Finding purpose in prose…and science communication  

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Sophie Pavelle

I never knew what I wanted to be – except that any career for me had to have three conditions: it must involve an above-average dose of the outdoors, I would like to be in charge of the agenda, and some sort of animal (any will do!) needs to be in close proximity at all times. No doubt the aspirations of most people, right?

I had a linear route into science communication, albeit with several detours in-between. Studying Zoology at the University of Bristol straight after school, I appreciated the programmes breadth in not funnelling me in a niche direction. Like anyone in their late teens/early twenties, my mind was a meandering muddle. In a bid to find some sort of path to address the dreaded ‘what’s next?!’ question from parents and family, I dipped my toes into many pools – applying for work experience and short internships in physiotherapy, veterinary medicine, law, magazine publishing, copy editing, countryside management, the military and teaching. Although quite relentless, it became a helpful ‘tick-box exercise’ allowing me to cross off those areas which I didn’t enjoy (vital), and keep close those I found interesting.

Eventually, I found focus in the middle of all of these careers and interests. That is – in science communication – a dynamic and exciting vocation where you act as the mediator between scientific research, and the public. A crucial role, amid such a noisy, turbulent world. Despite this being only six years ago, science communication was something I had never heard of at the time. Safe to say, after seeing the MSc in Science Communication offered at UWE Bristol, and how varied it was, I was officially intrigued.  And that was before I’d even had a chance to explore the careers that alumni had pursued after graduating.

During my masters at UWE in 2016-17, the world felt like it was changing. Social media reared its head and became the giant it is today. We saw the power of how we can use those platforms to communicate environmental truths, and rally public support for positive change; namely with the release of Blue Planet 2 and the battle to eliminate single use plastics. The realities of climate change and biodiversity loss rushed into conversation, creating urgent pressure to find solutions. Personally, all of these events over the past six or so years have shifted my own communication priorities. I’m not only trying to engage the public with the joy of nature on a fundamental level, but also trying to spur real, lasting action for its future. It’s more of a ‘the faster we act, the less we lose,’ sort of situation.

After I graduated in 2018, I tried my hand at going freelance. The notion appealed to me (if we just revisit my eclectic career conditions above…) and I was grateful to be in a position where I could still live at home in Devon, earn money with two retail jobs, and experiment with science communication on the side. It was an immense balancing act, and at times very stressful and disheartening. Repeated rejection for jobs, ideas and offers of work sure makes you resilient! But the hope of finding a seat at the table really did keep me going.

I fostered and maintained links with wildlife charities and NGOs, offering volunteer hours with The Wildlife Trusts, fundraising for them and others and being a bit of a prolific networker whist trying to find my voice. Later, I got the brilliant opportunity to be part of the RSPB steering group for the 2019 State of Nature Report, and contribute to the forward. A spin-off article I was asked to write reflecting on the report’s implications was picked up by a major publisher, who asked me if I had ever thought about writing a book. Of course I hadn’t. I was convinced they thought I was somebody else (imposter syndrome, hello!). After all, isn’t writing a book something you do when you’ve accomplished something? Something you might strive to do in your wildest dreams of your later years?

But it’s only looking back that I’ve realised I’ve been writing my whole life. Without realising, I have always sought comfort in words, stories and narratives. Many of us do. Not a voracious reader by any means, but I have kept extensive diaries, written letters, postcards, poems and short stories. Whilst all my friends at school talked about the bands and music they were into, I kept quiet, for all I ever listened to were story tapes, and later, audiobooks.

I loved English at school and didn’t realise how much being able to write, and enjoy it, helped me through both my BSc and MSc, where many of the exams and coursework were written. Writing this blog has made me reflect on how much the variety of modules, teaching and assessments offered by the Science Communication Unit at UWE was invaluable preparation for my current work, not least in battling with imposter syndrome in writing my book. Despite what social media might portray, I’m shy, and introverted. Painfully so, when I was younger. But the MSc was a game changer for me. Smaller cohorts allowed better integration and interaction between staff and students, which boosted my confidence to contribute in class. The staff encouraged us to explore our individual creative and research interests, to push boundaries and take risks.

Bloomsbury commissioned me to write a non-fiction narrative about endangered native species and climate change in spring 2020 – on the same day that I got offered a communications job with Beaver Trust, and just as the UK went into lockdown. A rather overwhelming time to say the least…! The pandemic brought many books and creative content to fruition, but for me, that was never the plan for Forget Me Not. Covid-19 became a natural part of the narrative, and made elements of the low-carbon travel immensely challenging and stressful. Over the course of the 18 months of travelling and writing, I was prepared to have writers block and want to give up. Many people told me to expect this. But weirdly, that never happened. As I write this we are finalising the text, before I escape to a studio and record the audiobook. It’s a bizarre experience in a way. I often dream about certain paragraphs, and can place words and sentences exactly in the text, remembering where I was when I wrote it, what music I may have been listening to. Even what I was wearing!

