Science and social media course cuts across disciplines

Science and Social Media. Einstein writes equations and social media icons on chalkboard

The internet is transforming the relationship between science and society. Open-access peer-reviewed journals, scientific blogs and online scientific communities have made science more accessible than ever. At the same time, the ease of online searching and ubiquity of social media has fostered the spread of misinformation and pseudoscience. As a result, social media literacy is increasingly important within the sphere of science.

This spring, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication is offering a graduate course examining the complex interplay between science and social media. LSC 875: Science and Social Media explores how social media are shaping the institution of science and how these changes are affecting scientific knowledge, public attitudes toward science and the environment, and science as a profession.

“Social media is changing the enterprise of science,” says LSC associate professor and director of graduate studies Bret Shaw. “As more and more people turn to online sources to get information about science, it’s crucial that we consider how social media are impacting the discourse.”

In the course, taught by LSC professor and chair Dominique Brossard, students from the bench sciences and social sciences are engaging in social media settings, gaining familiarity with the latest research on science and social media, and learning how to effectively communicate about science in new media environments.

“I appreciate being able to engage in discussions that synthesize both the theoretical underpinnings and practical implications surrounding the communication of science on social media,” says Chris Wirz, an LSC Ph.D. student taking LSC 875 this spring.

In addition, the course encourages interdisciplinarity, and students will conduct original research on a topic of their choice at the intersection of science and social media.

In the past, one group of LSC 875 students—three students from the atmospheric sciences and three from the social sciences—investigated how real temperatures influence the climate change discourse on Twitter. They examined how temperature levels related to Tweets using the term “climate change” versus Tweets using the term “global warming.” The students developed this research into a paper that was published in the Journal of Science Communication in October, 2017 and will be presented at the Public Communication of Science and Technology Conference in New Zealand in April, 2018.

LSC 875 is of particular interest to doctoral students minoring in life sciences communication because it allows students to supplement their existing Ph.D. coursework with knowledge that will help them communicate about science in today’s ever-changing online ecosystem.

“Most scientists are not trained to use social media, and learning to leverage the potential of social media in LSC 875 can give up-and-coming scientists a leg up,” says Brossard.

Illustration: Dusan Petricic for The Scientist