Organizations are increasingly relying on data-driven approaches to change their current practices. Recognizing this trend, the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication requires that all undergraduate students understand the basics of science communication research methodology.
“Because we encounter data every day in our life, we need to know the best way to collect, analyze, and communicate data, no matter what field you are in,” says Kaiping Chen, assistant professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication (LSC).
Chen teaches LSC 250: Research Methods in the Communication Industry, an undergraduate core curriculum course that teaches students the stages of different research processes, such as surveys and focus groups. Students also learn how to analyze and translate data into reports for expert and lay audiences as the class features a semester-long final project where students utilize the knowledge and skills they gained in a real-world setting.
This past semester students worked with a local client for the assignment, the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW). PDPW is dairy’s professional development organization that focuses on producer professionalism, stakeholder engagement, and unified outreach. Each year PDPW holds a business conference to promote engagement between dairy farmers, food marketers and distributors, and other agribusiness professionals.
Students in LSC 250 worked in groups to examine specific components of the conference, such as pre-show marketing or booth design, to improve public engagement with different stakeholders in the dairy industry. Students also used what they learned in the classroom to evaluate and expand an existing survey used by the PDPW. They also analyzed survey data from previous years and presented their findings to the client.
“Learning how to organize and lead a [research] group was probably the most important skill I learned in this project,” says LSC undergraduate Janel Hutchinson. This includes following the various steps of the scientific process, such as formulating research questions, collecting data, running analyses, and presenting findings.
Many students felt that working with a client showed the importance of data science to enhancing communication. “The statistical analysis portion of the course was very beneficial as it allowed us to make sense of the data in terms of what the responses meant to PDPW and their future expos,” says LSC undergraduate Emily Hoffins.
Responses to the students’ work demonstrate how valuable social science research is for successful collaboration between researchers and practitioners. Shelly Mayer, executive director of PDPW, was impressed by the quality of each group’s work. “The questions that [the students] were asking are questions we’ve pondered, but probably haven’t done a very effective job of diving into,” she says.
Chen hopes that students continue to apply this experience and class content from LSC 250 as future communicators and scientists. “I want them to know that they have the knowledge and skills to advance society and push forward the Wisconsin idea,” she says.