Ph.D. students win second place in STEM innovation challenge

Clare Fieseler
Clare Fieseler

Two University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill doctoral students have won second place in the National Science Foundation’s Innovation in Graduate Education Challenge for presenting the Duke/UNC Scientists with Stories Project as a model of incorporating narrative-based science communication training into graduate education.

The NSF competition invited graduate students across the nation to submit innovative ideas with the potential to improve graduate education and professional development. Students within science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) were invited to submit a 1,000-to-1,500-word response.

Clare Fieseler, ecology, and Justin Ridge, marine sciences, submitted the Duke/UNC Scientists with Stories Project to the competition.

“The Scientists with Stories Project started as an idea, formulated by students frustrated by the chasm between scientists and the public,” their NSF application stated. “This idea has been implemented on the small scale. Its goal, however, is nationally relevant: empower the next generation of scientists to not simply distill facts but share the wonder and relevance of science beyond the ivory tower.”

The Scientists with Stories Project was formed in 2011 by a committee of graduate students from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute of Marine Sciences and the Duke University Marine Laboratory. The project creates intensive video, photography and storytelling training and professional exhibition opportunities for doctoral students affiliated with the UNC-Chapel Hill institute and Duke laboratory.

Justin Ridge
Justin Ridge

The project formed through seed money from the Kenan-Biddle Partnership. Departments, faculty and administrators at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke provided funding that enabled the team of marine science graduate students to learn skills focused on visual media production – which lend themselves to narratives – and then produce short films for science outreach.

The team has produced video products highlighting student research, and some of the films have been shown in state and national film festivals.

“Science communication is an increasingly important component of the broader impact of scientific research projects — and the grants that fund them,” the Scientists with Stories Project mission states. “Most science curricula at the Ph.D. level lack any programs to help young scientists develop the skills needed to communicate via newly dominant mediums of communication: digital photography, web videography, podcasts and blogging. Our goal is to foster the notion that the process of scientific inquiry is, essentially, a story. To this end, we must work across campuses to transform the next generation of young scientists into storytellers.”

The project received a 2012 Ernest F. Hollings Ocean Awareness Grant from the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation; the outreach award will enable the group to enter a partnership with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

More than 500 teams submitted entries to the competition, representing more than 700 graduate students, 155 universities and other institutions, and 47 states, as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.

“We were very excited about the level of participation in this challenge,” says Cora Marrett, NSF acting director. “Not only did we hear from students from all fields of study and from institutions across the country; we also had a tremendous range of ideas offered for improving graduate education in STEM.”

A full list of NSF award recipients is available at the Graduate Education Challenge website.