Science Museum London

The theory and practice of communicating science to public audiences across a variety of media

Module details

  • Offered to 2nd Years
  • Mondays 16.00-18.00
  • 2-term module worth 5 ECTS
  • Available to eligible students as part of I-Explore
  • Extra Credit or Degree Credit where your department allows
Degree credit module options by departmentHow to enrol

Science Communication is an increasingly important competency for scientists and engineers. Many funding agencies now stipulate public engagement as an outcome of grant awards. Also, an understanding of how science interacts with society is vital to becoming an engaged and reflective individual, capable of taking a positive role in intellectual life.

This module provides a theoretical and practical introduction to science communication. You will learn about models of science communication and how these interact with risk and social responsibility. You will also acquire an understanding of news values and develop practical journalistic skills. You will learn how to write a press release and to deliver a persuasive presentation.

In the second part of the module, we explore and critique a variety of forums in which science communication features, e.g. museums, science festivals, documentaries and literary fiction.

Science communication in the information age involves dealing with multiple platforms that facilitate dynamic relationships between scientists and their various audiences. Communicating science is not just about putting across "the facts": the contexts which shape scientific information, and indeed "make meaning", are what make the study of science communication important and interesting.

Information blocks

Learning outcomes

Two girls

By the end of this module you will be able to:

  • Understand important models of science communication
  • Apply them analytically, verbally and in writing, to a range of examples from different media, delivery platforms and rhetorical contexts
  • Develop a historically informed understanding on current thinking in science communication and the public engagement with science.
  • Communicate persuasively and informatively by evaluating case studies in a range of media and delivering a persuasive presentation
  • Apply key concepts, research, and feedback to write a press release and an analytical essay

Indicative core content

Students

  • Models of science communication: features of the cognitive deficit model and the engagement model.
  • Public engagement with science: competing notions of "expertise", levels of consultation and how these affect policy-making in science, the rise of "citizen science". 
  • Nature of science: the difficulties in defining "science", and how the negotiation of what comes to count as scientific knowledge is key to science communication.
  • Science in the news: how scientific values and news values differ, and whether science news should be a "special case" in the media.
  • News writing: structure and conventions of press releases and news stories. The importance of audience analysis in writing effectively.
  • Controversies and risk: the social amplification of risk, the role of uncertainty in controversies, and the hallmarks of ethical risk communication.
  • Constructing arguments and speaking persuasively: how to plan and execute an effective presentation. 
  • Language in science: how metaphors authorise expectations and are liberating and constraining in science. Comparison of theory-constitutive metaphors and pedagogical metaphors. 
  • Science and new technology: discussion of science apps and social media. Their merits and drawbacks in communicating science. 
  • Images in science: images as "evidence" in science, and how the rhetoric of images can be political and ideological in the context of science communication. 
  • Science documentaries: the typology of documentaries, how narrative and visual techniques construct the way in which science is narrativised.
  • Science on radio: incorporating science into public service broadcasting, difficulties and opportunities posed by relying on the spoken word to explain complex information. 
  • Museums and science centres: why some of the aspects of communication in museums make contemporary science particularly problematic in a museum setting. Includes a visit to at least two museums. 
  • Science in graphic novels: graphic novels are a growing genre and can be an effective medium for communicating ideas about science, and especially medicine where they have had a big impact. We‟ll look at the evolution of graphic novels from comics and see how they portray issues in science and medicine.

Assessment

  • Press release - 1000 words (20%)
  • Digital communication - persuasive speech or YouTube story (30%)
  • Essay - 2000-2500 words (40%)
  • Class participation (10%)

Key information

  • Requirements: You are expected to attend all classes and undertake approximately 85 hours of independent study in total during the module. Independent study includes reading and preparation for classes, researching and writing coursework assignments and preparing for other assessments.
  • This module is designed as an undergraduate Level 5 course. See Imperial Horizons level descriptors [pdf]
"The best module! Extremely interesting, thought-provoking and discussion stimulating. I recommend it to everyone"
"What a brilliant course! The content has been excellent, up-to-date and relevant. The course itself is very well structured, and provides an marvellous insight into science that perhaps a scientific degree would not."
"Very interesting course providing lots of insight into how science is portrayed in the media, and how the public interacts with it."