What was the starting point and what did you aim to change?
Communication skills are more and more important for experts, no doubt. The common ways to practice the communication are the traditional assignments; literal and oral presentations on topic given. My experience here has been that the students present as experts who speak to experts of strictly own discipline without explaining the background in a commonly comprehendible way. This gap in the presentation is of principle nature, because it restricts the understanding of the message to limited group of experts in the same area.
What did you want to do and why?
I wanted to get the students practicing the communication to others than experts of their own discipline. I consider the handicap in communication as a larger problem, which reflects to working life capabilities in important areas: in the marketing/sales and in the social responsibility / risk communication. First, the experts are needed more and more in sales/marketing functions as the products are getting more and more technical. These functions have been commonly pointed out as a weak part of Finnish companies. Second, the experts role in companies social responsibility / risk communication is seen in current discussion on various environmental and health risks caused by products, processes, substances or companies. In the news concerning different risks or accidents and the solutions offered, experts have partly lost their position as the reliable sources of information. In the discussions, the profound information given by experts is often far too complicated to be understandable for a lay person while the net is loaded with easily digestible “facts”. Evidently, there are no simple solutions to simplify a complex matter. However, I see that there is great value in attempt to do so.
What did you end up doing?
I made modifications of the basic assignment of the type “written and oral presentation on a topic” at Process industry microbiology course 2012 and at Bioethics-course 2013. At the both courses the assignments were split in three parts. One part, the scientific background, was identical to the traditional assignment. The other two parts of the assignment contained i) a summary of the scientific report and ii) oral presentation. The assignments were as follows.
Process industry microbiology 2012: Develop a product or a service, which improves the control of microbial risks in a product or in a process.
Summary: Produce a marketing material e.g. leaflet, flyer, poster, video, web-page of the developed product / service.
Presentation: Sales presentation of the product / service for a customer. Bioethics-course 2013: Study and explain the case behind the given news article e.g. “Class action lawsuit against baby bottle manufacturer (bisphenol A case)” or “Vaarallisia homeenesto aineita pois markkinoilta –Onko kodissasi myrkkyä?”
Summary: Company comment on the case at the format defined in Helsingin Sanomat opinions page (max 2000 characters).
Presentation: Media interview of the company on the case.
What kind of learning outcomes did the experiment result?
The major finding was that the media interview was a well-functioning role play. The student acting as a journalist explained the topic for a layperson more than for an expert. Also the questions made by the “journalist” were from good to very good. The company “comments in HS” were partly packed with too many expert terms, but the attempt was good. And some of the writings were good. The findings with the marketing materials (2 leaflets, 1 poster, 1 video) were similar; it is challenging to shift the communication to different audience. This format was more fun than the HS comment. In bioethics course, one outcome (according to exam replies) was that the students were surprised when recognizing the way the media treats the facts. In my opinion, this is very important to learn as a consumer and as a (chemical) industry representative. For me the major issue here was to show the challenge of the communication between the experts and media / laypersons. Evidently, I don’t have the turnkey solutions for this, but sharing at least the challenge is a start and an asset in working life. Finally, it was rewarding to point out a concrete everyday contact between a media topic and own discipline.
What kind of feedback did you receive?
The best was a student comment on the last (bioethics) lecture: “I think we [chemists] should be able to explain these issues [substance impacts on human health or environment]”.
Would you do something differently next time?
I will clarify the evaluation criteria for myself and I will improve the transparency of the evaluation criteria for the students.