Science Communication

A Partnership Course with Columbia University

Rapid growth in scientific knowledge is outpacing the general public’s ability to stay informed about what scientists are learning. Scientific knowledge has never been more critical though as climate change threatens to bring irrevocable changes to the planet, which will impact millions of people. It is a profound moment for academic institutions to collaborate and search for ways to improve science literacy. In a new partnership between the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University and Grace Church School, the class of 2019 participated in a pilot course focused on science communication.

The origin of the partnership and pilot course can be traced back to 2014 when
Grace Church School hosted a city-wide conference entitled City and Sustainability. The school invited members of various city government and non-profit groups, like the Department of Sanitation and the Human Impacts Institute, to present how independent school teachers might collaborate with them to teach about sustainability issues in New York City. At this conference, a representative from the Columbia Earth Institute shared that research institutions like theirs have wanted to prioritize reaching a younger audience for a long time. These institutes know that the critical decision-making opportunities in mitigating climate change in the future will fall upon current JK-12 students, and the desire to be more relevant and present in their lives is urgent.

Following the conference,
Kim Chaloner, Dean of Community Life at Grace met Cassie Xu, Director, Office of Education and Outreach at Lamont-Doherty. At the time, there was a 7th and 9th grade course focused on sustainability, and an upcoming change in the high school lab studies schedule presented an opening for a new sustainability focused course for the 11th grade.

Ms. Chaloner and Ms. Xu designed a collaborative course with
the goal of introducing juniors at Grace to real world science communication outside of the classroom. For eight weeks, students met with geological and environmental scientists who focus on the impacts of climate change, many of whom are professors at Columbia University. In each session, they explored how the information they gather reaches the public sphere. Students studied how to develop press releases, short videos, and blogs, and learned how organizational messaging is crafted. 

According to Columbia professor Kyle Frischkorn, a biological oceanographer and science writer, the mission of a science writer is to inform, entertain and translate. In his Science Writing 101 session, Dr. Frischkorn emphasized the importance of science communication as the interface between the laboratory and the public. He went on to say that science writing explains important discoveries that impact people’s lives, it increases science literacy among the public, and it tells people how their tax dollars are being spent.

Several class meetings focused on debate as a tool for students to increase their understanding of climate related topics. Students practiced honing and refining clear and concise messaging on a scientific topic through debate. Split into two groups, students argued whether the most effective leadership on climate disruption will come from major cities, or whether global leadership and treaties like the Paris Accord are more effective. After the first debate, the groups switched positions and had to argue for the opposing view. Professors from Columbia judged the debate and handed out prizes.
For their final project, students worked in pairs to write blog posts on climate-related topics. Students were asked to read an academic paper on their assigned subject, read an official press release from the Earth Observatory and then summarize the essential data into a 500-word blog post written for a general audience. They synthesized both their understanding of the issues along with the specific tools they learned in the course to develop their blog. At the end of the course, Ms. Xu identified the four strongest blogs, which were subsequently posted on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog.
Read Ellen Jorgensen and Grace James’ post, “Fire Modeling: A New Approach to Wildfire Prevention.”
Teodora Kanlic and Abisola Fashakin’s post, “The Path to Our Evolution.”
Beatrice Fakahany and Kaitlyn Major-Hale’s post, “Tracing Our Roots,”
Lauren Holland and Albert Kyi’s post, “Scientists Find Strong Link Between Climate Change and Wildfires”
The pilot course was a remarkable success and both institutions plan to continue the course next year. As the partnership continues to develop, both schools will be looking for ways to increase participation of high school students in the process of expanding scientific knowledge to the public, so that the next generation of leaders will be equipped and prepared to tackle the biggest environmental threat in history.
The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is a research institute at Columbia University devoted to studying our planet and the complex environmental problems it faces. The institute offers undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral studies, is a resource for government and non-governmental organizations, and provides learning opportunities for middle and high school students.