic, which they perform in a public setting, invoking the spirit of a poster session at an academic conference. Finally, we encourage students, and community partners with whom they have been collaborating, to share the infographic through the current oligopoly of social media (i.e. the facebook, twitter and instagram). Some posters have even found their way to select office walls in Metro Vancouver.

Students report appreciating the infographic and poster assignment for a number of reasons. Here are a few select quotes:

I really enjoyed working with the Piktochart tool, and I believe that being able to create an infographic is a very applicable skill that I am excited to gain.

“The final infographic day was great, it was a positive change from the normal power point presentations and it was interesting going around and looking at what everyone else had accomplished this term.”

“The data our group collected has the potential to affect how the [Richmond Food Bank] is operated and having an infographic as one of the deliverables for the course proved to be quite useful as the RFB now has it on display at their distribution centre.”

“I thought that the infographic software was surprisingly easy and a useful tool that I will use for future projects. I guess that was because we got the chance to share our project with the public and teach them our discoveries.”

To get started, there are a number of free, on-line tools for developing infographics (we use piktochart.com and pay for four month access to the PRO version in order to have higher resolution end products for print). For more details on how we integrate infographics into our course, visit the following pages from our course website.

Additionally, you can engage with our students to hear more about their work and experiences (and ask them challenging questions). We will be occupying the atrium of the AMS Nest on Wednesday, November 29th, 2017 and Monday, March 26th, 2018 (both dates from 2-3.30pm).

Will Valley is the Academic Director of the Land, Food, and Community Series in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems. Learn more about him here.

Game-Based Learning in the University Classroom: Insights from the Advanced Molecular Biology Laboratory

By Dave Ng

As digital games, and even analog games (such as card and board games), continue to surge in popularity, many educators have looked to using this common playful pastime as a tool in learning.  Game-Based Learning is simply where pedagogy has been included in the act of using a game.  In other words, there is a directed attempt to teach whilst the learner is engaged in the game.  This is different from the term gamification, which is essentially much broader and includes the use of games towards achieving goals in general (i.e. this can include using game mechanics to solve a problem, increase productivity, or enhance visibility/immersion).

 

Our lab has been involved with this area of learning for a number of years, specifically when we launched our crowdsourced initiative Phylo: The Trading Card Game.  Our experience with this STEM card game system, mostly as an observer but more recently with an academic lens, has led us to a number of interesting insights that may be helpful to educational folks thinking of dabbling in this area of learning.

 

At its core, game-based learning activities thrive due to their ability to incorporate playfulness and to enhance engagement.  However, not all games are equal in their ability to meet these objectives, and in fact many educational games suffer from what is known as the “chocolate covered broccoli” effect (i.e. the stigma that comes with thinking, “sure it’s a game, but it’s an educational game.”)  Indeed, the effectiveness of a game is heavily dependent on a variety of contexts.  This can include: the students who are participating; the degree and mode of active learning incorporated; the logistics involved in inserting it into the syllabus; the learning objectives it is meant to meet or enhance; and the experience of the instructor.  As a result, finding that perfect game and the sweet spot where it is best utilized can be task in itself.  From our experience, we do feel that in the university setting, games that encourage inquiry-based learning (via group work and discussion) could be especially exciting and formative – these might include games that encourage simulations or role playing.

 

The usual challenges that come up with using game-based learning tend to fall under three main elements:

  •  Choosing the appropriate game: As mentioned above, choosing the right game can be quite the challenge.  This is made all the more complex given the enormous palette of choice of games that are overtly educational in nature, as well as the many existing hacks that modify common commercial games for educational purposes.  In fact, having familiarity with gaming generally is a huge asset when navigating this choice.  Furthermore, choice can also be problematic because game-based learning is a relatively new academic field and therefore rigorous assessment of the pedagogy utility of many games is often lacking.
  • Logistical: whilst games tend to be great for immersion and general student engagement, they also tend to come with logistical costs.  For instance, they would likely be more time intensive than other conventional ways of teaching the material, and the initial set up will almost definitely need to be reiterated as the instructor becomes more familiar with the exercise. This can be especially noteworthy with digital games as access to technology elements will obviously come into play (which necessitates both administrative and time management chops). Overall, there would need to be careful evaluation of whether the learning objectives are best served in this manner given some of these logistical burdens.  Note, however, this might work especially well in instances where a class is flipped (i.e. the conventional modes of learning are done offsite, freeing time in class for things like game-based learning activities).
  • Evaluation rubrics: It should also be noted that if the game is used with the explicit intent of including an evaluation component (i.e. the game outcomes matter, writing a reflection, etc), then the instructor needs to pay particular attention to the evaluation framework provided to students.  Despite the use of games becoming more common place in university syllabi, games (especially if their inclusion is quite ambitious) will still be viewed as unconventional in nature, and consequently students may express some anxiety over their unfamiliarity in a course setting.  This is best allayed by having a clear framework of evaluation in place and one where the marking rubric is clearly delineated and easily viewed by the students.