Writing a book has by far been the hardest and most exhausting marathon of my life, but I adored every second. With just one month to go until publication day (9th June!) I’m still pinching myself at this surreal opportunity. I had no idea ‘science communication’ could look like this.

Sophie Pavelle is a writer and science communicator. Sharing stories about British wide audiences, she puts a contemporary twist on the natural history genre. Sophie works for Beaver Trust and presented their award-winning documentary Beavers Without Borders. She is also an Ambassador for The Wildlife Trusts and sits on the RSPB England Advisory Committee. Her writing has appeared in The Metro, BBC Countryfile, BBC Wildlife and Coast magazines. Her first book ‘Forget Me Not: finding the forgotten species of climate-change Britain’ is published on June 9th by Bloomsbury. You can pre-order it here: https://linktr.ee/forgetmenotbook

Graduating and working during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Finishing our MSc in Science Communication and graduating during a pandemic and national lockdowns was not how any of us expected it to go. But despite that I managed to get a job a few months after submitting my thesis. Not only that, but what I learnt, the work I did and the experiences I had on the MSc helped me to get the role along with my previous experience working in NHS roles.

I am working as content coordinator for NHS Blood and Transplant, the organisation which is responsible for the supply of blood, organs, tissues and stem cells. Most of my role is about developing and producing content for The Donor, a newsletter which is sent to everyone who is registered as a blood donor four times per year. We share donor stories, recipient stories, updates about the donation process, information about different blood types and types of donations, how important blood and organ donations are etc. Whilst not every article is super sciency, the aim is to engage the readers and keep the donors donating to meet the constant demand for blood products.

My writing improved so much during the masters and I think that has definitely helped me get the role as I had to write an article as part of the interview process. It has also helped in my day-to-day work. I go back to the news structure we learnt in the Writing Science module again and again when writing articles at work. It’s currently on a sticky note stuck on the wall above my desk.

Starting a new job whilst working from home in lockdown wasn’t without its challenges but in the past year and a bit I have:

  • Contributed to five editions of The Donor
  • Learnt the editorial process and house style of writing; spoken to/interviewed donors, recipients and internal/external stakeholders
  • Built confidence and developed my personal style
  • Learnt about blood donation, blood components and treatments
  • Chosen supporting images, designed articles and uploaded them onto the content management system

Researched and written a new regular scientific feature called functions of blood. Each article focuses on a different key role of our blood: transport, immunity and clotting. Did you know that the body has 60,000 miles of blood vessels? This is long enough to circle the globe more than twice.

I’ve also donated blood three times so far and counting!

By Morwenna Bugg

Morwenna was a student on the MSc in Science Communication at UWE Bristol in the 2019-2020 academic year.

Avon students take part in workshop at UWE Bristol

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By Gracie Allen, part of the Avon Schools Eco Network

Over half term, Tillie, Ellie and I represented Avon schools eco network at the youth climate communications workshop at UWE Bristol. We started the day with getting to know each other as it was a mix of young people from local groups of climate activists across Avon and Bristol. Discussion turned to what our baseline would be for what we want to achieve from the session, and what skills we could bring, from university degrees to team leadership skills. After settling in we decided that we all wanted climate action, so we went on to think about what our individual call to action would be to base our ideas off throughout the day. There were amazing ideas from adapting the UK school curriculum to having more climate awareness to creating a wider awareness of vegan lifestyle alternatives.

Next we learned about different parts of society and how their views on climate change differ. The Climate Outreach Society has helpfully gathered information from across society to create the seven segments of different people based  on their values, interests, needs and beliefs. I personally found this really interesting and had never thought about breaking down audiences in this way. We then went onto focus on three segments that hold the most power and have  the biggest impact when taking climate action. They are backbone conservatives, progressive activists and civic pragmatists. To communicate and portray our message to these different audiences we have to adapt and think about the way you present our message. For example, explaining the financial benefits to backbone conservatives would mean they may be more on board with your climate action plan.  Role-playing different segments allowed us to ‘walk in their shoes’ and get a wider understanding of how to approach different parts of society that we might not be familiar with in day to day life.

The next activity was creating an eco house. We were given a wooden house and added post notes with ideas to adapt it to become carbon neutral such as solar panels and double glazing.

