What single concept or skill do you feel is most important for your students to learn, and what is your approach to teaching it?
The need to open as wide as possible their “lens” for science news. My students are scientists and engineers who, by virtue of their training, come to science writing with a narrow topic focus. I have them read the daily Sigma Xi SmartBrief, and I give a weekly science-news quiz. (This has the added benefit of getting students to class on time because there’s no makeup if they miss the quiz.) They groan about this at first. By the end of the course, most tell me that scanning science-news headlines is now an engrained part of their daily routine and helps them find story ideas.
What specific skills-related experiences outside the classroom do you think are most important for students to have in their training?
Science writers do not join professional associations (NASW, SEJ, AMWA, local press club) early enough in their careers, or else they shortchange themselves if all they do is pay their dues and read the newsletter. It is through committee and leadership involvement that individuals build a network and gain intangible skills (such as project management, negotiation, public speaking) that will advance their careers. Volunteering is also a way to give back so that there continues to be a profession of science writing.
What have you learned in your own career that you most hope to convey to your students?
Once you write it, it is no longer yours. Keeping this in mind cushions your ego, making it less threatening to hand over copy for critique from colleagues or editors.
What textbooks and other reading do you use in your teaching?
Half of my students seek to make a career change to science writing; the others plan to remain bench researchers but desire to be better science communicators. Therefore, I use The Science Writers’ Handbook and Explaining Research in my teaching. Exposure to both books also leads to healthy classroom discussions about the goals, challenges, and responsibilities of those gathering news and those serving as science communicators.
What resources do you wish were more readily available for students?
Pitch slams for students. I regularly invite to my class the managing editor of a radio program on science (The Loh Down on Science) who is all too happy to give students this experience. Yes, these budding writers are visibly nervous about making their 60-second pitch, but they consistently rise to the occasion. Many receive their first paid assignments. Several are still writing for the show years later.
What is a science story that you admire, and why?
“The Secret Life of Seals,” Los Angeles Times (March 5, 2010). This is writing that includes all of the senses. I could smell the animals, feel sand blown into my eyes, taste salt in the air, and feel my palms sweat contemplating a near encounter with a rogue bull.