This piece was published in the October 2019 Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience (FUN) Newsletter. Learn more about FUN here.
How do you get students to invest time in reading and analyzing primary scientific literature? That was the question I was faced with as I entered the academy as an assistant professor. It is that same question that led to the establishment of Club Kaur, a podcast series discussing and demonstrating strategies to teach, learn, and communicate science. This podcast exists in large part due to the efforts of my students at UNC Asheville, who have been my partners in learning these last 3 years. They have inspired me, challenged me, and surprised me with their love of learning and willingness to take on the most complex assignments.
So, why was this the main question on my mind? Primarily because my own relationship with scientific literature has been rather fraught. As an undergrad, I encountered scientific articles in a handful of my upper level courses. However, my first true foray into scilit was during my senior year when I started work on my undergraduate research project. Truth be told, I had no idea what I was doing. Reading the articles was clearly important – how else was I going to understand what had already been accomplished on my particular research topic or draw my own conclusions about the presented data? At the same time, no one had ever taught me how to read this particular type of writing. I found that sitting down with a journal article created feelings of overwhelm, as I struggled with the conventions of scientific writing and endless jargon. Just knowing that I had to do the reading to support my project was not enough to stir my internal motivation. So, I pushed through as best I could, my imposter syndrome getting stronger in the process.
Cut to graduate school, where the stakes were higher, but explicit instruction on reading and translating scilit remained mostly absent. I had picked up enough tricks to be able to actually sit with the literature without immediately running off to do chores or more lab work just to avoid the task. But, I can’t say I ever enjoyed reading the papers. This was in large part because I found them inaccessible, like there was a secret code that could make it fun but I never found out what it was.
What I did enjoy was science podcasting – particularly, Radiolab. Episodes of Radiolab kept me company as a graduate student. I grew recombinant proteins, dissected primary neurons, perfused said proteins over the dissected neurons to watch changes in calcium signaling, and scored stacks of behavioral videos while listening to conversations between Jad, Robert, and their various guests. My favorite thing about Radiolab was their ability to tell scientific stories without losing the texture of the science. As a neurobiologist in training, many of their earlier episodes fell within my area of scientific interest. I found myself scrutinizing the scicomm within the episodes, and was always happy to see they’d done a great job yet again. By keeping the nuances of the topic at hand in mind, the creators of Radiolab were able to avoid one of the most common pitfalls of science communication – jumping from a scientific finding to a broad generalization that is not actually supported by the research being discussed. I unconsciously started to use their storytelling strategies in my own presentations, and saw their immediate effectiveness.
I had filed away this information somewhere in my head as I geared up to finish my PhD. It wasn’t until I started my tenure track position at UNC Asheville that I explicitly thought back to own experiences with scilit and scicomm through my education. What had been missing?
What could I do to change my pedagogy to fill in the gaps I’d found in my own education? From those reflections, the podcast project was born.
I first tested the podcast assignment in an upper division Neuropharmacology course. I asked the students to choose a recently published Neuropharm article that would be of interest to a broad audience, and draft and record a podcast accessible to anyone who decided to tune in. The success of the assignment led me to incorporate a similar assignment in a freshman seminar course. In this course (Neuroscience Fiction in Film), students were asked to identify something in popular culture that claimed to be backed by neuroscience and go to the scientific literature to verify those claims. They then had to create a video podcast discussing their findings in a way that preserved the scientific information but was accessible to anyone who may come across it. Yes, I did this to first semester freshman.
I wanted students to choose their topics and podcast format in an effort to empower the students to make decisions about their coursework.
So, how did the projects turn out? Did the students engage in the scientific literature with more gusto than 20yo me? You can find out by heading to clubkaur.com, home of my scicomm podcast series produced entirely by or in close collaboration with undergraduates at UNC Asheville. The featured episodes come from my Neuropharm course and my freshman seminar course. Each of these podcasts (and scores more I’ve collected over the last 3 years) showcase what students can accomplish if they’re given clear directions, structured scaffolding, and freedom to pick any topic within the scope of the course theme. I wanted students to choose their topics and podcast format in an effort to empower the students to make decisions about their coursework. Students have commented that this freedom made the assignments more exciting to them, because they were getting to delve into something they wanted to know more about and still call it homework. I paired this freedom with incremental assignments that moved students toward the final project in small steps. This allowed me to check on student progress and offer timely guidance or redirection. The scaffolding was also designed to make the project less intimidating to students and to ensure that few students would leave all the work for the project to the last minute. I could tell you more, but I think the students say it better!
So come by Club Kaur and listen/watch as UNC Asheville students take on zombies, LSD, neurocinematics, fish oils, and much much more.
Interested in learning more about the structure of the podcast assignments? Feel free to reach out – firstname.lastname@example.org, or clubkaur on all the socials.