Chemistry student Kasey Brown illustrated the flora and fauna of a tropical reef.Chemistry student Kasey Brown, a member of Science Meets Art, illustrated the flora and fauna of a tropical reef.

Collaboration to train students in creatively communicating STEM research

The Faculty of Science and Faculty of Engineering are collaborating with partners from the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences on a project that aims to enhance students’ science communications skills through arts training.

The Science Communication Skills grant is a one-year pilot program funded with $20,000 from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

The partnership will ensure UWindsor trains future scientists and engineers to become effective communicators in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields through writing, film and media, drama, music, and visual art.

“By improving science communication skills, we see an increase in science literacy, as well as introduce the role of using science in evidence-based decision making, while countering science-related misinformation — this strengthens the appreciation of science in Canadian society,” says Chris Houser, dean of science.

Students, mainly from the faculties of science and engineering, will be challenged to translate scientific knowledge into engaging common language through creative means, while maintaining scientific accuracy. A masterclass series will offer students training in creative writing, dramatic arts, visual arts, music, and film and media, taught by leading FAHSS arts scholars.

The project includes experiential learning specialist Michelle Bondy from the Faculty of Science and learning specialist Lisa Salfi from the Faculty of Engineering. They will recruit students from their respective disciplines, share results of the classes through the various school and community outreach programs, and help plan the masterclasses.

Prof. Salfi says many students struggle with writing their complex ideas in simple and clear terms. She says this project encourages students to translate their contemporary science and engineering issues to communicate to non-specialists.

“In order for their ideas, ingenuity, and critical work to be understood and adopted, engineers and scientists must be capable of communicating clearly and effectively to various audiences,” she says.

“Clear communication through audience accommodation will help to prevent the scientific misinformation that is widespread today with the prevalence of social media and internet news sources and will, in turn, protect public welfare, which is the cornerstone of engineering.”

Dr. Houser has been championing the integration of the arts into science since his arrival in UWindsor in 2016. He is joined in that passion, and in this project, by biomedical sciences professor Dora Cavallo-Medved, faculty advisor for the USci Network. In 2017, they helped establish a student-led initiative called Science Meets Art (SMArt). Under the SMArt umbrella, artists, who are also UWindsor science students, have put on showcases, created original artwork for scientific journals, and designed a range of creative inclusivity posters.

In 2018, Houser collaborated with drama professor Michelle MacArthur to offer the science-based drama course, Staging science.

“We tend to focus student training on discipline-specific research and analytical methods,” says Houser. “Yet employers seek graduates who are able to communicate with a diverse audience, putting our future scientists and engineers at a disadvantage in communicating their science to non-specialists in a world of democratized knowledge through social media.”

Participants will not receive course credit for the masterclasses, but will be acknowledged through student recognition programs such as the LEAD medallion program and certificates. They will also have an opportunity to learn skills by participating in both STEM faculties’ various outreach programs as well as showcasing their masterclass projects in a proposed one-day SMArt Communications Symposium.

Masterclass workshops will launch in Fall 2021. The pilot grant also plans to develop a universal, usable model for other institutions to adapt into their curricula.

“It is not just about expanding the capabilities of our science and engineering training here at UWindsor,” Houser says. “It is about creating an adaptable model for other institutions to follow, so future scientists and engineers everywhere are able to effectively communicate.”

—Sara Elliott