MTSU Faculty, Students Publish Innovative Science Communication Research

Biology professor Liz Barnes and her team of student and faculty biology education researchers at MTSU’s Social Perceptions of Science Lab recently published a novel study about undergraduate biology students’ ability to communicate effectively to their community about COVID-19.

“To start, we reviewed the literature about undergraduate biology students serving as science communicators about COVID,” Barnes said. “There was no real research documenting if they were doing this effectively, so that helped develop our project’s focus.”

Undergraduates Elizabeth Wybren, Mariana de Araujo Bryan, Thipphaphone Niravong and Chloe Bowen, recent doctoral graduate Brock Couch and associate professor Ying Jin made up the research team with Barnes.

The project began in fall 2020 with $2,000 in initial funding through the university’s Undergraduate Research Experience and Creative Activity, or URECA, grant. As the research continued with data collection in spring 2021 and data analysis in summer 2021, undergraduates earned an additional $8,000 in URECA funds for their work.

Barnes called the URECA program’s support of undergraduate researchers amazing.

“I’ve never seen a program give that much support to undergraduate students,” Barnes said. “The students didn’t require jobs outside of their research to sustain their needs. They were able to focus a lot more on the project, which directly improved the robustness and the quality of the research being done.”

The research was published here this summer in the Frontiers in Education journal and has currently been read by over 1,300 people. The study surveyed over 500 undergraduate biology students on how often they were serving as science communicators about COVID-19 and if they were using effective science communication principles.

Results indicated that even though students were communicating often, they were not always using effective communication strategies, Barnes said.

“The most effective ways to communicate COVID science information include being respectful of people’s views, listening to their concerns and finding areas of common ground. Not very many students were using these strategies, which indicated this is an important area for educators to develop in the future,” she explained.

Barnes called the research foundational and a springboard for future projects and the creation of formal training materials for best science communication practices, hopefully funded by a National Science Foundation grant that she is currently writing proposals for.

Originally from Phoenix, Arizona, Barnes is passionate about training science students and instructors to be effective science communicators.

“I think a lot of us can agree that scientists have been ineffective in their communication for topics like COVID-19 or climate change,” she said. “Part of the reason that might be is because none of them ever receive any kind of formal training for how to communicate about these topics.”

Undergraduate research opportunities

Aside from the research being the first of its kind, it created the opportunity for a lot of student development.

“All of these undergraduates ended up as published authors on the manuscripts that they were part of from the beginning,” Barnes said. “They presented this work to the community at different conferences across the country and won multiple awards.”

Chloe Bowen, who created data visualizations for the research and recently earned her bachelor’s degree in biology, said she loved being part of important research that was needed during the time that COVID vaccines first became available.

“Our research can help inform how students are currently communicating about COVID-19 vaccines with others and how instructors can help improve students’ ability to be effective science communicators,” Bowen said.

Bowen said Barnes and the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs were important supports of her undergraduate research experiences.

“Dr. Barnes is always encouraging and provides great advice … and has allowed opportunities for me to step out of my comfort zone, which has helped me both inside and outside of the lab!” Bowen said. “And, the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs has provided funding for three of the projects I’ve been part of via URECA grants.”

To get involved in the Social Perceptions of Science lab, email Barnes at Liz.Barnes@mtsu.edu.

To learn more about the university’s undergraduate research opportunities, visit the Undergraduate Research Center website https://www.mtsu.edu/urc/index.php or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/urcmtsu/.

Middle Tennessee State University undergraduate researchers Thipphaphone Niravong, left, Mariana de Araujo Bryan, center, and Elizabeth Wybren present innovative research about effective science communication that they contributed to at the university’s spring 2021 Scholar’s Week research exposition event on campus. (Photo courtesy of Liz Barnes)
Elizabeth Wybren, Middle Tennessee State University undergraduate researcher, presents innovative research about effective science communication that she contributed to the National Association of Biology Teachers conference in November 2021 in Atlanta, Ga., for which she won an undergraduate research poster competition award. (Photo courtesy of Liz Barnes)
Biology education researchers and students from Middle Tennessee State University’s Social Perceptions of Science lab research the public’s attitudes toward controversial science topics. A few of these lab members, some of them pictured here celebrating at a holiday party in winter 2021, recently completed innovative research about effective COVID-19 communication. Standing, from left, are Chloe Bowen, Thipphaphone Niravong, Madeline Aadnes, Mariana de Araujo Bryan, Alexa Summersill, biology professor and head of the lab Liz Barnes, Barnes’ son, Owen Jackson, and Rahmi Aini. (Photo courtesy of Liz Barnes)

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