Syllabus

COMMUNICATING SCIENCE THROUGH SOCIAL MEDIA

EHS 665/HBEHED 665

University of Michigan School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Health Sciences

Winter 2013

TIME:                    Friday 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM, 2750 SPH I

CREDITS:             2 Credits

INSTRUCTOR:   Andrew Maynard

Updated: August 22 2013

OVERVIEW

This is a practice-based course that uses the medium of a public blog (http://mindthesciencegap.org) to provide participants with experience in connecting effectively with a non-expert audience when conveying complex science-based information (with an emphasis on public health).  Through practical experience, analysis and reader-feedback, the course develops basic communication skills that will be applicable to a wide range of situations, including communicating with managers, business leaders, policy makers, journalists and members of the public. 

In today’s data-rich and hyper-connected world, the gap between access to information and informed decision-making is widening.  It is a gap that threatens to undermine actions on public health as managers, policy makers, consumers and others struggle to fish relevant information from an ever-growing sea of noise.  And it is a gap that is flourishing in a world where anyone with a smart phone and an Internet connection can become an instant “expert”.

To bridge this gap, the next generation of public health professionals will need to be adept at working with new communication platforms, and skilled at translating “information” into “intelligence” for a broad audience. These skills will become increasingly relevant to communicating effectively with managers, clients and customers.  But more broadly, they will be critical to supporting evidence-informed decisions as social influences continue to guide public health activities within society.

The course uses the public science blog http://mindthesciencegap.org as a forum where participants can develop and hone their communication skills through experience and public and peer feedback.  For ten consecutive weeks, each participant selects a recent publication or emerging area of scientific interest related to public health, and posts a weekly article on the website aimed at a non-expert and non-technical audience.  As the ten weeks progress, participants are encouraged to respond to comments and critique and to develop their own style.

The blog posts are evaluated in the most brutal way possible – by the audience they are written for.  As the posts are in the public domain, comments and critiques on each blog will be encouraged, and author responses expected.

Course participants also meet face-to-face each week.  These meetings draw on the posted articles, as well as examples from other successful science bloggers, and examine successful communication techniques.  They also address how the lessons learned through writing a science blog are transferrable to other situations where audience-relevant communication of complex information is necessary.

This course is not designed to teach the art of science blogging (although inevitably this will be a by-product).  Rather, through the medium of the blog, it is designed to provide practical experience in collating, synthesizing and translating scientific evidence into information that a non-expert audience can access, understand and act on.

The course is not an easy option – posting one blog per week for ten weeks and living by the consequences of what you write is a tough challenge.  Yet it is invaluable for developing skills that support communicating complex public health issues to diverse audiences, including colleagues, management, customers, funders, policy makers, stakeholders, and members of the public.

 

ELIGIBILITY

This course is open to first and second year SPH MPH students, although PhD students will be considered under exceptional circumstances.  However, given the small number of places available and the nature of the course, prospective participants are required to submit a clear and compelling explanation of why they would like to take the course, and what they hope to get out of it, to Dr. Maynard (maynarda@umich.edu). Acceptance on the course requires a commitment to post one article per week to http://mtsg.org on a designated morning/afternoon, for ten straight weeks (including holidays).

 

OBJECTIVES

The objectives of this course are to:

  • Develop skills in communicating public health research and its implications to a non-technical audience.
  • Develop translatable communication skills through writing weekly blog posts.
  • Explore different approaches to engaging with diverse audiences on science using social media.
  • Raise awareness of the challenges and opportunities associated with engaging with lay and non-technical audiences.
  • Develop the ability to write to a brief and a deadline, and to respond to resulting comments in a timely and relevant manner.
  • Learn how to use social media to communicate complex science more effectively.

COMPETENCIES

Students taking this class are expected on its completion to be able to:

  • Critique and synthesize scientific evidence, including evidence review. (HBHE Competency 3e, high level)
  • Communicate complex information to a non-expert audience in writing, in a style that engages and connects with the reader. (high level)
  • Tailor their public health communication content and style to different audiences by understanding where their audience is coming from and what they are looking for.  (high level)
  • Use social media to engage effectively with stakeholders on public health issues. (high level)
  • Strike an appropriate balance between conveying information and providing expert opinion through communication. (medium level)
  • Translate research findings into public health practice, including dissemination of proven interventions. (HBHE competency 3f, medium level)

GRADING

A – E.

