The deficit model of science communication

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This is central concept for science outreach. Some interactions today have led me to wonder whether we are all on the same page, so let me ask you:

Early in the days of this site, I started eavesdropping on conversations among experienced science communicators. I kept hearing over and over that we needed to kill “the deficit model” with fire. And then I did a bit of reading, and it was easy to see what they were seeing. For professional science communicators, it’s frustrating to see scientists who dabble in outreach using the deficit model, because they’re just getting it wrong and fouling the environment.

The deficit model of science communication is the idea that the target audience has gaps in their knowledge of science, and that through outreach, we can teach people and fill in these gaps. There’s a long history of research to show that this Deficit Model doesn’t work.

Seriously. Explaining science to people doesn’t lead to them understanding or accepting the science. It’s weird, right? People are irrational. Including us.

I’m not an academic expert in science communication. So when it comes to learning more about the deficit model more formally, I’ll point you to the academic literature. And wikipedia.

I see the irony that I’m here to spread word about the ineffectiveness of the deficit model by simply informing you about it with evidence. According to the deficit model, this isn’t expected to work for people who are simply browsing this blog periodically. So, what am I supposed to do?

Science communication experts tell us that we need to use narrative, and put the stories first that engage people with feelings. This is what the evidence tells us.

So if I’m really trying to convince you to drop the deficit model when you talk about science with non-scientists, I really should be doing this by telling a story. And I do have a great story for you! About how when I used the deficit model, it failed miserably! It’s a hilarious story! (Here’s the link to the post with the story about ants and snakes, which you presumably haven’t seen if you are new to small pond within the past five years).

I genuinely think that our understanding of the ineffectiveness of the deficit model is important for the future of our species, because collective action on climate change requires more of us to become passionate about switching to a clean energy economy. And we’re not going to get there by teaching climate science.

When you’re talking about climate change, feel free to mention the evidence, but more importantly, tell stories about how climate change has affected you and people you love, and find out how climate change is affecting the people you’re talking with, and tell that story. If you’re discussing the evidence, there are so many compelling stories about how people have uncovered evidence of climate change and how we are causing it, such as the folks behind the Keeling Curve. And the people being impacted by droughts and floods and fires and wars over access to water and hydrocarbons. For people to believe that rapid action on climate change is necessary, change must come from the heart, which means we’ve got to speak from the heart.

Academic advising and academia

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I’ve recently talked about the hidden labor of academic advising, and also the need to provide an education in academia and academic culture. I think it’s important to discuss how these two things intersect. If we are trying to bring more first-gen and minoritized folks into this academic sphere, then one of the first steps is making sure that folks know* what it means to be a professor, what it means to do research, and what it means to go to grad school. Because I think the typical undergrad really has no idea about this stuff when they go to college, and the sooner they are aware of this, the sooner they have the possibility of choosing this route (or choose against it, of course).

Let me illustrate this with an example. From a conversation that I have had so many times, with so many students.

I do a lot of advising for students who are pursuing teaching careers. And in the past, I’ve served on a lot of interview panels for students seeking to join the Noyce Scholars programs that we run at CSU Dominguez Hills.  Here’s a thing I’ve heard, something like:

“I want to be a professor. I want to teach at in a university. I suppose I could teach high school for a while, and then after a while I can get my advanced degree and find a university position.”

I hear this all the time. I mean, it’s possible I’ve heard this a hundred times. Definitely more than 50. At least in the population of students I work with, it’s apparently a very common career plan. It sounds entirely sensible and reasonable in a lot of ways. I don’t think it’s based on many assumptions, but it’s not informed by the hidden curriculum.

It sounds entirely sensible and reasonable. There’s just information that these students don’t have. In a single conversation, it’s not really healthful to dive into all of the ways that this isn’t a common career path that would be feasible for most folks**.

Because so many people of our undergrads have this idea of a career plan, then I can infer pieces of the hidden curriculum that our students aren’t aware of:

-What the job of a professor at a 4-year institution is beyond teaching

-What it’s like doing research, and what research is

-That earning a PhD in a STEM field while teaching a in full time K-12 position is somewhere between extremely difficult to impossible, and that leaving that solidly-paying job for a graduate stipend could be perhaps just as difficult

-How grad school admissions works

-The odds of getting a position as a professor after finishing graduate school

There’s no reason that anybody in college would be expected to know this stuff unless they’ve been in a social role where they would just absorb this stuff from their environment. But for most of my students, I suspect we as their professors are the people who they know best who have PhDs. So that means it’s on us to provide this cultural knowledge so that people know the options they have in front of them.