 

As our lab has been involved in our open source STEM card game project, as well as smaller projects that involves table top role playing games, we’ve also noted that there may be some great pedagogical value in students “designing” games, rather than just “playing” games.  Here, by taking advantage of various constructionist (learning by making something) views, we have found that the concerted act of making games to fit stated learning objectives may be a useful pedagogical model. More so, since design activities are also generally a great portal into various ways of inquiry based learning.  This is especially so when considering those that fit under cognitive apprenticeship models.  Here, direct, incentivized, relevant, and group-based activities (i.e. making the game) are created that allow students to evolve from being a new learner to an expert practitioner.

 

This specific area of game-based learning is one that my lab is keen to explore more, and with Writing Across the Curriculum+, we are hoping to soon offer a variety of game design hackathons that use the existing Phylo card game as an open source and infinitely editable launching point.

 

Dave Ng  is a Senior Instructor and the Director of the Advanced Molecular Biology Laboratory, the educational arm of the Michael Smith Laboratories.

Integrating science communication training into an interdisciplinary program on atmospheric aerosols

A chemistry graduate student presenting a research talk would usually expect an audience from their close circle of chemistry colleagues studying a similar topic. However, when the research is about pollutants and chemical processes that affect air quality, climate, and health, the audience can draw in many more experts: chemists, engineers, and specialists in public health, computer modeling, geography, and policy.

 

In a UBC training program called CREATE-AAP (Collaborative Research and Training Experience – Atmospheric Aerosol Program), students learn to close the gap between researchers in a variety of areas who all study the particles in our atmosphere we call aerosols. The aim is for students in the program to communicate with scholars from outside their disciplines, and as a result, cultivate a broader understanding of the interrelatedness of concepts involving atmospheric aerosols, an integral skill required to tackle key environmental problems.

 

Some CREATE-AAP activities designed to give students opportunities to gain communication-focused competencies include:

  • an annual symposium to share research in poster sessions and research talks with guest speakers from industry, government, and academia;
  • an annual student seminar conference to present internship results and experiences that represent labs of other aerosol research groups at UBC;
  • a graduate-level seminar course (CHEM540D) and a bi-weekly journal club to read and discuss diverse journal literature in an interdisciplinary group; and
  • professional skills training workshops to enhance skills in public speaking, media communications, teaching, and project management.

These events regularly bring together students from up to six different departments at UBC.

 

As CREATE-AAP students take part in these activities, they exchange feedback on what works and what does not work in cross-discipline science communication. Take a scene in CHEM540D, the seminar course designed for the CREATE-AAP program’s graduate students. In a CHEM540D class, the audience lacks a common knowledge base of atmospheric chemistry, so a phrase such as “heterogeneous ice nucleation” has to be defined or it can lose the audience. Highly technical language is expected in a talk for chemistry colleagues or for scientific journals, but to an audience unfamiliar with the topic, technical knowledge can instead be introduced with clear visuals, logical flow, and adequate pacing. The challenge is to provide enough detail and depth without overwhelming their audience with jargon and acronyms.

 

When CREATE-AAP students practice adapting their language to a more general audience, they also learn to understand and relate perspectives from other disciplines into their own. For example, students studying the public health impacts around cookstove emissions in rural communities could relate to another student’s research focused on the mitigation perspective of the same topic. A geography student monitoring air pollution may collaborate with a chemistry student to analyze the composition and transport of pollutants. Learning to engage in interdisciplinary teams is a highly sought skill for employers in the environmental and health sectors.

 

Through exposure to other disciplines, CREATE-AAP students hone their interdisciplinary communication skills and underpin their expertise with a deeper appreciation of the range of perspectives on atmospheric aerosol research. When these students in chemistry, engineering, medicine, atmospheric sciences, or resource management walk into another research talk, they can all hope to see the relevance of each others’ works to their own studies and a better understanding of air quality, health, and climate.

