2015 Individual Grant Winner

Joyce Fernandes


Communicating Research in the Field of Cell Biology to the Public: A Project to Assess the Effectiveness of Writing Assignments in BIO 203W

Potential Impact: Need, Benefits for Students, Number of Students Benefited

Introduction to Cell Biology (BIO 203) is a three credit hour course and I teach a W section, which is limited to 35-40 students each semester. I have taught this version of the course for 3 semesters, which has allowed me to develop some ideas about testing the outcomes of this course to provide students with the expertise to communicate science to the public. Professionally, my association with advisory and education committees on the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), and Ohio-PKAL (STEM arm of the AACU), allows me to keep track of national dialogs in the area of science communication. Having recently completed a 2-year assignment at the National Science Foundation, I have become keenly aware of the relationship of science communication to advocacy efforts that raise awareness of research, and can lead to better funding for research. A course such as BIO 203W is well positioned to train Biology majors to develop the skills that would have broad impacts in educating the public about research, awareness of how it relates to the generation of knowledge, and to realize the importance of scientific communication skills for their own educational development

Project Objectives

  1. Assess the approaches used to prepare students for writing for the public. Goal: How can instruction be improved to provide students with the necessary tools to navigate through the assignments.
  2. Assess the learning experience of students about current research in Cell Biology that is funded by the National Science Foundation. Goal: Are students able to evaluate public abstracts of funded research that are intended for the general public? Are students able to connect the proposed new research outcomes to course concepts?
  3. Assess the ability of students to articulate the relevance of cell biology research done using fruit-flies as a model system, using recently published papers. Goal: How do students approach a research paper with the goal of demystifying the science.

Project Plan: Include Plans for Working with the Howe Center's Staff Assessments

Overview of Current Instruction
  1. Students get to keep an issue of Science News, that has a number of short 300-500 word articles that demystify the science form recently published papers
  2. Review of the writing style in Science News and the New York Times.
  3. The professional organization AAAS provides simple tips for scientists to communicate their research, called Communication 101: Communication Basics for scientists and engineers. These include: Defining the Audience; Importance of Choosing the Right Words; Choosing Supporting Information and Visualizations; Developing a Message in 3 Points
  4. The RAFT strategy for writing:
    Role of the Writer: Who are you as the writer? A movie star? The President? A plant?
    Audience: To whom are you writing? A senator? Yourself? A company?
    Format: In what format are you writing? A diary entry? A newspaper? A love letter?
    Topic: What are you writing about?
  5. For each assignment, peer review is conducted; Instructions are provided about writing a peer review
  6. The instructor prepares a list of commonly occurring weaknesses and discusses in class. Individual comments are also returned on the drafts.
Development of Assessments
  1. Likert Scale survey to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the instruction. This is intended to be formative for the course.
  2. Develop an assessment for (a) Project 1: Evaluating usefulness of the public abstracts of NSF funded research for student learning about course concepts, and awareness of ongoing research.
  3. Develop an assessment for Project 2: Demystifying recently published cell biology research using fruit-flies.

NOTE: For 2 and 3, in addition to a Likert Scale survey, focus groups and interviews will be conducted. This is intended to be used for formative purposes as well as for developing a manuscript that can be submitted to the journal on college science teaching.

Howe Writing Center feedback will be solicited in the Summer 2015 to develop the surveys, focus group protocols and interview questions. In the Fall 2015 semester, Input will also be solicited to revise the assignment based on formative assessment, and for reviewing a manuscript based on this project

Team Members

Undergraduate Researchers will be invited to participate in the project. Students who have previously enrolled in the course will be recruited, and will receive credit for their involvement. A graduate student will also be recruited to work on this project for an hour of independent study credit. I would like to involve graduate students, as I intend to develop a graduate seminar to engage them in learning and teaching about effective communication of scientific research. Such a course will be offered during 2016-17.


Summer 2015: Solicit Howe Center feedback and develop assessment instruments.

Fall 2015: Deploy Surveys, Conduct Focus groups and interviews.

Spring/Summer 2015: Develop two manuscripts, based on Project 2 and 3. Prepare abstracts to be submitted for a writing conference (WAC) and a disciplinary conference.


Purchase of 3-4 SONY voice recorders
Most of the funds will be used for travel to conferences