Creating an Online Space for Learning Science Communication

Learning science communication online

Vol. 3 No. 6 (Summer 2022)

This post is from the 2022 CWCA/ACCR annual conference virtual poster session. – Stevie Bell and Brian Hotson, 2022 CWCA/ACCR conference co-chairs

By Clare Bermingham, University of Waterloo & Elisabeth van Stam, University of Waterloo


To support the development of science communication knowledge and skills in undergraduate  classrooms, students benefit from access to specific content and examples from science  communication experts. Training students in science communication prepares them for the  many careers that help bridge the gap between scientists and the public. Because  undergraduate students typically do not receive this kind of training in their undergraduate  classrooms, the University of Waterloo Writing and Communication Centre secured funding from eCampus Ontario and worked with partners from the University of Waterloo, from University of  Toronto–Mississauga (UTM), Scarborough (UTSC), and St. George (Health Sciences Writing  Centre) campuses, and from Toronto Metropolitan University to develop four asynchronous  workshops that can be embedded into courses or used for independent learning.


Despite the pervasiveness of science in our society, a gap exists between scientists who “do”  science and audiences who “consume” science. Science communication – the communication  of scientific or technical information to a non-expert audience – aims to bridge this knowledge  gap and allow scientists to effectively communicate their expertise to citizens, stakeholders, and  policy makers (Kappel & Holmen, 2019). For audiences, effective science communication can  increase societal trust in scientific findings and inspires participation in decision making (Brownell et al., 2013). For scientists, engaging in science communication can increases societal  support for research (Hecker et al., 2018) resulting in tangible benefits for everyone (e.g. uptake  in vaccinations, support for climate change initiatives, etc.).  

Traditional undergraduate STEM degrees prioritize instruction that teaches students discipline  theory, terminology, and the ability to communicate with other STEM experts (Brownell et al., 2013; Baldwin-SoRelle & Swann, 2020). Although there has long been a call for an increase in  science communication instruction (Hundey et al., 2016), many STEM programs and courses  have yet to make space for this focus in their course design as it requires its own specialized  knowledge. Despite the need for effective science communication, most undergraduate  students do not receive formal instruction in this area, and are instead left to identify the need  for, and develop, these critical communication skills after they graduate (Garcia, 2018). Indeed,  few courses dedicated exclusively to science communication exist (Kloepper, 2017). And while  current trends have moved towards incorporating communication components into STEM  courses, STEM instructors are not typically prepared to teach these components themselves (Bedore & O’Sullivan, 2011).

As a team of writing centre professionals, educational developers, and instructor partners, we  were ideally positioned to design and develop digital learning objects for use in undergraduate  classrooms. We had identified the overarching learning objectives for the project when  developing the funding application. Following funding approval, we worked together to identify  the key workshop topics and the workshop developer leads, and we assigned reviewer partners (instructors and educational developers) to each workshop developer to provide feedback  through the development process.  

Learning Objectives

Learning objectives for undergraduate students engaging with any of the workshops were  developed in order to guide the development process. Workshop developers also created  specific learning objectives for their individual workshops. We also developed objectives for  instructors choosing to embed a workshop in their courses. 

Undergraduate students who complete these workshops and activities will be able to: 

  1. Identify the key components of and considerations for best practices in science  communication to promote science appreciation and increase science literacy
  2. Compare a wide range of media, genres, and modes of public communication and  engagement, and select appropriate communication pathways for different purposes
  3. Evaluate the quality of current science communication media, including assessment of an author’s purpose, goals, and audiences
  4. Apply communication and design principles to communicate science research – through  writing, speaking, and visuals – to engage, persuade, and foster dialogue with public  audiences

Instructors who incorporate the learning objects into their courses will be able to: 

  1. Access relevant, accurate, and comprehensive science communication instruction that  can be easily integrated into their existing course syllabus
  2. Curate their own related science communication course content and assessment using supplementary instructional materials

Pedagogy & Technology

Because the University of Waterloo Writing and Communication Centre (WCC) staff has had significant experience with designing and delivering asynchronous interactive workshop  modules, they contributed the software platform and provided a structure that served as the  high-level architecture for the workshops. This structure divides a longer workshop into shorter  modules that include content, examples, and interactive element(s) for practice or self assessment. Each module is connected to and builds upon the preceding module in order to  scaffold learning and encourage students to make connections across the workshop.

