#MySciComm: Jennifer Purrenhage on teaching undergrads as SciComm

This week, Dr. Jennifer Purrenhage, our SciComm Section Secretary, responds to the #MySciComm questions!

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Jennifer Purrenhage in Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, Maine (photo by Elizabeth Hooper)

Jennifer is a lecturer in wildlife ecology and environmental conservation at the University of New Hampshire, and the current Secretary of the Science Communication Section of ESA. She emphasizes the study and practice of science communication and engagement in all her courses, and puts her own communication skills to use both as an educator and through her work with local non-profit organizations. Jennifer is also the founder of an organic tea company, and lives in the New Hampshire seacoast with her partner Danny and their two dogs Keeley and Gordon. Connect with Jennifer via email or her website.

The #MySciComm series features a host of SciComm professionals. We’re looking for more contributors, so please get in touch if you’d like to write a post!

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Okay, Jennifer…

1) How did you get into the kind of SciComm that you do?

I was raised in a family that values language, conversation, and an appreciation for nature.

My mother was a high school English teacher before entering the publishing industry, and she later transitioned to a career in medical writing and education. I am grateful for her example as a communicator, and for her love of the Romantic-Transcendentalists. I still return to these writings, especially Emerson and Thoreau, for a sense of groundedness.

My father also had a career in publishing, and to this day he remains insatiably curious. He is a self-taught naturalist and a serious birder. My father and I spent much of my early years canoeing, examining caterpillars, and dissecting owl pellets. I was given countless opportunities to cultivate my curiosity and understanding of the natural world.

My love of teaching and research began in high school.

As a freshman at Sparta High School in New Jersey, I serendipitously landed in Prof. Amend’s Biology class. Prof. Amend was a gifted teacher, and I took every class he offered, including a course in Human Ecology. Studying with Prof. Amend inspired me to join our environmental outreach club (Save Our Surroundings). Along with a handful of other club members, I researched the major environmental issues of the time. Through the club, I learned to speak to middle school science classes about ozone depletion and recycling. These early outreach experiences were very personal and extremely low tech. It was 1991, so there was no impressive technology available to share our message. It was just us – a group of high school juniors speaking passionately about how we humans impact our environment.

Following graduation, I migrated from New Jersey to the University of Wisconsin to continue my studies. There, I briefly detoured into psychology, but during sophomore year I rediscovered my roots. Ultimately, I earned a B.S. in Wildlife Ecology and Biological Aspects of Conservation. While at UW, I worked part time as a naturalist, guiding school and community groups on nature tours at a local conservation area. I was comfortable teaching about nature and the environment thanks to my childhood immersion in nature and my outreach practice in high school. And I loved it.

I spent a few years as a nomadic field tech, working on songbird, raptor, native plant, and amphibian and reptile monitoring projects throughout the midwestern and northeastern U.S. My fieldwork was punctuated by stints as an environmental educator. I loved moving from place to place, gathering experiences with different species, systems, and colleagues.

I was happy working on other people’s projects right up until the moment I fell in love with salamanders.

That’s when I discovered that I wanted to pursue my own questions. So, I headed off to graduate school to study amphibians.

I completed my M.S. in Biology at the University of Akron, on an NSF GK-12 fellowship. I studied salamander population genetics, while also earning a graduate certificate in postsecondary education. My education studies included formal coursework and an internship in a fifth-grade classroom. I spent one or two days each week, over three years, working in K-12 classrooms. I developed classroom lessons and brought fifth graders into the field to monitor pond-breeding salamanders. I co-organized inquiry-based education workshops and mentored a fifth-grade teacher as she completed a field experiment over the summer. During my time at UA, I studied and practiced science communication with diverse audiences and goals. This was an invaluable period in my academic experience.

Throughout grad school, I was more focused on research than teaching. But, I look back at these formative communication experiences with gratitude.

I went on to earn my Ph.D. in Ecology from Miami University–Ohio. While at Miami, I taught a lot. I also volunteered for community outreach opportunities. I was a visiting scientist in elementary school classrooms. I guided river ecology rafting trips. I spoke to community groups about amphibian conservation.

During this time, I began to question the role I wanted to play as a scientist.

