The Columns

Science, Journalism Profs Join Forces to Teach Space Travel

— by on March 8th, 2010

How are new college courses created?

In the case of Topics in Public Science: Space Travel, at Washington and Lee University, it all started at a brown bag lunch hosted by W&L’s journalism department in 2004.

One of the invitees was W&L chemistry professor Steve Desjardins, who happened to mention his interest in how journalists cover science.

The idea resonated with Brian Richardson, head of the department of journalism and mass communications and a former print and TV journalist.

In the winter term of 2006, the chemist and the journalist team-taught a course on science journalism. They chose not to focus on any particular area of science, but the students’ focus was unmistakable.

“To our surprise,” said Desjardins, “it was when we began to discuss the U.S. space program and space travel that everybody just lit up.”

So that is how the course they are teaching this winter term of 2010 was born, and how they’ve settled into an interesting conversation about science and journalism with one another and with their students.

As the syllabus explains, the course focuses on the history and scientific and technical challenges of human and unmanned space travel as well as the approaches news media have taken in covering U.S. space travel and exploration. They start with lectures on how a rocket works and move through the space race.

Each week, Desjardins gives the Monday lecture, offering technical background on the issue at hand. On Wednesday, Richardson leads the students through the media’s coverage of the story under discussion. Then, on Friday, the students either take a quiz on the material or must turn in (they don’t write on deadline) a spot news story based on the information the professors have presented.

There is no textbook but plenty of resources, including videos of the late Walter Cronkite anchoring CBS-TV’s coverage of many of the major events in the history of the U.S. space program, from John Glenn’s orbital flight to the Apollo 11 moon landing.

“One of the difficulties that journalists face with many fields of science is that only the breakthroughs become publicly accessible. The day-to-day work is not easily available,” said Desjardins. “But space exploration is different. Few technical subjects have been covered as extensively as the space program. With space exploration, we saw it develop step by step.”

Richardson acknowledged that he and Desjardins have had several a-ha moments as they’ve presented the material to the students.

“I was talking about some aspect of the technology and mentioned the scientists using their slide rules. The blank stares of the students were stunning,” said Richardson. “Slide rules? They had no idea what I meant. But that’s also been true of much of the material about the space race. Steve and I grew up with the space program. We knew the astronauts’ names. We watched the successes and failures. These students were not even born when Challenger exploded in 1986.”

In many respects, Richardson says, the issue that he and Desjardins are facing is similar to what the journalists confront when reporting science.

“Just as we are doing in this class, the journalist has to ask, ‘How much can I assume the audience knows already?’ You really have to decide where you can start the conversation,” said Richardson.

From his standpoint, Desjardins sympathizes with the journalist’s task in interpreting science and hopes that a course of this sort can help.

“Science is not well done in sound bites,” said Desjardins. “If you want to understand how a television works, not just the general concept, but if you want to understand it well enough to have an intelligent argument about it, it takes two years, not five minutes. If people had never seen computers, imagine trying to argue the existence of microchips in five minutes. It’s a really difficult problem, especially since the audience is not as technically literate as you’d like.”

Richardson knew the course had promise when he and Desjardins made a presentation about it to a group of W&L science alumni.

“They all wanted to come back and take the course,” Richardson said. “When you hear that, you know you’re onto something.”

Too, both faculty members say their ability to teach a course of this type underscores the value of talking across disciplines in formal ways and in informal interactions such as a brown bag lunch.

“We do this rather casually at Washington and Lee, but it’s because we value it; we value the interaction of people from different departments,” Desjardins said. “That kind of interaction has to be viewed favorably at all levels. The worst message you can send is, ‘Don’t waste your time talking to one another.”