So I’m sitting in my office with a student who has just finished on semester of lower division biology. And is interested in becoming a professor. And who has no prior exposure to research. They haven’t expressed an interest in research, because they haven’t really been aware that this is even one of the options open to them. They’re into organismal biology (including plants! and bugs! and chemistry! Three things that go so well together!), and so we talk about finding opportunities to do some research. About applying to REUs. About finding a chance to work in someone’s lab. About how students can get paid to do research. And that if you are interested in doing a PhD, this is the perfect time to get the research experienced needed to land into grad school.

I could have limited my advising for this student to the pathway towards teaching biology at the high school level. Which is not any less than being a professor, it’s just different. But I would really like this student to be able to make that choice. And a real choice is a fully informed choice. And you can’t make that fully informed choice based on  a conversation, it takes some tangible experience to know the many differences are between K-12 teaching and the professoriate, and what each of these professional routes looks like.

When people talk about increasing diversity in STEM, what that really means is changing the fundamental composition of the pool of people who are applying to grad school, who are applying for postdocs, and who are applying for faculty positions. To change the composition of that pool, we have to bring people into higher ed who don’t even have grad school on their radar. I’ve met so many students in their last semester of college who are only learning that research is cool, and what grad school is. Those conversations have to happen early earlier than that. And opportunities need to be presented earlier. Which means that when these students are applying to your labs and your REU programs, it’s your job to provide that training. This is a lot of work. That’s okay, because, as someone one said, nothing truly worth doing comes easily. I’m not sure how true that is (after all, going out for eggplant parmesan tonight sounds very worth doing, and it’s not that difficult), but maybe it applies this this situation.


 

 

*To be clear, it’s just as important for folks in academia such as myself to evolve so that it shouldn’t be necessary for people to adopt a different identity and conform to the homophilous mold of academia. It’s our job to make this “pipeline” more accessible and remove these barriers tied to social capital. But still, folks gotta know what the career pathway looks like.

**I know of a few people who were K-12 teachers before getting their PhD in a STEM field and them became a professor in a STEM department. (Though think this is common in Education, right?) But in STEM this definitely not a standard approach and the capacity to do so often involves leveraging a substantial amount of financial and familial privilege. This seems to be a little more common for community college positions, maybe?

Responding (or not) to prospective students

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For all the concern about pipeline problems, we seem to be fond of creating bottlenecks that filter out the people we’re trying to recruit. Let’s take a quick look at how people get into grad school in my field.

To my knowledge, in most other fields, prospective graduate students apply to graduate programs. And then the selection process happens from there. I don’t have much direct experience with these programs, obviously, because it’s not my field.

But in ecology/evolution and allied fields, it happens bassackwards. Continue reading

Word choice is more than semantics

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I recently read through some of early posts on here. I’ve been at this for over five years now, and I’ve evolved over that time. (As I hope all people evolve!) I’ve learned quite a bit, and I do things differently in a variety of ways.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that I have steadily shifted a lot of the terminology that I’ve been using for topics in the practice of science, and teaching, and higher education. Continue reading

Updating pedagogy for the mobile phone era

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I had some unanticipated teaching challenges last spring, when I was teaching a couple sections of an intro-level organismal biology lab. I was befuddled, because on the lab reports, students were getting some straightforward questions wrong. Remarkably wrong in an unexpected manner, nearly all with the same wrong answer. Continue reading

How can we avoid toxic environments?

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A_member_of_the_Marine_Corps_Air_Station_Beaufort_fire_department_is_helped_out_of_his_HAZMAT_suit_as_he_goes_through_a_decontamination_center_at_the_sight_chemical_spill_at_the_trainingIt seems almost inevitable. Good people end up in toxic environments. Once there, they must suffer the consequences, or execute an escape plan, or eventually become the tormentor themselves.

When we choose an academic home, for grad school, a postdoc, or a faculty position, how can we sniff out the places that will undermine us rather than elevate us? Continue reading

Skype A Scientist (Skype a Classroom!)

