Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Biological and Environmental Sciences


Environmental and Earth Sciences


Natural Resources Science

First Advisor

Scott R McWilliams


Over the past few decades, prestigious scientific institutions such as The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Academy of Sciences have acknowledged the utmost importance of science communication to help improve the general public’s understanding of scientific knowledge. NSF has gone so far as to make “dissemination of research findings to increase scientific literacy” the third most recommended category for research funding priorities, second only to teaching and training, and broadening participation of underrepresented groups (NSB 2011, Skrip 2015). These efforts attest to a growing interest and investment in improving the field of science communication (Druschke and McGreavy 2016); however, there is still little research dedicated to actually assessing the effectiveness of science communication projects. My PhD project aimed to address this knowledge gap by combining ecological research, rhetoric and writing research, and social science research in order to develop and assess novel ways to improve the field of science communication. My dissertation contains four chapters: Chapter 1 is a learning outcomes assessment of the National Science Foundation-funded science communication project SciWrite@URI; Chapter 2 is an assessment of the written projects of SciWrite@URI participants; Chapter 3 uses a citizen science approach to estimate the distribution of American Woodcock in the state of Rhode Island; and Chapter 4 assesses the impact this citizen science project had on the volunteers. Chapters 1 and 2 focus on SciWrite@URI — an interdisciplinary model for science graduate students designed around three learning outcomes based on tenets from scholarship in writing and rhetoric — habitual writing, multiple genres, and frequent review. SciWrite students completed courses and a science communication internship, attended writing workshops, and became tutors at a newly established Graduate Writing Center. After two years of training, students improved as writers by more frequently writing multiple drafts and engaging in peer review, increased their confidence as writers, and decreased their apprehension about writing. In addition, we created an interdisciplinary rubric based on these tenets to evaluate a variety of writing products across genres. We used this rubric to assess three different genres written by 12 SciWrite-trained graduate science students and 74 non-SciWrite-trained graduate science students at the same institution. We found that written work from SciWrite students scored higher than those from non-SciWrite students in all three genres, and most notably thesis/dissertation proposals were higher quality. The rubric results also suggest that the variation in writing quality was best explained by the ability of graduate students to grasp higher-order writing skills (e.g., thinking about audience needs and expectations, clearly describing research goals, and making an argument for the significance of their research). Future programs would benefit from adopting similar training activities and goals as well as assessment tools that take a rhetorically informed approach. We conclude the tenets of the SciWrite program helped students improve as writers, and we make suggestions for effective ways programs might implement and build on our model. Chapters 3 and 4 focus on our statewide citizen science study, Project Timberdoodle. For this study, 149 volunteers drove along survey routes throughout Rhode Island to estimate the distribution of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). The American Woodcock population has been decreasing by about 1% per year for the past 40 years, and it is believed that this long-term trend is related to the loss and degradation of young forest habitat. From 2018-2020, we used both volunteer and scientist-collected survey data from 740 sites (595 unique) throughout RI to estimate occupancy of woodcock in relation to features of the forested landscape at a state-wide scale. Occupied sites were on average 31% closer to agricultural openings and had a 5% higher slope than unoccupied sites. Based on these findings, we recommend that RIDEM and other conservation agencies use complimentary sources of information (e.g., occupancy, spatial movements, species distribution models) to carefully select potential high-quality sites for forest management and then choose patch sizes that maximize positive effects and minimize negative effects for the widest variety of species. In Chapter 4, we tested whether our citizen science study, Project Timberdoodle, helped non-scientists achieve learning outcomes more effectively than standard science communication, and measured achievement levels of learning outcomes to determine whether those values changed as participants gained experience in the project. This dissertation identifies and improves upon effective strategies for citizen science engagement, science communication assessment, and adaptive curriculum management, and contributes novel ideas and best practices to the growing field of science communication. The ultimate goal of this dissertation project was to conduct interdisciplinary assessment of various projects in order to help guide curriculum development, wildlife management and conservation plans and development of future programs in the future.

Available for download on Sunday, January 12, 2025