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Secretly Slipping: Science Communication and its Swift Exit

By Tyra Kaddu-Mulindwa

With just over eight years in existence, Science Communication & Bionics at HSRW is currently coming to an end. An inevitable discontinuation of the course is currently in effect as of the 19/20 Winter semester and with its multitude of accomplishments during its time here at Rhein Waal, the programme has left a legacy that only a handful of students have experienced.

Beginning as Journalism & Bionics in 2012, Science Communication was an initiative by the founding president of HSRW, Dr. Klotz, and was the first English-taught science communication programme in Germany. Together with the current course leaders, Prof. Struck and Prof. Gerber, the programme has gone through a multitude of changes, including a name change that the students of Journalism & Bionics had a large say in, with suggestions being SciComm or Science & Society and wondering whether to leave Bionics in the title or not.

As the only bachelor’s program for Science Communication within continental Europe, the course’s unique position has brought students from all over the world to Kleve, coming from anywhere, from Russia to Mexico.

The international makeup of the study program is one that directly reflects the rest of HSRW.

The course content, which is multidisciplinary, offers students the chance to not only have a better understanding of essential scientific (STEM) disciplines but also widen their understanding and practice of communication and social sciences.

Taking into account the multidisciplinary nature of Science Communication explains why it is a relatively hard degree programme to study. According to Prof.Gerber, the course leader of Science communication, “You need to have an understanding of all natural sciences, a deep understanding of social sciences and be well versed when it comes to communication practice”. Having a grasp of all three fields essentially requires a student to not just have an interest in all, but be well apt in each of them as well.

Most students have a grasp of one or two of those fields, all three at once is quite rare. This explains why over the semesters, Science Communication usually loses some or even the majority of its students in the first three semesters.

“In the majority of cases, [students] started the course without knowing exactly what it was and what it is what they were looking for or doing. Finding out later that this isn’t what they wanted to do with their lives,” Gerber says.

A former student of science communication, Senay Yemun, currently studying Bioengineering, said, “Personally, I was not convinced by the program. I enjoyed the science part more, so overall it wasn’t for me.”

Another student, said the content simply did not fit what their idea of science communication was. These are a few explanations as to why Science Communication has lost more students than many other degrees.

On top of losing a high number of enrolled students within their first year, Science Communication also happens to be one of the bachelor degree programs that carries the least amount of students. In comparison to degree programs like International Relations or Mechanical Engineering, SciComm classes usually consist of no more than 15 students. The cohorts each year do not exceed more than 20 students and by the third or second semester, many of the 20 have moved on to other endeavors.

The HSRW campus at sunset. The sun is also setting on the Science Communication program. Photo by Kenna Stevens

There are a number of speculations that can be made regarding the termination of the programme, however none ring more true than the question of numbers. At the beginning of every school year, the University has an expectation of how many students will be joining HSRW. Certainly as the courses commence, some students may not like the content, or might simply switch degrees. Students may not even attend class at all, there are a multitude of reasons why the number of students may change. Ultimately, the only number that really matters is how many graduate.

The number of students who graduate at the end of their stay at HSRW usually doesn’t match up to the first number of students that enrolled in a course. For a degree programme as small as Science Communication, the odds were already stacked against it. Already starting off with the smallest cohorts’ in the faculty of Technology & Bionics, the dwindling number of students over the years is the main, if not only, reason why the course is being terminated. It is a matter of logistics, and in this case SCB numbers were already too low to compete with the rest of the faculty.

The official reason for termination being one that states, “the number of students signed up and those graduating is too low to sustain it.”

Although the programme is coming to an end, graduates and current students of the program have had wonderful job prospects and internships in some of the largest institutions in Europe, including the European Commission, ESA, CERN, WHO, EU’s largest Science Festival, with some doing their internships as far as the Arctic world’s largest climate change research institute in Sweden and New Zealand, all thanks to the unique combination of both an understanding of the natural sciences and communication practice. Some students of Science Communication have also had the opportunity to work on peer reviewed papers, which at an undergraduate degree level is nearly unheard of.

The final cohort of Science Communication and Bionics is part of history, even though their journey of the course just begun. And as Science Communication at HSRW comes to an end, its legacy is left behind through the lucky few graduates and students who view science under a new microscope, with a new perspective on what it means to communicate and more importantly, what science means for us all.

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