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Jenne Stonaker and PWR 91JS: “The Stanford Science Podcast”

By Emily Polk

Jenne Stonaker’s popular advanced elective PWR course, PWR 91JS “The Stanford Science Podcast,” has inspired some of the most compelling podcasts ever developed by students at Stanford. The course gives students—especially those interested in science communication— a chance to dive into this increasingly popular medium. Through a series of workshops and guest speakers, students learn the journalistic and technical skills to produce podcast episodes including how to find a compelling topic, develop effective interviewing techniques, record high quality audio, tell an engaging story, communicate complex technical ideas, edit audio files, add music and sound effects, and prepare it for online publishing on iTunes, Soundcloud, and the course website. Subscribe to Stanford SciCast in iTunes or in Soundcloud to hear the latest episodes!

Jenne recently shared her insights from teaching the course with The PWR Newsletter team, including some of her most memorable moments and the biggest rewards and challenges she’s experienced so far.


PWR: Tell us a little bit about your class. What do students do? How do you teach it to them?

JS: Students in the class produce two podcasts on scientific research done at Stanford. The first is a short (1-2 min) science news piece, based on Scientific American’s “60 Second Science.” Through this assignment, students practice “writing for the ear,” recording audio, and editing together audio and musical elements. The second podcast is longer (15 - 30 min), and students build out more complex stories about research topics and researchers. Students pitch different story ideas to their classmates, and as a class we decide which stories we want to feature. Groups of 2-3 students work together to produce each episode. They interview at least one person associated with the research and weave in their own narration and musical elements. 

Students write blurbs about their podcasts and find images to represent them online. We work across the modes! Students have to consider how words and images can back up their audio podcast message. We also listen to a different podcast each week and then discuss it as a class. This is a great way to see the variety of forms that podcasts can take, from news to technical discussions to improvised banter to immersive stories, and to think rhetorically about the different ways that podcasts present information to their audiences. Students choose the podcasts and lead the discussion each week.


PWR: What inspired you to teach a podcasting class?

JS: I love listening to podcasts, but until teaching this class I had never made my own podcast! The first quarter I taught the class was a little terrifying, but we had lots of podcast practitioners come give guest lectures on different aspects of the craft. I’ve definitely learned along with the students. What I love most about podcasts is being able to listen to them on the go. I love that I can learn something new or hear a great story while in the car or folding laundry. But that means that podcast producers have to work extra hard to make their podcasts engaging — you never know what else someone may be doing while listening. 

The assignments are different than the PWR1 and PWR2 classes, but I still have the same commitment to the writing / creative process. Students submit draft versions of their podcasts, receive feedback in peer review and conferences, and revise their work.

PWR: What have been some of the most memorable experiences for you teaching this class?

JS: I started something new this year. On the last day of class we had a listening party. The students chose 5-7 minute excerpts of their podcast and we listened to them as a class. It was a great way to celebrate the hard work that the students had put into their podcasts. Another fun day was when I had students experiment with using music to set a certain tone or atmosphere in their podcasts. Everyone started with a rather dry reading of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” and then they added music and sound effects to convey a certain mood: happy, sad, scary, triumphant, etc. It was so much fun to listen to what the students produced, and we were all laughing by the end of class. 

I also had students interview each other on the first day of class, and then introduce their partner to the rest of the class. The students got to practice interviewing, and we got to learn about everyone’s pets and favorite foods and random hobbies. It was so much more personal and intimate than the standard first day introduction. 

PWR: Can you share some particularly memorable podcasts?

JS: The podcasts this year were amazing. We have episodes exploring the origin of the universe, Juul and the ethics of design, using virtual reality for environmental education, the causes of pre-term birth, how we communicate complex and controversial science, and the mysterious bio-geo-chemical world of archaebacteria. You can listen to a few highlights in Soundcloud. I also love “Altruism Dissected” by Laurie Rumker and James Spicer. They did a fantastic job incorporating sound into their opening sequence defining altruism. For a shorter episode, I’d recommend Maria Doerr’s “Protecting Ecosystems” for a 90 second look at why it is important to protect ecosystems as a whole and not just individual threatened species. 


PWR: What have been some of the biggest challenges/surprises?

JS: Working in audio is tough! It brings extra challenges of learning about recorders and microphones and audio editing software. I also learned that many students don’t listen to podcasts on a regular basis. That was the main reason that I incorporated the weekly podcast discussions, to give them more exposure to the medium and its possibilities. 


PWR: What have been the greatest rewards for you from teaching this class?

JS: Most of the students in the class are in the Notation in Science Communication, and they are a fantastic group of students to work with. They want to be better science communicators and to learn how to work in a new medium, and their commitment and dedication is really motivating.  I’ve also learned a lot about making podcasts, and I have great appreciation for the effort that podcast producers put into their work!