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A lifestyle app or a children’s book? Summer school for scientists

It’s about much more than learning how to write a readable piece or give a presentation that doesn’t send the audience to sleep. The intensive Science Communication Summer School gives young scientists the chance to really make contact with the public.

Course alumna Josy ter Beek (right) communicating about antibiotics at Forskarfredag, Swedish night of science.

Say you want to give a talk to children or blog about your subject and want to know how to go about this. Anne Land and Julia Cramer, lecturers from the Science Communication & Society department, may advise you not to at all. At their annual Science Communication Summer School, the third version of which will be held from 5 to 9 July, you start at the very beginning.

Skills and reflection

Land: ‘We begin with two questions: What do you want to achieve? And who is your story relevant to? Course participants often say that although it’s logical to consider this first, these initial steps can be extremely difficult. The course includes workshops on presentation and writing skills too, but we also think about the why, and about who the target group actually is.’ 

Cramer: ‘Someone once come in with a very specific idea about how to explain statistical uncertainty, which she consequently had to let go of. But when she and her group had developed a lifestyle app to use at the gym, she was the happiest of all the participants.’ A relatively large proportion of the participants on this kind of course are biologists, but the mix is what makes it. Cramer, a physicist: ‘It’s a challenge if we can think together about how to communicate about very fundamental chemistry research, for example.’

One requirement: intrinsic motivation

The course is for 20 to 25 young scientists from home and abroad who want to do more with science communication. Experience is not required, but Land emphasises that they must really be interested. ‘You shouldn’t come just because your supervisor has told you to. It is an intensive week-long course, so you have to have intrinsic motivation.’

Course alumna Dan Jing Wu promotes beating hearts from a 3D printer. Here at the Huishoudbeurs fair, above the article at the University of the Netherlands. See also danjingwu.nl

Once the participants have had a good think about they want to achieve and how they want to achieve this, they start working in groups on a joint communication product. The first two editions resulted in an online boardgame on quantum mechanics and a comic about telescopes. Land: ‘There was also interactive bike parking with a green roof and information about green roofs. And a billboard campaign about space debris, a series of glossy articles to spark girls’ interest in mathematics and a social media campaign to get young people to adopt healthy behaviour.’

Communication: just as valuable as statistics

Supervisors shouldn’t force their PhD candidates or postdocs do the course, but they should realise that it can be as valuable as a statistics course, says Land. ‘Science communication is important. The public needs it to know what scientists are doing and who we are. Scientists should know what people are concerned about, what they need and what they want to know. In doing so you learn how to explain a research proposal to a committee that will decide whether you get a grant. So do free up those 300 euros for the course!’

‘Last year someone made interactive bike parking with a green roof and information about green roofs.’

This is the second time that the course will be entirely online. This makes contact between the participants that bit more difficult to begin with, but does have its advantages, says Cramer: ‘We had participants from further away last year, from Germany and Sweden for example. They don’t have to travel. And an interesting guest speaker is more likely to join us.’ Live or online, the course participants become close. ‘They carried on helping and encouraging one another in a WhatsApp group after the course, which is great because it’s good to see more scientists take science communication seriously and appreciate its importance.’

PhD candidates, postdocs and other young scientists from home and abroad can register for the Science Communication Summer School (in English) at Leiden University until 16 April.

Text: Rianne Lindhout

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