Grading will be based on six factors:

  1. Publishing blog posts on time (40%).  The discipline of writing and publishing to a deadline is central to this course.  There is a firm expectation that all students will publish one piece a week on a designated morning or afternoon, for ten straight weeks.
  2. Publishing blog posts within the outlined guidelines (20%).
  3. Responsiveness to comments on blog posts (10%).  Responsiveness will be evaluated in terms of timeliness, relevance and sensitivity.
  4. Experimentation (10%).  Students are encouraged to experiment with different styles/approaches to communication.
  5. Evidence of learning from experiences and applying lessons learned (10%)
  6. Participation in class discussions (10%).

Content and writing style are intentionally not graded within this course as risk-taking as a means of learning is encouraged.  However, it is expected that all students demonstrate a high degree of dedication to writing to the best of their ability, and learning from their experience.

 

COURSE FORMAT

This course relies heavily on self-motivated study, supported by the instructor and group discussion/reflection.  The most important resource of all is the Mind The Science Gap “style guide” (http://www.mindthesciencegap.org/style-guide/) This evolving resource provides essential information on everything from formatting posts and using/sourcing images, to writing science-grounded and successful posts.  Read it, refer back to it repeatedly, and absorb it.  At 2:00 AM when you are panicking over how you are going to get that day’s post up, it will be your best friend!

Classes:  The class meets for one hour each week.  This time will be spent in informal discussion and analysis, and is an opportunity to talk through techniques, challenges and opportunities.

The first three weeks focus on the mechanics of writing for, posting on and maintaining a blog, as well as the responsibilities of writing for a public audience.  They will include reading and evaluating successful and not so successful science blogs.

In weeks 3 – 12, classes will focus more on effective communication, critiquing participant blog posts, examining approaches to improving content and style, and increasing reach.  In each of these weeks, two participants will be assigned the task of leading critique on two of the other participants’ posts from the previous week.  The final class of the course takes a broader perspective on the lessons learned.

Notable dates for Fall 2013:

September 6 2013:      First class

September 13 2013:    Andrew Maynard in Dalian, China.  Class meets to discuss post-writing style and mechanics – a discussion leader will be assigned

September 23 2013:    First week of live blog posts

November 1 2013:      Andrew Maynard out of town – class meets anyway

November 25 2013:    Last week of live posts

December 6 2013:       Last class of course

Subscribers, commenters and readers:  The success of this course depends heavily on blog posts being circulated and read, and readers commenting on the posts.  All students taking the course are strongly encouraged to actively recruit readers, and encourage them to subscribe to the blog and to comment regularly.  Readers can subscribe using the box to the right of the page at http://mindthesciencegap.org.  Comments are welcome from a diverse range of readers on the content of posts, on the style of writing, and on the accessibility, understandability and readability of posts.  For more information see here: http://www.mindthesciencegap.org/get-involved/subscribers/.  Participants are also strongly encouraged to use social media to publicize their posts.

Blog posts:  Each participant will be assigned a day and a time (morning or afternoon) when they will post their weekly blog.  For each post, participants will be required to select a recent public health-related scientific publication, area of public health interest, or developing public health story in the media, and write a piece in their own style that synthesizes the scientific information and presents it in a form that is accessible to a broad audience.  Posts will not be pre-screened or edited by the instructor.

Each bog post should:

  1. Refer to and build on published research related to public health, either as the central focus of the piece, or as supporting material for the piece;
  2. Be defensible from the perspective of published evidence – i.e. not rely on personal beliefs, unfounded assumptions and unsupported conclusions;
  3. Be relevant and understandable to a non-expert audience;
  4. Connect with the target readership; and
  5. Not be offensive!

Apart from these requirements, there are very few hard and fast rules. Posts can be long or short; serious or amusing; sophisticated or simple.  One of the aims of the course is to allow participants to experiment with different approaches and styles, and to find what works best for them.  That said, participants will be encouraged to identify and develop their own style and area of focus.

The blog will run for 10 consecutive weeks – including breaks, holidays and vacations.  Posts will be public, and students, faculty, experts in the field, other science bloggers, members of the public and other interested parties will be encouraged to read them and comment on them.  Participants will be expected to respond to comments in a timely manner.

An important aspect of the course will be raising awareness of the blog posts and increasing page hits and comments.  Participants will be expected to explore the use of social media to grow their readership, and to bring their posts to the attention of a wider audience.

The blog posts will remain accessible on http://mindthesciencegap.org as a permanent record of the participants’ achievements.

Google Analytics will be used to track interest in and the impact and reach of blog posts.

 

READING LIST

Specific examples of blog posts and articles on effective communication will be provided as necessary to provide background for and stimulate conversation in classes.