After this, we focused on different ways we could interact with varied audiences, for example, using engagement activities and interactive display. We used our call to action to create a simple prototype of an interactive and engaging activity that can be shared on social media or at climate based events. There were ideas like blind tasting meat and vegan alternatives to spark an interest in people to make small everyday choices to reduce personal carbon footprint.

After a delicious free lunch, courtesy of UWE, and a tour of the university eco garden where students grow their own food, we started back now with a focus specifically on filming short videos to portray our messages. We were given tips on how to get the right conditions such as lighting and sound for filming a high quality piece. In pairs we decided on one of our calls to action and planned a short video based around it. I used the idea of reducing single use plastic and replacing it with reusable containers. We were given 15 minutes to go around the UWE Bristol campus and film short videos. We even interviewed other students on why they were using reusable cups. At the end of the day we came together and shared our ideas and the films we had created. It was amazing to see some of the results created in such a short amount of time and really showed the possibility of creating high quality films, quickly.

Overall we really enjoyed the workshop and learned lots of new ways to communicate our own climate messages and from the surveys the UWE Bristol team gathered, 100% of people felt confident engaging with different audiences at the end of the session and we will be able to take these skills back to our individual groups . A massive thank you to all the mentors and leaders of the session for making it so engaging and we are looking forward to working with them again soon.

This training is now being rolled out to young people across the UK, with in-person workshops available for youth groups in the West of England. If you are interested in the free training, please email Sophie.laggan@uwe.ac.uk and follow at climate.action.hub on Instagram.

WeCount Evaluation Summary: Citizen Science on Urban Mobility

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WeCount was a two-year Horizon 2020 project which aimed to quantify local road transport, produce scientific knowledge in the field of mobility and environmental pollution and co-design informed solutions for several road transport challenges. This citizen science project empowered citizens to take a leading role in the production of data, evidence and knowledge around mobility in their local areas. Five case studies across Europe were involved in WeCount: Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, Leuven in Belgium, Ljubljana in Slovenia, Dublin in Ireland and Cardiff in the UK.

The project started in December 2019 and finished in November 2021, running almost entirely during the global COVID-19 pandemic and having to adapt to restrictions and online delivery.

Citizens were given low-cost traffic sensors to install in their homes, enabling them to collect and analyse traffic data, as well as engage with key stakeholders throughout the process. The project has engaged with more than 1,000 citizens and stakeholders through workshops and other events. A total of 368 citizen scientists from WeCount case studies directly engaged with the project. An estimated 230,000 people were engaged indirectly through social media and the project website.

There was a nearly perfect split of males (51%) and females (49%) participants in the project.  WeCount was able to attract a younger demographic than most citizen science projects with 29% of participants being younger than 16. This skew towards younger audiences reflects the effort of staff in reaching them when possible. WeCount reached 16 schools across Europe and engaged with 305 school children. WeCount citizens were highly educated (82% had a degree or above) which maybe a reflection of the online and digital conduct of the project due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Citizens took part in several workshops, from assembling the sensor to learn how to analyse the data. Across case studies, a total of 52 events and workshops took place, most of these were online. These events and workshops engaged a total of 843 citizens across Europe. Overall, citizens tended to enjoy the activities; 75% saw some improvement in their knowledge and almost half (48%) of citizens plan on using the data after the project ends.

By the time the project came to an end, 10% of participants had taken action and policymakers see huge added value in the project. WeCount was able to reach and sustain engagement with a broad demographics in society, with Telraam acting as a constant reminder to citizens to look at the data and stay curious about what data others in the network were capturing. The sensor is low cost and open access and is currently being refined, in response to citizens feedback to improve installation, design and accuracy. Alternatives have been explored for non-tech users such as strawberry plants, facilitated discussions looking at the data and awareness-raising roles created for citizens.

The project provided cost-effective data for local authorities, at a far greater temporal and spatial scale than what would be possible in classic traffic counting campaigns. The five WeCount case studies developed professional relationships with decision makers, which led to mutual benefits such as knowledge transfer, new contacts and access to widely subscribed communication channels.

Running a large-scale Citizen Science project during a global pandemic was a challenge but one that the WeCount team have excelled at, by very quickly changing and adapting all plans from recruiting and engaging face-to-face, to recruiting and engaging citizens largely online. More on the impact of the pandemic in delivering citizen science projects can be found here.

There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted plans to build potential relationships with some citizens, especially those from low-socioeconomic groups and intermediary organisations. Other impacts included slower deployment of sensors and reduced capacity for teams to build their own sense of community. Despite many setbacks, the case studies persisted in completing their engagement cycle. They shifted to online and did well in energising, encouraging, supporting and staying connected with citizens where possible, working collectively to co-design a truly participatory citizen science project. Clearly there is enthusiasm among some citizens to act, however some remain frustrated by what in their opinion is inadequate action from decision-makers, even after they do engage.

