#ProjectedFutures2: My science journalism experience

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Farah Qaiser, Policy and Politics Co-Editor

Over the last few years, science writing, communication and journalism have become popular fields to turn to as careers or as ways for scientists to improve their public engagement skills. With this increased interest, there’s also been a steady increase in the number of workshops, courses and programs available to train scientists to succeed in these fields. In early July, I attended Projected Futures 2, a course aimed at science graduate students interested in exploring science journalism.

This post recaps the key lessons I learned, and my thoughts about Projected Futures 2. I’ve attended similar science communication and journalism training events in the past. For example, I went to a three-day science journalism course, hosted by The Globe & Mail science writer Ivan Semeniuk, at the University of Toronto, that taught graduate students how to pitch, write and interview for science stories. I also took part in a science storytelling workshop by Chris Graham of Tell People that emphasized understanding your audience and providing the right amount of detail to help them understand what you are trying to communicate and why it’s important to them. Aside from my own experiences, I’ve seen a number of other programs pop up, such as the expensive but raved-about Beakerhead Science Communications Program, or — incoming shameless plug — Science Borealis’ own New Science Communicator programs.

But despite being aware of all these programs, I was still surprised by my Projected Futures 2experience.

Dr. David Secko was the course instructor for Projected Futures 2. Image credit

Projected Futures 2 was hosted by Concordia University’s Department of Journalism, in partnership with the World Federation of Science Journalists and the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada. The course was organized and run by Dr. David Secko, who invited guest speakers, including The Globe & Mail health columnist Andre Picard, Le Devoir reporter Amélie Daoust-Boisvert and CTV video journalist and professor Aphrodite Salas, to lead different workshops

The intensive two-week course began on July 1, 2018 with an online introduction to science journalism theory, and by picking a science topic of interest to pitch and write about. In the second week (July 913), the entire Projected Futures 2 cohort arrived at Concordia University, in Montreal, to attend in-person (English) workshops to develop digital skills, complete experiential assignments, and complete a thought experiment about what the future of science journalism could be.

 

The Projected Futures 2 2018 cohort. Image by Daren Zomerman

 

The cohort consisted of 18 individuals, who were mostly science graduate students from across Canada, along with a few working professionals (including a sleep testing specialist, a communications specialist and journalists). While some of my fellow students had little-to-no experience in science journalism, each brought their own unique set of experiences with them, such as podcasting, previously working for a student-run campus newspaper, or simply a passion for science communication. Because we were a small group, we could bounce ideas off of each other and share our experiences (especially what worked and what didn’t when it came to freelance science writing).

While mornings were generally workshops or talks, each afternoon was a new experiential assignment. This is what my second week looked like:

  • Monday – We were thrown headfirst into radio reporting during a simulated Ebola outbreak. We had to navigate conflicting sources (including hospital PR specialists, patients and Ministry of Health representatives) to do live radio broadcasts at intervals — with curve balls such as confidential tips, being forced to retract stories, or losing a radio slot to a competing team thrown in.
  • Tuesday – After learning the principles of visual journalism, Aphrodite Salas gave us a deadline: we had half an hour to film a short Twitter video about why people were interested in science. This may sound simple — but picture a university campus during the summer. It’s practically empty. Thirty minutes can tick by quickly when you’re looking for a willing interviewee!
  • Wednesday – Using easily available tools (a phone, laptop and our creativity), Pauline Dakin had us pair off and record a short (< 5 min) podcast that was conversational, and easily accessible to the public.
  • Thursday – Course attendees were asked to project what the future of science journalism could be (not a big task at all!). How would we address current problems in science journalism, while being realistic?
  • Friday – The course wrapped up, with each group presenting their model for future science journalism, followed by an intense pitch slam.

In other words, each day was a surprise.

Here are some of the most important take-away messages from the speakers:

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Today, science students and scientists have a lot of opportunities to improve their writing and/or communication skills, and Projected Futures 2 is an excellent opportunity to pursue.

Personally, I really enjoyed the experience. Of all the science communication/journalism training events I’ve attended, this is the only one that threw me headfirst into time-sensitive, real-life scenarios and asked me to act on the principles I had learned five minutes ago. I now also know 17 other individuals who are in the early stages of science journalism or communication, and together we can support each other as we navigate these fields. In terms of time, it was worth every minute of the week I took off from the lab.

I believe that these courses are important not only for science students and scientists to improve their communication skills, but to promote public engagement, combat misinformation and to get science out of the lab. It’s also fun and personally rewarding.

Now to address the question you may still be pondering: Is Projected Futures 2 worth it?This course does come with a hefty price tag.* If you are accepted into the course, and have to consider whether the tuition fees are worth it, here’s my take. If you’re a Quebec resident or a France-based graduate student, then yes, I absolutely recommend applying for this course ($358.59).

For Canadian, non-Quebec residents, the cost is $884.77. While there are tuition waivers (and possible financial support from your lab, department or university), this may also be the point where you have to start balancing the pros and cons of attending such a course. I would say that it’s worth every penny if you’re someone new to science communication and journalism. This is a chance to learn about different media, develop the necessary digital skills, build a professional network, and decide if the field could be for you — all in one week. That is priceless.

Lastly, if you’re an international student ($1,873.41), I just can’t recommend the course in good conscience — unless you’re financially secure and don’t mind dipping into your savings! Having said that, the lessons we learned in Projected Futures 2 were not specific to Canada and can certainly be applied anywhere.

But here’s a second opinion. My colleague Brittney explains (perhaps more concisely) what she thought of the experience in a ~50-tweet thread. Spoiler alert: she found the week very exciting.

If you decide not to attend, but want to learn about other avenues for science communication and journalism, here’s a handy Science Borealis blog post to refer to: So You Want To SciComm?

But if you do take the plunge and join a future Projected Future cohort, then welcome to science journalism! You’re in for a very intense week, but you’ll enjoy every minute and will walk out with a more comprehensive understanding of what it takes to be a science journalist.

~30~

*Disclosure: I received a tuition waiver to attend this course. I also received an accommodation waiver, as did almost all-of-the Projected Futures 2 cohort.

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