 

bertram-1Allan Bertram is the Director of CREATE-AAP, an interdisciplinary atmospheric aerosol program funded through the NSERC CREATE program (2010-present). He is a professor in the Department of Chemistry at University British Columbia and serves as co-editor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (2013 – present). He is also the 2016 winner of the Environment Division Research and Development Dima Award for distinguished contributions to research and/or development in the fields of environmental chemistry or environmental chemical engineering, while working in Canada. The research in his group focuses on the chemistry and physics of atmospheric particles and the role these particles play in urban air pollution, climate change and atmospheric chemistry.

 

maki HC photo-1Maki Sumitani was Program Coordinator for CREATE-AAP (2013-2016), and is a UBC Science alumna with a keen interest in science writing and communication.

 

Currently, Maki works with UBC Applied Science programs (engineering co-op, study abroad, and professional development) and is working towards certification in professional communication.

Wooing our future science communicators – an instructor’s journey (part 2)

By Elizabeth Scherman

** Check out part 1 here **

A funny thing happened on the way to my Writing for the Sciences class. The class, created to “woo” reluctant STEM students to write, didn’t fill. Ironically, I’d proven my theory: young future STEM students often balk at writing. However, the Academic Talent Development Program (ATDP) at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education did offer me an Analytical Writing class in its stead. I assigned many of the same types of writing assignments as I would have in the Writing for the Sciences class.

One of my high school-aged students – I’ll call him Arthur – took copious, almost painfully diagrammed notes of every class lecture. Like his classmates, he had been awarded entry into ATDP on his academic merit and motivation. I looked forward to reading his first essay. The second week of class, we did a timed write on the nature of villainy. Arthur froze. Not one single word made it onto the paper sitting before him. We met after class.

“Dr. Scherman,” he explained, “it’s not like doing math. With writing, there’s no right answer. I’m just going in circles trying out all of the possible solutions to the equation.”

ATDP students on their way to Doe Library.

ATDP students on their way to Doe Library.

Of course, there is no solution – because writing is not an equation. And Arthur is not alone. I called for STEM-bound students from my Analytical Writing class to share with me their past experiences and future fears about writing. I’ll let them speak for themselves:

From a future neurobiologist: “Writing about math is fairly simple because it’s logical. However, you can approach ‘English’ writing in so many ways that it’s difficult to fully know where to begin.”

From a future engineer: “Writing is supposed to be argumentative in nature, but we have no theorems or postulates to prove our claims.”

From a future coder: “In school and in the workplace, I fear that I will not be able to produce quality work in the given deadline.”

The last comment reflects a common thread: students squirm under deadlines and grade expectations. Arthur’s writing paralysis is not uncommon; perfect is often the enemy of the good. Many of my students confessed that they enjoy writing outside of school and away from the prying eyes of those who would assign grades and time limits.

“I will have to write more and more,” predicted one student. “This will be a challenge for me, to try not to be overwhelmed and stressed … also, I will have to learn to write faster.”

I gave my students permission – okay, I encouraged them – to write “terrible” first drafts (which were always comment-only) and to tackle in-class writes without the pressure of a grade. They received full points for trying. They did try. Lo and behold, much of their best writing was done under deadline in response to questions – “equations” – that do not have one correct answer.

When I told them this, they looked at me as if I’d gone round the bend.

Perhaps, I suggested, the correct answer to a writing equation is to do the best you can do in the time that you are given. Perhaps time constraints can be the very things that free us to err. And once we are allowed to err, the discovery begins.

About Elizabeth Scherman

Elizabeth SchermanElizabeth Leigh Scherman researches representations of divergent bodies in media as well as the rhetoric that accompanies such portrayals, whether in scientific literature, cinema, television, or other forms of popular culture.

She holds a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Washington and is senior tenured faculty at Bates College in Tacoma, Washington. Her work has appeared in peer reviewed journals and edited collections, including Disability Studies Quarterly, The Galaxy is Rated G: Essays on Children’s Science Fiction Film and Television, edited by R.C. Neighbors and Sandy Rankin, The Worlds of Farscape, edited by Sherry Ginn, and an upcoming anthology, Tim Burton: Essays on the Films, edited by Johnson Cheu.

Scherman is developing original curriculum for teaching writing to students interested in STEM fields and will be teaching and initiating this curriculum at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Education, Academic Talent Development Program in the summer of 2016.