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It is time to sign up for skypeascientist. This is a program connecting scientists with classrooms. It gives students and teachers a chance to talk to real living scientists and scientists a chance to chat with students. This fall I met with a class in England and hope to be matched again.

If you are curious how this works here are some thoughts on my experience: Continue reading

Starting experiments with a “nut fig”

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The term “backwards design” is often applied to curriculum design. If you want your students to learn a particular thing, you start with identifying what that outcome should look like at the end of the semester. Then you design your class backwards from that outcome, to make sure your students have a way to get there.

I think we should be talking more about backwards design when when it comes to statistics and the design of experimental and observational research.

Journalists call the key passage of each story a “nut graf.” Shouldn’t we have a “nut fig” for each experiment, and know what the axes and statistical tests will be before we run an experiment? Continue reading

Recommendations for making science inclusive, and how to talk about it with others

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You’re reading Small Pond Science right now — but a lot of our colleagues don’t read anything resembling a blog. So, for them, I’ve just published a short peer-reviewed paper about how this site addresses a common theme: how to promote equity and inclusion, especially for students in minority-serving institutions.

Think of it as a blog post, but with a lot of useful references in peer-reviewed journals and with the bright and shiny veneer of legitimacy from journal that’s been in print for more than a century. And hopefully fewer typos. Continue reading

To ban or not to ban laptops?

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Some folks want to ban laptops from their classrooms, and others are okay with laptops.

This is a perennially annoying discussion in higher ed today.  But I think it’s an important issue because it has the potential to really affect learning.

What do I do? Here’s the language in my syllabus for this semester: Continue reading

Making scientific conferences more engaging

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In scientific conferences, the talks are often the least constructive part of the meeting. That’s my experience and opinion, at least. This is ironic, because at least in theory, the talks are the raison d’être of a conference.

When people fly in from great distances to be together, should we really be spending most of the day in dark rooms listening to canned talks from our colleagues? Should we be spending our time on things that we could just as easily do in a webinar? Continue reading

An introduction to writing a peer review

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I recently had an exchange with a colleague, who had just written a review at my request. They hadn’t written many reviews before, and asked me something like, “Was this a good review?” I said it was a great review, and explained what was great about it.  Then they suggested, “You should write a post about how to write a good review.”

So, ta da. Continue reading

I am complicit

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My academic societies support the March for Science. So do I.

I’m familiar with the arguments for and against the March, from major newspapers and social media. If you’re not familiar, don’t worry, I won’t rehash them for you.

I think it’s possible for some people to have an ethical position to oppose something, and for others to have an ethical position to support the same thing. Nobody’s got a monopoly on being right. Continue reading

So, you want to start a science blog?

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I’ve been getting more requests for advice about setting up a blog — usually to elevate awareness about one or two particular issues. Now that I’m more than four years into this game, I’ll no longer call myself a neophyte. Regardless, I have no shortage of opinions, some of which might even be useful. Continue reading

Let’s talk about mental health in academia

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A few days ago Canada was abuzz with messages about mental health for Bell Let’s Talk day. The social media campaign resulted in Bell donating 6.5 million dollars to mental health initiatives in Canada, which is great. But I’m not sure that one day a year when everyone feels comfortable talking about mental health publicly actually helps reduce the stigma around mental health, one of the stated goals of the Let’s Talk campaign. Any other day of the year, it’s still pretty difficult to bring up mental health issues, so this post is partly an effort to continue the conversation. Continue reading

There are many ways to be a publicly engaged scientist

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I want to talk about the Who and the How of public engagement.

We should be bringing science to the table with people who aren’t in the market for science. A lot of outreach is preaching to the converted, and that is a valuable form of service. But we also have the ability — and perhaps an obligation — to make science a part of everyday life for a society that just doesn’t think about science on a regular basis. Continue reading

Teaching in a time of professor watchlists

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Teaching basic science is difficult when some folks deny the validity of science. Facts are facts, but there are powerful interests working to convince us that facts aren’t factual. Meanwhile, our incoming government is collaborating with a group that operates a watch list to track the activities of liberal professors. Earlier this year, a leading advisor to the new administration proposed reviving the House Un-American Activities Committee. I imagine that some faculty would be high up on the list of targets.

So, what should we change about what happens in our classrooms? Continue reading