World Federation of
Science Journalists

Science journalism a first for Guatemala

October 14, 2008 posted in Sci.Journalism
When newspaper reporter Lucy Calderón stepped in front of a class of 14 students at Istmo University in Guatemala City very early on a morning in September, she was making history.

This small room bright with sunlight pouring in from four windows and a garden in the back was host to the first university instruction in science reporting that had ever happened in her country.

Her students were a mixture of backgrounds and ambitions. Five already work for Guatemalan media including Prensa Libre, the highest circulation newspaper in the city and Calderón’s home paper, for El Periodico newspaper and for the weekly business newspaper Moneda.

 
Guatemalan painter Marvin Olivares shows how to connect images to written text. His ideas were part of Lucy Calderon's ground-breaking course at Istmo University.

“Some of them had started with another career – sociology, chemistry engineering, medicine – and then decided to switch to journalism …. they said that journalists have the power to change … to contribute to democracy and development,” she says.

For her own part, she got to the classroom via the North Pole aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Amundsen during the summer of 2008. The ship was a floating platform for scientists studying changes in polar ice systems. “I wanted to understand how the melting of the sea ice on the North Pole will affect not only the marine ecosystem but countries located on the tropics. My interest was to explain readers about the impact of climate change in our latitudes,” she says.

Calderón sent stories home to her own paper and to magazines and “the topic generated so much interest that I was asked to give a lecture to university students.”

The lecture mutated into a course in science journalism, the first ever in a Guatemalan university. She knew her way around this level of teaching because in 2006 she had won a scholarship to the Jack F. Ealy Workshop on Science Journalism at the Institute of the Americas in San Diego, Calif. The next year she went to a workshop on Iberoamerican science journalism in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia.

“I awoke a curiosity about science as an interesting and important subject to be covered by journalism,” she says. As well, university officials wanted students know that their own fellow citizens – not just foreigners – can achieve goals on the international stage.

She explains that “because of our cultural history” many Guatemalans have the idea that only foreigners “can do things or have opportunities” – like travelling to far off places.

Before her assignment at Istmo University, she had taught at Guatemala’s national university, Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, where she had graduated 10 years ago. The huge course (about 250 students) covered the practicalities of journalism but included an analytical side, looking at journalistic genres and their different purposes. “It was really hard,” she says, handling such a big group, so her new, small science reporting course is a real pleasure.

“Imagine the difference, after having more than 200 students, now having 14 is … Wow! Because they are students, it’s a little difficult to get scientists to give them interviews. And because in Guatemala there isn’t a lot of science journalism, it’s hard to get them to analyze local stories. But that is the challenge.”

She uses the SciDev and World Federation of Science Journalists online course as a basis for her teaching and says it “refreshes my memory,” highlighting important dimensions of a reporter’s job that can get lost in the daily work of doing it.




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