Articulate Rise software allows users to build self-paced learning objects that are visually  engaging and enable learners to actively interact with content. Using Articulate Rise, the WCC  provided examples of how to organize material so that it flows clearly for learners, how to  balance text with open-captioned video or visuals (with alternate text), and options for diagnostic  and formative assessments. This process utilizes Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approaches through the design and development phases to meet and exceed 2020 and 2021  AODA requirements. 

workshop review processes

As noted, each workshop developer was paired with an educational developer and/or instructor  partner to provide feedback on their project throughout development. Additional communication  and content experts from the WCC also provided feedback and support throughout the process.  

Students from two institutions – University of Toronto (Scarborough) and the University of  Waterloo – were employed in two main capacities: 

  1. A small number of student staff translated the raw content provided by the workshop  developers into the Articulate Rise platform, implemented changes during the review  process, and ensured that all content was accessible.
  2. A team of student staff, who had experience in STEM courses and as peer tutors,  provided user experience feedback on the near-final drafts of the workshops. This process provided critical feedback both on information flow and on the functionality of  the workshop.

Topics & Preview Links

The final workshops covered four critical topics in Science Communication. Please click on the  link in the titles to access a preview of the workshop.  

**Please do not share these preview links. Contact us if you would like to have access to  the workshops for teaching and learning. 

Distribution & Access

The final workshops were sent to eCampus Ontario to be uploaded into the OER library, and  they should be available soon on that platform.  

The set of Articulate Rise workshops were formatted as individual SCORM objects, which can  be embedded in the Learning Management Systems (LMS) used widely across post-secondary  institutions for course management. This will allow course instructors to download and embed workshops directly into their courses.  

However, in our second phase (still to be completed), we will create an open-access public  website where these materials will available via a weblink for instructors and students to use.  

Project Evaluation & Sustainability

Once the learning objects are publicly available, we will integrate feedback from instructors,  writing centre professionals and students on a continuous improvement cycle. Learner surveys  have been embedded into the end of each workshop, and a general request for feedback from  instructors will be featured throughout the public website. Feedback on content, lesson design,  and accessibility will be collected at regularly-scheduled points. Review of feedback and associated revisions of structure and content will be scheduled at regular intervals; minor  revisions will be completed three times annually, while major revisions will be completed in June  of each annual cycle. 


Baldwin-SoRelle, C. & Swann, J.M. (2020). Scholarly Bridges: SciComm Skill Building with Student Created Open Educational  Resources. In K.D. Hoffman & A. Clifton (Eds.), Open Pedagogy Approaches: Faculty, Library, and Student Collaborations.  Pressbooks. 

Bedore, P., & O’Sullivan, B. (2011). Writing centers go to class: Peer review (of our) workshops. The Writing Lab Newsletter, 35(9- 10), 1-6. 

Brownell, S. E., Price, J. V., & Steinman, L. (2013). Science Communication to the General Public: Why We Need to Teach Undergraduate and Graduate Students this Skill as Part of Their Formal Scientific Training. Journal of undergraduate  neuroscience education, 12(1), E6–E10. 

Garcia, J.T. (2018) Communicating Discovery-Based Research Results to the News: A Real-World Lesson in Science Communication for Undergraduate Students. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 19(1). 

Hecker, S., Luckas, M., Brandt, M., Kikillus, H., Marenbach, I., Schiele, B., Sieber, A., van Vliet, A.J.H., Walz, U., & Wende, W. (2018).  Stories can change the world–citizen science communication in practice. In S. Hecker et al. (Eds.) Citizen Science: Innovation in Open Science, Society and Policy. UCL Press. (pp. 445-462). 

Hundey, E.J., Olker, J.H., Carreira, C., Daigle, R.m., Elgin, A.K., Finiguerra, E., Gownaris, N.J., Hayes, N., Heffner, L., Razavi, N.R.,  Shirey, P.D., Tolar, B.B., & Wood-Charlson, E.M. (2016). A Shifting Tide: Recommendations for Incorporating Science  Communication into Graduate Training. Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography, 25(4), 109-116. 

Kloepper, L. N. (2017). We need to teach science communication to graduate and undergraduate students. Here’s how. In  Proceedings of Meetings on Acoustics, 30(1), 1-9. 

Kappel, K., & Holmen, S. J. (2019). Why science communication, and does it work? A taxonomy of science communication aims and  a survey of the empirical evidence. Frontiers in Communication, 55(4), 1-12.