This evaluation shows the importance of co-designing citizen science projects with citizens so that they are engaging, enjoyable and empowering. The more a citizen enjoyed their time in the project, the more likely they are to continue working with WeCount data after the project ends, which will eventually lead to taking more action. In addition, the greater the street-level knowledge improvement the more likely a participant is to act.

If you are interested in learning more the evaluation report can be found here.

Dr Margarida Sardo WeCount Evaluation Lead, Science Communication Unit, UWE Bristol

Graphics by Sophie Laggan Research Fellow, Science Communication Unit, UWE Bristol

New publication – Transforming tradition: how the iconic Christmas Lectures series is perceived by its audiences

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Photo credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography

Margarida SardoHannah Little and Laura Fogg Rogers conducted research to explore strengths and opportunities for improving the series and modernising the Christmas Lectures. The SCU team has recently published a full paper on the findings: A.M. Sardo, H. Little & L. Fogg-Rogers (2021) Transforming tradition: how the iconic Christmas Lectures series is perceived by its audiences, International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 11:4, 378-393.

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are a landmark in the history of science communication. Started in 1825 by Faraday, they continue to be broadcast in the UK every year.

In this paper we explore the characteristics of the audiences for the current Christmas Lecture offerings and investigate how these engagements are perceived by their audiences. This is significant and timely since viewing habits are shifting away from traditional television and even iconic landmarks such as the Christmas Lectures have to adapt to remain relevant to old and new audiences. With today’s changing media landscape, it is important to know who is currently watching, how they are watching, and how they are perceiving the content. This cross-sectional study evaluated perceptions of live audiences, people watching at home via Twitter, and awareness of the Lectures by science-interested audiences. The Lectures play a key role as a traditional cultural event for science enthusiasts and are valued by these audiences for performative identity sharing and valued tradition. However, younger generations are shifting away from traditional television to online videos, and the Lectures must adapt to remain relevant to new audiences.

Photo credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography

While the Lectures themselves may not need changing, the broadcast Lectures as a vehicle to reach young people, or to enhance science capital for non-science enthusiasts, may have to be further thought through. Younger audiences are spending less time viewing traditional television and more time viewing online content, which tends to be shorter and enable interactive online con- versations. If the Ri wishes to extend the reach of its audience for the Lectures, the broadcast format may need to change to feature on channels or media which younger non-science enthusiasts are more likely to watch.

Margarida Sardo, Senior Research Fellow in Science Communication, Science Communication Unit, UWE Bristol.

UWE Repository link

Youth Climate Communications: a pilot

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On 24th February, 12 young people, aged 15-24, headed to UWE Bristol’s Prototype and Play Lab, in the School of Engineering, for a training day in Climate Communications. Passionate about addressing the climate and ecological emergency, and eager to learn and connect with likeminded people (figure 1), the delegates came from across the Bristol area, with representation from five different schools/colleges and from the University.

Figure 1 Why the young people took part in the training.

The young people were recruited through the Avon Schools Eco Network, CCC-Catapult and through the researchers’ student networks, with the researchers full-knowing this was already a captive audience with some experience in climate communication (figure 2). While the training was free, with lunch vouchers provided and travel costs covered if needed, in exchange the young people were required to provide detailed feedback on the sessions. This feedback would then allow the researchers to adapt and evolve the training, so it could be replicated, converted into different formats (e.g., e-learning and guidebooks) and scaled to other youth groups and schools regionally, nationally and internationally.

Figure 2 The types of communication the young people have tried before.

The training emerged out of the collective interest of researchers at UWE Bristol, from the Science Communication Unit, FET, ABE and DGEM, keen to share their knowledge with and empower the younger generation. The first to live through climate breakdown since a young age, over half of young people experience some form of climate-related anxiety (Hickman et al. 2021). While some level of anxiety is a natural response to an external threat (Clayton, 2020) and can act as a motivator (Taylor, 2020), too much can be debilitating (Hrabok et al. 2020). To steer young people away from overwhelm, timely action, forethought and trust in science are needed (Manzanedo & Manning, 2020). And according to Climate Outreach, to resonate with young people we, as adults, need to validate their negative thoughts while avoiding overly optimistic communications, and provide resources that can alleviate their anxiety[1].

Drawing on this research, and the interests of young people, the Science Communication Unit shaped the programme of activities to build trust in the need for well-thought through evidence-based communications, tailored to audience that have the most power and influence to make impactful pro-environmental decisions.

