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Department of Biomedical Sciences Professor Champions Science Communication Initiatives at CSU

It started as many of the best ideas do… a group of friends sitting at a bar, trading words and ideas over pints of fermented yeast and aromatic hops. The perfect environment for that ‘hey, what if…’ idea that sparks the hurried jotting down of notes on the back of a beer-stained cardboard coaster. For Dr. Stu Tobet, professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, the conversation that day would turn into a five-year journey that has impacted close to 1,000 students at Colorado State University.

The topic of discussion: hey, what if we trained every graduate student at CSU in communication and built the foundation for a new generation of scientists skilled in telling the story of how their science is making an impact in the world?

On this day, Dr. Tobet and his colleagues had brought attention to the serious gap in how our current education model trains scientists. 

“The current graduate school model is to put an emphasis on having advanced technical ability, but if students aren’t prepared to step out of the lab and serve as advocates for their field – or even write cohesive narratives about their research – it diminishes the impact of their work,” said Dr. Tobet. 

To get the program off the ground, Tobet and a group of interdisciplinary CSU faculty, including John Calderazzo (English), Don Zimmerman (Journalism), Kathy Partin (Biomedical Sciences), and Peter Dourhout (former Vice Provost for Graduate Studies)*, first led the development of a series of workshops that would give students a platform for understanding how to communicate their science and a venue for practice and feedback.

The workshops hosted activities and small group sessions that emphasized skills ranging from honing that perfect 60-second elevator pitch to effective abstract writing and other public speaking opportunities. In each case, groups of students were paired with both a communications expert and a content expert (faculty scientist) and given direct feedback on how to improve and start communicating more effectively.

“When we set out, our goal wasn’t to just teach a skillset, but to show them the skills they would need to develop over time,” said Dr. Tobet.  “You never stop learning to be a good writer or an effective communicator, but to achieve any true level of success in your field, you need to start somewhere – and you need to practice.”

After hosting four workshops that brought in esteemed keynote speakers such as Rebecca Skloot and Mark Ringel, the program evolved into a graduate-level course, GRAD 580A, first offered in Fall 2012. Dr. Shana Gillette, a professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences and Kate Kiefer, a professor in the English Department were instrumental in developing the course curriculum with the encouragement of Michael Palmquist and the Institute for Learning and Teaching (TILT).

“Graduate students not only need an introductory course in communication, but also structured support throughout their graduate career that will help them develop an advanced understanding of science communication and its importance in the scientific process,” said Dr. Gillette. “As a faculty member in the College who specializes in risk and science communication, I have an interest in building a supportive, educational framework for science communication in the College.”

Now in its second year, two sections of STEM Communication are offered with 22 students enrolled so far. Building from the successful format of the workshops and the Fall 2012 class experience, the classes provide many opportunities for students to practice their communication skills and receive direct feedback from communications professionals and content experts.

Looking to the future, Tobet’s dream is to have the program expanded with graduate students strongly encouraged (or required to enroll) and expanded offerings with specialty workshops on communication focused topics such as grant and thesis writing.

“If we are going to create a scientific environment where people can talk to each other as well as the outside world, they need communications skills that are technically accurate and accessible to an even wider audience – it’s a science world out there,” said Tobet. “If the tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it matter? If you do the most elegant experiment in the world and no one knows about it, what’s the point?”

If you are a faculty member who would like to get involved, or a graduate student looking to enroll, please contact Stu Tobet with questions.

* Full group of original faculty supporting the launch of this program include: Brett Beal, John Calderazzo, Peter Dourhout, Mark Frasier, Shana Gillette, Chuck Henry, Jenny Nyborg, Kathy Partin, Stuart Tobet, John Volkens, Marty Welsh, Emily Wilmsen, and Don Zimmerman.