Today’s lecturers are challenged not only to balance their hard and soft skills but also to create a highly-effective team communication while working on their projects. The success of courses, the launch of Master’s programs and admissions campaigns, the demand for scientific and educational projects largely depends on a person's ability to be savvy in the world of information opportunities.

To help them solve these tasks, ITMO University and the Vladimir Potanin Foundation launched a program for professional training in December 2020. The Science Communication in Higher Education course is designed specially for professors and employees of Russian universities – scholars and grantees of the Foundation.

“2020 had posed new challenges to the world. All of us, and universities are no exception, had to prove our ability to adapt every day. The crisis has highlighted the importance of well-built communication. This way, if university lecturers know how to promote their ideas and best practices, as well as discuss their educational products with their colleagues, community, and students, it will have a positive impact not only on their projects but also on the university’s development. That’s why the Foundation has come up with an idea to create a program for professional training to support our grantees and scholars. We’re glad that our colleagues from ITMO’s Center for Science Communication not only supported the idea but also managed to develop a full-fledged and insightful course on such short notice. The pilot course brought together lecturers who wonthe Foundation’s grant competition and our scholars, who decided to link their lives with higher education and are now working at universities,” says Natalia Shulgina, Program Director of the Vladimir Potanin Foundation.

Natalia Shulgina
Natalia Shulgina

“This is not our first joint project with the Foundation but the first one completely devoted to science communication,” says Daria Denisova, head of ITMO’s Center for Science Communication. “We had a unique opportunity to work with the graduates of the Vladimir Potanin programs. In November, we agreed on all the details, developed a program, found tutors, and invited experts. But it became even more challenging later: when we decided to launch a large-scale program in such difficult times, we knew we’d have to fight for each and every participant and keep our expectations low. But the results were above all our expectations. In just a few hours, we received up to 50 applications, and in total – over 250 applications.”

Time zones and mind maps

Daria Denisova adds that both young lecturers and experienced professors expressed interest in the course.

“As there were a lot of applications from both the universities of the 5-100 Project and small regional universities, we were able to create unique groups,” she says. “Once again, we saw that science communication is for everyone. The hardest part was to draw up a schedule for participants from different time zones.”

Daria Denisova
Daria Denisova

It’s difficult to grasp content – even the most useful one – without any feedback and some people are now experiencing Zoom fatigue. These factors can affect the effectiveness of training. That’s why the organizers relied heavily on the tutors and experts in science communication, who supervised the work of the participants in small teams, helped them set studying goals, and also answered their questions during the course.

The tutor’s team consisted of professors and invited experts from ITMO’s Center for Science Communication, including Natalia Ros, Yana Dolzhanskaya, Anastasia Komarova, Ilia Staheev, Alena Gureva, and Anfisa Rodionova.

“We’re proud of the course’s structure and program. At the end of the year, people are usually having problems with long concentration; that’s why we strived to come up with an inspiring and practice-oriented program. It included three major aspects: science communication (goals, tasks, and stakeholders), media and communication strategies, and creative practices for working with audiences,” shares Daria Denisova. 

The Third Forum of Science Communicators, 2019
The Third Forum of Science Communicators, 2019

All invited experts were asked to analyze the most relevant techniques and trends, as well as compile interesting and even somehow provocative examples for discussions. The participants had the chance to work on their communication strategies together with such ITMO specialists as Anna Veklich, head of Strategic Communications Department, Alyona Gupaisova, deputy head of Strategic Communications Department, and Aleksandr Gostev, deputy head of the Event Management Office. They could think about a personal brand in science with Egor Zadereev, a limnologist and science popularizer, learn more about communities and creative projects with the curator Olga Remneva, and also practice popular science talks with Venera Shakirova, who trains Science Slam participants.

The co-founder of AKSON Aleksandra Borisova and the sociologist Andrey Kozhanov covered the topics of citizen science and the sociology of science. The program also included a module in soft skills, which are essential for those engaged in science communication. Yulia Romanenko, a soft skills professor at ITMO University, explained in great detail the concept of soft skills to the participants. 

The team of science communicators from ITMO University won the Grand Prix of the first professional award in the field of science communication in Russia “Communication Laboratory”.
The team of science communicators from ITMO University won the Grand Prix of the first professional award in the field of science communication in Russia “Communication Laboratory”.

Nearly half of the organizers, including the course coordinator Valeriia Prokuratova, were winners of the Vladimir Potanin Foundation scholarship competitions for students or the grant competition for professors. Therefore, as Daria Denisova emphasizes, they know firsthand about all challenges, needed skills, and opportunities.

“This course introduced me to the world of science communication, buzzing with information and knowledge that we could apply right on spot. The tutors did an excellent job: they were always happy to help and give us valuable advice. Thanks to this course, many were fueled to do something, learned their next steps and ways to achieve the desired results,” shares Alexander Rubtsov, employee at the Institute of Solar-Terrestrial Physics and the Research Institute of Applied Physics, graduate of the Scholarship Program, and winner of the 2018/2019 Scholarship Competition.

Science communication and Darth Vader

To complete a module, the participants were to present individual tasks, which eventually formed the communication strategy of their key educational project for the next year. The strategy also included information about the relevant tools and formats of science communication. When drawing up the plan, the tutors paid special attention to the peculiarities of universities and regions in which participants work. One of two projects from each group were then selected for the final presentation.

The participants presented a communication strategy for the Center for Political History, a media plan for an archaeological team, and a concept for promoting a scientist’s personal brand.

“Elaborate communication strategies for IT students were presented as well. One of the participants decided to create the Darth Vader suit to promote their own course. This was an interesting engineering challenge,” Daria Denisova gives an example. “My colleagues and I appreciated the participants’ courage in implementing their ideas and their practical approach: it may be risky to suggest fashionable tools to audiences. At best, you won’t find your audience and at worst, it might cause negative reactions. The entire course was centered on an evidence-based approach to science communication and a critical approach to the choice of communication tools. Our course is indeed insightful because of such reflection.”

Darth Vader. Credit: goodfon.ru
Darth Vader. Credit: goodfon.ru

The organizers are sure that the final defense of the projects proved the importance of the individual approach and flexibility of the program. All participants who finished the training and successfully completed the task received state certificates. ITMO’s Center for Science Communication and the Vladimir Potanin Foundation plan to make several more launches by the end of 2021.

“We’re glad that our first course was so popular with the community of grantees and scholars. Those who didn’t get into the program in December 2020, will have the chance to do so in 2021. We’re grateful to ITMO University and the entire team of tutors for this amazing opportunity,” comments Natalia Shulgina, Program Director of the Vladimir Potanin Foundation.

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