Interdisciplinary science communication project receives two grants for undergraduate research

An effort to provide real-life, real-time science communication opportunities to undergraduates at UND will be growing thanks to two recent local funding organizations. Both the UND College of Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research Award and the Grand Forks-based Myra Foundation have recently awarded funds to support the effort.

For three years, Susan Felege (Biology) has led a project in conjunction with Ducks Unlimited that has allowed UND undergraduate research students from Fisheries and Wildlife Biology to explore research questions surrounding duck nesting and predation. Student researchers have lived and worked near two ranches (Ducks Unlimited’s Coteau Ranch and The Nature Conservancy’s Davis Ranch) in North Dakota during the summer nesting season, gathering data using innovative technology, including nest cameras. This project has led to several academic presentations, publications, and awards by undergraduate students, as well as faculty in Fisheries and Wildlife Biology.

Starting with the 2017 season, students also actively engaged in science communication efforts in conjunction with their data gathering. With faculty supervision, students created a website (realducktails.org) featuring a blog, and produced videos for a YouTube channel. This content, as well as periodic micro-updates featuring text, video, and photos were included on two social media channels: Facebook (Real Duck Tails) and Twitter (@realducktails).

The effort not only helped boost engagement and awareness with the biology-based undergraduate research, it also allowed students to do work in the growing field of understanding science communication. The first undergraduate research project — examining how the first wave of followers for the effort varies in knowledge and attitudes toward conservation compared to the general public — was recently submitted to an academic conference. This project is led by Biology major Mason Lombard, and includes several members of the research team, including UND faculty, DU personnel, and UND Communication major Collin Riley.

Another project, an experiment on how visuals influence social media engagement with science communication posts, uses material created during the summer season for stimuli. UND Communication graduate student Amanda Pasierb is leading this research project, with help from Communication faculty member Sarah Cavanah.

“The Real Duck Tails project would be worthwhile just for bringing attention to the fantastic work UND undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty members do in conducting research that benefits the state,” Cavanah said. “With this grant support, we can extend that to better understanding how to communicate science to the public, particularly those in and around North Dakota. UND Arts & Sciences and the Myra Foundation are going to allow us build up this opportunity, provide valuable experience for students and advance our understanding of science communication.”

The grant of $3,500 from UND Arts & Sciences will be used specifically to support a UND undergraduate student to conduct a science communication campaign during the summer on-site at the ranches, and gather data to continue the analysis of the project’s effectives in terms of its communication goals. UND Arts & Sciences also awarded a separate grant specifically for the Fisheries and Wildlife Biology students’ projects on duck nesting ecology. The Myra Foundation’s $5,000 grant will be used to support all the students conducting research into ducks, duck nesting, duck predation and science communication. Money for the grant will go into acquiring equipment and to do research specifically into how to best communicate science to a rural population.

— Sarah Cavanah, Assistant Professor of Communication, sarah.cavanah@und.edu, 402.533.0815