Can you summarize your work in a 140-
character tweet? It’s not a typical engineering class assignment, but it’s one that
students will soon face in a Viterbi School
of Engineering course.
“Social Media for Scientists and
Engineers,” launching this fall in the
University of Southern California’s engineering school, will examine the evolving
role of social media and online communities in how engineers and scientists engage
with each other and outside audiences.
The course will be part of the Engineering
Writing Program, created in 1998 to respond
to the growing need for engineers to develop
skills in communicating with colleagues in
other disciplines and the public.
Bringing together students from various
disciplines is an important aspect of the
class, says instructor Sarah Mojarad, a
lecturer with a master’s in corporate and
organizational communications with a
concentration in social media and online
communities. “You get them communicating
with one another, and ideas can come from
that,” she explains. “People can understand
the differences and similarities in their fields.
I really like that component of it.”
Mojarad had previously co-taught a
similar “Social Media for Scientists” course
at the California Institute of Technology;
registration for that class filled up within
four minutes last fall.
“Social Media for Scientists and
Engineers” will examine case studies
for issues of ethics, privacy, reputation
management, ownership, and the law.
Mojarad points out that the class doesn’t
focus on the mechanics of social media,
which students are likely already adept in.
The course may provide new challenges for students, she notes. Engineers
and scientists are used to being asked
for one solution, but in this class, no one
answer exists. Instead, case studies will
draw out discussion.
For example, Mojarad has used a case
study about the 2014 Elk River chemical
spill in West Virginia to examine the issue of
trust. Information about the safety of water
was inconsistent, and it was revealed that
authorities withheld details from the public.
Students examined an event timeline to
Social Media Comes to USC Classroom
National Science Board, the Department
of State, and universities around the world.
Technically trained people should be
able to communicate effectively on social
media and digital communications plat-
forms, she says. These technologies are
“really the future of how all of us are going
to be interacting.”
Another case study focused on an inci-
dent with reality TV star and business-
woman Kim Kardashian West. She had
promoted a morning sickness medication
on Instagram, having partnered with the
company; however, the Food and Drug
Administration asked her to remove the
information because she hadn’t included
the risks. The law has now changed to make
it more clear when a celebrity is posting a
paid ad on social media, Mojarad explains.
As the law and technology change, the
course will need to evolve, too, she says.
In addition, guest lecturers will share
their insights. Guests in Mojarad’s “Social
Media for Scientists” course have included
the head of social media at NASA’s Jet
Propulsion Laboratory and the director of
analytics at Facebook.
Among the skills she hopes students
gain from the class: avoidance of jargon.
As students become more technically adept,
jargon begins to dominate, she says, so
students need to unlearn its use to communicate with a broad audience.
The class will also teach students to
develop skills in personal branding and
ensure the professionalism of their online
presence. One activity pairs classmates to
edit personal statements they then use on
their social media accounts.
For her class at the Viterbi School,
Mojarad plans to further develop a section
on combatting misinformation, which can
be a challenge on social media platforms.
And she is interested in examining additional technology, such as augmented and
virtual reality, and what those technologies
can do for communication and collaboration
among engineers and scientists.
Mojarad is working on a book and has
presented at institutions including the
See the course’s incarnation
at Cal Tech on Twitter.
#caltech107 and #caltech107ii
Social media and digital communications
platforms are “really the future of how all
of us are going to be interacting.”
- Instructor Sarah Mojarad
A FORMER STUDENT OF MOJARAD’S ATTENDED THE
RECENT AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY MEETING IN
SAN FRANCISCO AND PRESENTED A POSTER SESSION
ON SCIENCE COMMUNICATION AND KEY TAKEAWAYS
FROM THE “SOCIAL MEDIA FOR SCIENTISTS” COURSE.
MOJARAD STANDS WITH THE NEWS AND SOCIAL
MEDIA MANAGER FOR NASA’S JET PROPULSION