In Sudbury in the 1980s, at a time when most teens were looking forward to getting their driver’s license, 16-year-old Chantal Barriault was excited about a new job at Science North. Decked out in a lab coat and comfortable shoes, the teen guided school groups through the interactive museum in northern Ontario, introducing kids to flying squirrels, creepy crawlers and the region’s iconic bedrock geology. This humble, hands-on gig sparked a 30-year career communicating the intricacies of science to the public. It also inadvertently led to the creation of a new master’s program in science communication this past fall at Laurentian University – reportedly the first in Canada and one of just a handful in the world.
Dr. Barriault made it her mission to create the graduate program after earning a master’s in science communication from the University of Glamorgan (now South Wales) in 1998. “The entire time I was in Wales – every course I took, every experience I had, every prof I met – I made notes about how this would work in Sudbury with Science North and Laurentian,” she says.
A major hurdle has been the relative infancy of science communication as a scholarly field. With earth science professor David Pearson, founding director of Science North and a media commentator on environmental issues, Dr. Barriault co-launched a multidisciplinary graduate diploma program at Laurentian in 2005, which drew on experts from Science North and from Laurentian’s computer science, philosophy and English departments. “It raised a few eyebrows but it also created awareness of the idea [of science communication] within the university,” Dr. Pearson recalls.
The program offered an option for students that the co-directors perceived as being at a frustrating crossroads. “Talking with undergraduates in science, you would often get this response: ‘With my degree I either become a researcher or I go to teacher’s college,’” Dr. Barriault says. “They didn’t see any other opportunity.” Graduates of the diploma program have gone on to work at various publications, museums, science centres and research facilities, including the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, and TRIUMF in Vancouver.
The curriculum is continually adapted to match the evolution of communication technologies and social media. “There’s been a broadening of my understanding of what ‘public’ is and what ‘engagement’ is,” Dr. Barriault acknowledges. “It’s much more of a dialogue, two-way involvement, than just talking at people.”
After pursuing a PhD in science education from Curtin University in Australia, Dr. Barriault dedicated herself to pushing Laurentian’s diploma program into a one-year accredited master’s degree. The master’s was approved last year and the first cohort will be admitted this coming September.
Dr. Barriault already has her sights set on a doctoral program in the field. It would be only the second in the world, she says. In the meantime, she is content knowing that the program is seeding the Canadian landscape with needed expertise in science communication.
By way of example, Dr. Pearson points to the way in which the program has regularly paired the science communication students with biology students. Together they work on presentations that outline the biologist’s work in a way that will engage a lay audience, such as an animated video or even, in one memorable instance, by having the student sing about her research.
Biology professor John Gunn, who teaches the research skills course within his department, has witnessed the significant impact that these partnerships have had on the way his students talk about their work, even at highly technical conferences. He recounts, for example, how at a Canadian Society of Limnology and Fisheries meeting last year, a colleague from another university told him: “You can really tell a Laurentian presentation.”