Have you ever played the telephone game? In this game a phrase is whispered from one person to another with the players trying to repeat the phrase exactly the same. By the time the phrase makes it to the other end of the line it is often altered, sometimes dramatically so. The same can also happen to research as it is transmitted from a peer-reviewed scientific article to the popular media, such as a magazine or newspaper. One explanation for alterations to the research story is that scientists use language with lots of jargon and scientists often use many words that are qualifiers. Qualifiers are words that limit or enhance the meaning of another word. Most often when scientists use them it is to explain the scope and limits of their findings. All-in-all the language of science is significantly different from the language the news media uses to communicate with the public and the weight that is given to different terms and phrases varies between the two.
I think that science communication is an important concept for students who are training to be scientists to both ponder and explore. Thus I developed a team-based learning activity to walk students through the exploration of a scientific research article and the news media reporting on the findings. The main learning objectives of this exercise are for students to:
- Analyze the transmission of information from scientific publication to news media.
- Identify absolute versus qualified statements.
- Differentiate different organisms from bryophytes.
An additional goal of this exercise was to introduce students, potentially for the first time, to a scientific research article. Reading peer-reviewed research from beginning to end can be intimidating for science students. This activity has students explore the research article for information to compare to the news articles, resulting in students both learning how to find information in scientific papers and how to ground-truth science that is reported in the media.
If you are interested in trying out this activity with your students I posted the materials that you will need online, via Google Drive. Included in the materials is a detailed lesson plan, as well as a pre- and post- assessment (with a key) to measure student learning from the activity. Alternatively this activity can be modified to focus on any scientific paper from your field that has been covered in multiple news articles.
The article that I used for this exercise was a publication studying whether migrating birds may be responsible for moving pieces of bryophytes from northern arctic regions to the far southern reaches of South America.
The research article can be downloaded for free at the link below.
The news articles covering this research are at BBC Nature News, Audubon Magazine, Science Magazine, UConn Today, and Alaska Dispatch News.
If you use this activity with your students, it would be great to hear your thoughts about the exercise in the comments section below the post!