As much as I loved doing research, I often felt far more energized by the communication and outreach aspects of my work. As a postdoctoral researcher at the University of New Hampshire, I continued to study amphibian communities, but at the same time, I gravitated towards any teaching and speaking opportunities that arose. I started teaching one or two classes each semester. I was invited to speak to graduate teaching assistants about inquiry-based instruction. Slowly, my research postdoc evolved to include more and more teaching.

During my third year as a postdoc, I chose to fully focus on teaching ecology.

UNH didn’t have an appropriate job opening for me at the time, so I applied to a full-time teaching position in California. When I was offered the position in California, UNH asked me to stay for another year as a teaching postdoc because they anticipated a teaching position opening up the next year.

I stayed at UNH, and during that year as a teaching postdoc I taught approximately 1,000 students across four different courses. One year later, I applied for a teaching faculty position in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment at UNH. I interviewed, along with five other candidates. The interview process involved a comprehensive application packet, meetings with faculty and the search committee, and a public presentation about pedagogy and my teaching philosophy. It was rigorous, but I felt confident given the diverse experiences I had acquired and the enthusiasm I had for teaching about ecology and conservation. I was offered the faculty position in August 2013, and I’ve been teaching at UNH ever since.

I am a Lecturer in Wildlife & Conservation Biology, and my philosophy and style of teaching allow me to practice and teach science communication daily.

During my first few years “lecturing,” I exclusively taught environmental conservation to large groups of non-majors. I now realize that was a crash course in science communication and engagement. I was determined to help my students become better receivers of science information. And this intention made me their primary communicator and the curator of other science communicators. I developed my courses around the resources we have available as citizens. I replaced textbooks with popular and peer-reviewed articles, news stories, TED talks, and web resources. In my classes, we focus on what we can learn from different sources of information and how to consume information critically. We discuss the idea that science communication requires effective communicators and engaged receivers of information.

For many students in my ‘Contemporary Conservation Issues’ and ‘Extinction’ classes, mine will be their only course in environmental conservation. This is a huge responsibility, and I take it seriously. Perhaps more than anything else, I want the students in my non-majors courses to understand the nature of science and the nature of their implicit biases. I aim to equip them with tools that they can use throughout their lives to separate opinion from evidence-based knowledge.

We follow a similar model in my courses geared specifically for Wildlife and Conservation Biology majors, but we also study the theory of science communication. We spend significant time discussing and practicing effective forms of communication with different audiences. And, we explore the evolving role and responsibility of scientists as communicators.

Currently, my SciComm is focused on teaching the importance of science communication and guiding young scientists to improve their communication skills and develop their own communication style. Additionally, I do development and engagement for a local wildlife rehabilitation and education non-profit organization, and I am working with a group of graduate students to organize a science communication working group at UNH.

I look forward to the next phase of my SciComm, beginning with my new role as Secretary of the Science Communication Section of the Ecological Society of America.

2) What are your top 3 SciComm tips and/or resources?

1. Start where you are. If you’re already teaching science, treat that experience like a masterclass in science communication.

I teach wildlife ecology and conservation biology to over 500 majors and non-majors every year, and I still question whether I am a science communicator. It’s so easy to think that my job title and where I work means I’m an educator, not a ‘science communicator.’ But, we need to remember that science communication is not any one thing. If you spend your days preparing lectures, discussions, and other learning experiences to engage and share information with an audience, then you are absolutely communicating science. And, if you still believe that ‘science communication’ looks different from what you’ve been doing in the classroom, then change what you’re doing in the classroom. Most of us have considerable freedom to communicate, in any way we like, with our students. Take advantage of that opportunity to communicate science.

2. Stay present and authentic in all communication. Ultimately, our confidence and effectiveness as communicators boils down to our ability to understand and relate to an audience. And I believe that our ability to make true connections depends on being present. Being present can mean many things, but you might think of it as a moment-to-moment awareness of where you are and who you are, and who you are with. It is easy to shift into ‘writer’ mode or ‘performer’ mode, but staying there too long can be the enemy of great communication. We risk losing our sense of who we’re communicating with, as well as our individual strengths for communicating a specific story. And, if we get lost for too long, we may also lose our audience.

3. Stay curious, and keep learning beyond your area of expertise. One thing I love about ecologists is our propensity for seeing relationships between all things. This superpower positions us to invite audiences into our world from seemingly distant points of connection. The more we learn about the cultural, sociological, political, physical, and artistic layers of our world, the more easily we can connect people to scientific phenomena.

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