Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session

What this Course is About

Science is the most highly specialized form of knowledge we possess. But science also sells, and sells well - in newspapers, magazines, popular books, radio programs, TV documentaries, films, plays, exhibitions and new media. In these and other ways, science is constantly communicated far beyond the confines of the academy and the laboratory.

This course considers the importance of popular science communication - for working scientists, for science policy makers and funding agencies, and for citizens whose lives are affected by scientific research and its practical applications. We shall look at the wide range of people who are involved in communicating science, asking questions like: what motivates these people to popularize science, and what challenges, opportunities and pitfalls do they face in the process? We shall also explore why non-scientists care about what is going on in science. What prior interest, knowledge, attitudes and expectations do so-called lay people bring to their encounters with science? And what do they hope to take away from the experience?

Starting with questions like these, we shall construct a picture of the complex and frequently difficult relationship between science and the public. Then we shall look at some different forms of popular science communication - journalism, creative writing, radio programs, films and museum displays. Each form of science communication presents particular challenges, and these will be explored with the help of guest practitioners who have professional expertise in particular media. Finally, we shall apply what we've learnt to a series of case studies: a famous public debate about recombinant DNA technology in the 1970s; an equally famous public debate about genetically modified food in the 1990s; and the current debates about stem cell research and 'Intelligent Design'.

Throughout, the course will combine 'theory' and 'practice'. Students will learn about how science communication is supposed to work ('theory'), and at the same time they will have the opportunity to discover for themselves just what is involved in presenting science to non-specialist audiences ('practice'). The MIT Museum will be used as an experimental laboratory for the practical work, providing students with opportunities to join in the processes of program and exhibit development. Students will also have the chance to contribute to an iCampus project designed to create a new multi-user educational game based around exploration of science and society issues with the help of hand-held electronic devices.

What this Course Aims to Do

  1. To provide an introduction to popular science communication in the broader contexts of (a) the role of communication in science, and (b) public perceptions of science and technology;
  2. To provide intellectual resources for constructive critical analysis of popular science communication in a variety of real-world contexts;
  3. To cultivate practical skills in popular science communication, through hands-on projects at the MIT Museum (including collaboration in POSIT, an iCampus initiative to develop an innovative interactive educational electronic game around a topical issue in science, technology and society);
  4. To explore the distinctive nature of science communication through journalism, creative writing, radio, TV and museums;
  5. To explore popular science communication through a series of case studies of science, technology and society issues in the public domain.

What this Course Requires

The course will meet for one 3 hour lecture/seminar per week. In addition, there are two required Saturday classes focused on practical learning, both to be held at the MIT museum. These Saturday classes will substitute for two of our usual weekday classes.

The course has four main components: 'Principles', 'Practice' and 'Case Studies' are three sequential elements; and a 'Practical Project' element runs throughout the semester. Key texts required for individual sessions should be read prior to the class.

There are two required texts for the course:

Buy at Amazon Gregory, J., and S. Miller. Science in Public: Communication Culture and Credibility. New York, NY: Plenum Press, 1998. ISBN: 9780306458606.

Buy at Amazon Chittenden, D., G. Farmelo, and B. V. Lewenstein, eds. Creating Connections: Museums and the Public Understanding of Current Research. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2004. ISBN: 9780759104761.

Additional readings are either available on-line or will be handed out in class in a timely fashion.


All students taking this course will be asked to develop a significant practical project of their own in science communication; individual guidance will be provided. The final project counts for 40% of the final grade. The remaining 60% will be assessed on the basis of class participation, a take-home midterm exam, and mini-research projects and presentations. See course calendar for details.

Class Participation 20%
Take-home Midterm Exam 25%
Mini-research Projects and Presentations 15%
Final Project 40%