Taking the lead: Dal offers new Certificate in Science Leadership and Communication

- April 3, 2014

The certificate program offers a new credential for Dal students. (Carey Isnor photo)
The certificate program offers a new credential for Dal students. (Carey Isnor photo)

A team of professors in Dalhousie’s Faculty of Science is experimenting with a new program to encourage leadership and communication skills in young scientists.

The faculty is adding a Certificate in Science Leadership and Communication to its programs, becoming the ninth certificate offered to BSc students.

It’s the first program of its kind in the country.

“When we looked at leadership programs across the country, there really doesn’t seem to be anything like this,” says Anne-Marie Ryan, one of the team members behind the new certificate. “We know there are many leadership programs for students, but this one is actually embedded within the sciences.”

Dr. Ryan and her colleagues Lara Gibson, Allison Schmidt and Gabrielle Tompkins MacDonald had a shared interest in a science resource centre for students, an idea for which they had received funding from the university’s DALVision Academic Innovation fund. The idea evolved, though, after connecting with Tim Juckes, a senior instructor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience who was developing a science communications course.

Dr. Ryan says pairing leadership and communications seemed like “an organic fit,” and the idea morphed into a certificate program, offering students a credential they can take with them after they graduate.

“[The certificate] will offer an enriched experience — an added value for students, and creating Dalhousie graduates who will have something extra,” she says.

The underlying assumption of the certificate is that future scientists must be able to effectively explain science to experts and non-experts alike, whether responding to media requests as scientific experts or having simple conversations with next-door neighbours about science-related issues.

“The idea is to enable these students to be better filters and better advocates for science,” says Dr. Ryan.

Plethora of possibilities

The certificate is broken down into five components: leadership skills development, communicating science, ethics in science, understanding the nature of science, and practica in leadership and communication in science.

Students working towards the certificate will complete five half-credit courses, two practica and a portfolio by the time they graduate with their degree. In total, there are 28 courses to choose from spanning 12 departments, from Philosophy to Earth Sciences.

With such an interdisciplinary approach, Biology lecturer Lara Gibson hopes the students can form a common vision.

“That’s something we hope students will get out of this — working together from different perspectives and finding a common voice,” she says.

Students will also be required to take an ethics course, which is one of the most exciting parts for Samantha Moumouris, a first-year Earth Sciences student who transferred from the University of Toronto.

“Anne-Marie is really amazing when she gets us to talk about ethical situations in class and generate discussion,” adds Moumouris. “It’s a lot of fun, especially when you have that many perspectives.”

Moumouris says she sees the benefits in taking the certificate program.

“I think it’s really important for people — especially scientists — to speak within their disciplines and across them,” she says.

Patrick Manion, also a first-year Earth Sciences student, agrees.

“A lot of people, in science especially, don’t know how to communicate, and that’s something we need to work on,” he says.

Breaking barriers

Dr. Ryan says the new certificate isn’t just about skill development. It’s about establishing a sense of community.

“Students can sometimes feel isolated in the mix of all the disciplines,” she said. “This is another reason why our vision is to create a greater community, where there will be more interaction across disciplines and across years within the Life Sciences Centre.”

The program is also an opportunity for students to engage with their counterparts in the humanities. Some classes that count towards the certificate are cross-listed with other disciplines like philosophy or history.

Dr. Schmidt believes it’s important to blend different perspectives.

“When you’re sitting in a 'biology and philosophy' class, you want to have that exchange between philosophers and biologists to enrich the course and to enrich your learning,” she said.

If students’ credits align, Dr. Ryan says the certificate could be attained by students as early as next year. However, she believes it may be a couple of years before the program gains traction, especially among the younger students. Until then, Dr. Ryan and her colleagues will continue engaging students across the disciplines to foster a communicative, collaborative and leadership-driven environment — something students say they’re grateful for.

“I’m super impressed with everything they have to offer, and this is another thing that makes Dal so special,” says Moumouris. “It’s really great they’re reaching out so students can do more with their lives afterwards.”

Learn more: Certificate in Science Leadership and Communication


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