Class teaches students to navigate the intersections of science and society

LSC students are learning the impacts of scientific breakthroughs at the interface of science and society in LSC 251: Science, Media, and Society.

Dietram Scheufele, John E. Ross Professor in Science Communication, lectures to his large class of LSC 251 students.
Dietram Scheufele, John E. Ross Professor in Science Communication, lectures to his large class of LSC 251 students.

“We live in a world where scientific breakthroughs such as nanoscience or synthetic biology bring applications to the marketplace much quicker than ever before,” said professor Dietram Scheufele, who teaches the class this semester. “These applications raise ethical, legal and societal questions that are sometimes difficult to answer.”

The questions posed in the class are current and relevant to students involved in LSC.

“I think the class is really communicating the relationship between science and society and giving us the words by which we can describe the existing disconnect,” said junior Enoch Ajayi. “Overall the relationship between science and society is important to study because a lot of policy decisions, improvements in medical services, health and technology models, and even public behavior all depend on the social implications of science.”

The class was designed as a requirement for LSC majors and gives prospective LSC undergraduates a chance to see what the major is all about.

“Another reason this class is important is that being able to communicate science, or indeed any subject, to any unwelcoming group is an invaluable skill,” Ajayi added. “Learning how people make decisions and learning to tailor information differently as a result is something we can use regardless of our prospective fields.”

The class is open to all majors and this year has students from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, as well as a number of other colleges. This makes for a very diverse set of viewpoints in both online and offline discussions, said Scheufele. The class also fulfills the university’s social science requirement.

For Sarah Clifford, an LSC and biology sophomore, the class is full of “Aha!” moments.

“The most interesting thing I’ve learned so far this semester is just how closely tied life sciences communication, especially in the context of LSC 251, is linked to sociology,” she said. “We’ve been learning about all the mental shortcuts that the public makes when interpreting complex science. I think this sociological aspect makes the role of a communicator far more interesting and complex than it seems on the surface.”

As the class tackles many issues such as ‘how to make sense of new technologies without fully understanding them’ and ‘how to get citizens participating in these processes,” LSC 251 helps students discuss the importance of communicating.

“Unless we sort out the issues students discuss in LSC 251 as a country, we’ll face an uphill battle as far as tech transfer and our global leadership in terms of science and society are concerned,” said Dominique Brossard, the chair of LSC. “Students in CALS and beyond have to be exposed to these concepts in order to be competitive in the marketplace.”

LSC and dietetics major Nikki Rasmussen said she leaves every lecture feeling inspired and motivated to pursue her new passion.

“I fell in love with science in middle school but always wore blinders,” she explained. “I thought science was strictly a white lab coat, microscopes, and chemicals. I’d been completely ignorant to the fact that science impacts policy, social groups, ethics, religion, and people’s everyday lives. I think it’s amazing. I grew up wanting to be that scientist in the lab, but now I want to be that science communicator that educates, learns, changes and moves the relationship between science and society.”