Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Student Perspective: Elizabeth Knowles

I’ve been home in Montreal for a couple weeks now, but the semester wasn’t actually over until I sent in my final two projects. We didn’t have any exams, but that didn’t mean that there wasn’t lots of end of term work to do.

When I was looking into the Science Communication program last year, I contacted a few people who I knew had completed the graduate diploma to try to get a sense of the program. I’ve made a few choices in the last couple of years that have left me less than happy a lot of the time so I wanted to make sure the program was for me. One of the people I contacted exclaimed that the program isn’t just great, but that its greatness is something to climb a mountain and yell to the whole world about. I took that (and a few other things) as good signs and jumped right in. I have never looked back since.

To start with, the people are amazing! Our two program directors are supportive and always around (or if they aren’t, they answer emails within minutes). They listen to any concerns we have and encourage us to engage in coursework and community activities that push our limits but that are within our reach. Our other two profs provide interesting dimensions to the program as well. It sometimes surprises me how many different ways you can look at the same topic and still learn something new.

Since everyone in the class has a different background and we all come with different school and work experience, we learn a lot from each other as well. An 11-person class is the perfect place for discussion – as are a swing dance class, sushi, brunch, next to a telescope watching a solar eclipse, Science North and everywhere else we congregate. One of my classmates likes to say that despite trying to meet and befriend people outside of our program, she keeps coming back to us.

It’s not easy to summarize an entire semester worth of classes in a single blog post but I’m going to try.

Principles of Science Communication (commonly referred to as Rhetoric) was a class that we only had for half the semester, but twice as often as the rest of our classes. It was the grad student version of an English class where we talked all about how people go about convincing people of their views on different topics. We each brought in many “artifacts” or examples of science communication so the class was focused around our interests. Topics included climate change, Ebola, cancer, vaccinations, climate change, nanotechnology, climate change and space exploration (did I mention climate change?).

In Design Theory, we looked at the many steps of the design process and finished the semester off by designing an entire exhibit about the relationships between the Sun, Moon and Earth. Working as a whole class and with a short deadline was challenging, but it was extremely neat to see what we could do when we all worked together and challenged ourselves. It also felt like something real as opposed to just essay writing. Partway through the semester we also got to create a science artifact by changing the format of some other piece. Katie and I worked from a boring article to create our own movie about Curiosity on Mars.

Our Audiences and Issues class jumped around many topics from fish to climate change (there it is again) and from misinformation to science in the North. We learned how to make a communication map and are working on briefing notes, communication plans and presentations to come after Christmas. I worked with four other people to create a communication plan for the use of social media in promoting the program (Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and YouTube, and do whatever you do on Instagram and Pinterest [Coming January 2015! –Ed.]!)

We had our Learning Theory class at Science North so we frequently used the exhibits there as our lab to study how people learn in free-choice environments. Many of us looked at computer games (Yay Zoombinis!) for our midterm project, which was really interesting because you don’t always think of that being one of the places where learning occurs. For our final project we got to create our own Science Communication piece and analyze it for its learning potential.

Our Research Methods course replaces the Rhetoric one half-way through the semester and it’s just the beginning of our year-long research project. We’ve all come up with our topics, questions and preliminary literature review but there’s still a long way to go.

After Christmas we’re splitting up the class because we got to choose two out of three courses (Mass Media, Live Presentations and Exhibit Design). I chose the last two, which might surprise some people who know how shy I am, but I figure there’s no point in taking the classes if I’m not pushing myself. We still have one class all together – Science Communication Practices – which sounds like it is going to be an extension to Audiences and Issues. From what I can tell, it seems like next semester is going to be even more hands on and I’m really looking forward to taking even greater advantage of our partnership with Science North.

As well as courses we’ve had almost weekly guest visits from people like Tim Lougheed, John Miller, David Lickely and many others. We’ve also gone on fieldtrips around the area looking at the Sudbury crater, Dynamic Earth and way, way down to SNOLab.

As well as all of that, each of us has a GRA (Graduate Research Assistantship) we’ve been working on and I was lucky enough to get one where I’m looking at visitors interacting with exhibits at Science North and determining their learning potential.

As for Sudbury itself, it’s taken some getting used to, but it isn’t as cold as I expected – yet. I’m living with two other people from the program and all of us get together almost every day. Most of our classes are in a lakeside building with heated floors, so really I can’t complain too much!

This may seem like a long blog post, but when I say that I’m studying Science Communication most people just assume that I mean science journalism, so I wanted to demonstrate that it is so much more – I wanted to scream it from the top of a mountain!