Using the example of solar panels, Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers and Research Fellow Sophie Laggan explained that why one household may buy solar panels for environmental reasons, others will do so out of economic/energy security, while others still will do so because their neighbours did – because it is the ‘norm’. These different ways of viewing the world shape how we make decisions, and it is only through meeting people where they are at that we can forge meaningful dialogue and promote pro-environmental change.

The participants ran with this idea in a role-playing exercise where they tried to convince someone ‘not like them’ – and in a position of power and influence – to install solar panels on the roof of their school. With a bit of context about what makes their partner tick, the participants were able to tap into the other person’s values and use it to their advantage.

Following lunch and a tour of the Campus’s community garden led by a UWE Bristol student, the group returned for an engagement activity on passive houses with Dr Deborah Adkins. Each table were given a wooden replica of a typical UK house and asked to stick post-its on the areas they thought could be improved for sustainability, everything from solar panels to insulation and green roofs. The task was accompanied by a short presentation, allowing the participants to learn more about sustainable housing.

Deborah’s session was followed by a more depth explanation of the value of physical engagement activities, by Sophie, with the chance for each participant to prototype their design for an engagement activity based on the issue that mattered to them, be that local food or slow fashion. Their issues of concern were formulated in the opening session of the day – “Start with the why”.

The day was concluded by top tips by Josh Warren on filmmaking on a budget, before the young people were set to task on recording their own short film on a sustainability topic. The group enjoyed watching each other’s films and spent the last few minutes of the day reflecting on how valuable the day was for their activism and general understanding of people ‘not like them’.

Analysis of the before and after surveys, revealed some promising findings, which the project team will now monitor in future training activities. Perhaps most significantly, the young people’s negative thoughts (scared, angry, concerned, powerless, guilty, confused) all reduced following the training (except for mournful) and positive thoughts increased (empowered, hopeful, optimistic and determined) (figure 3).

Figure 3 How young people feel about the climate and ecological crisis (asked before and after the workshop).

Confidence in communication skills also increased. For instance, 100% felt confident/very confident in engaging their audience after the training, compared to just 11% (N=1) before (figure 4).

Figure 4 Before and after confidence levels in communication skills.

Nearly all participants rated the activities highly, with the eco house activity and ‘start with the why’ activity receiving the highest praise (figure 5). The average scores were attributed to either a lack of time to fully explore a topic or a lack of scaffolding to support the pupils to come up with good ideas.

Figure 5 Young people’s rating of the main activities. (None rated less than average (below 3 out of 5)).

Lastly, survey respondents were asked if anything was missing from the day. Suggestions included training on social media, graphics and poster design and engaging children, as well as time to provide more examples of communication best practice.

Next steps

Shortly after the training day the team found out they were successful in their bid to the HEIF FET-FBL Award. This now means that the training can be replicated again, in person, to different youth groups, with a focus on from more diverse backgrounds, and that they can create e-learnings and printable toolkits. This work sits under the umbrella of the Climate Action Hub at UWE Bristol, which acts as a space for researchers to connect with communities interested in tackling the climate and ecological emergency. To facilitate this exchange, the Hub is looking at setting up a Staff Network to allow staff the time to build these connections. If you are interested in connecting to the Hub in any way, or have ideas on how it should operate, then please contact Sophie.laggan@uwe.ac.uk.

In the coming weeks we will publish a blog written by one of the participants, who will share their experiences from the day.

This training was led by Research Fellow Sophie Laggan, Associate Professor Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers, Senior Lecturer Dr Deborah Adkins and Josh Warren.

By Sophie Laggan, Research Fellow in the Air Quality Resource Management Centre at UWE Bristol.

References:

Clayton, S., 2020. Climate anxiety: Psychological responses to climate change. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 74, p.102263.

Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, R.E., Mayall, E.E., Wray, B., Mellor, C. and van Susteren, L., 2021. Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey. The Lancet Planetary Health5(12), pp.e863-e873.

Hrabok, M., Delorme, A. and Agyapong, V.I., 2020. Threats to mental health and well-being associated with climate change. Journal of Anxiety Disorders76, p.102295.

Manzanedo, R.D. and Manning, P., 2020. COVID-19: Lessons for the climate change emergency. Science of the Total Environment742, p.140563.

Taylor, S., 2020. Anxiety disorders, climate change, and the challenges ahead: Introduction to the special issue. Journal of Anxiety Disorders76, p.102313.

Climate Outreach, 2020, Britain Talks Climate, 18th November 2020. URL: https://climateoutreach.org/reports/britain-talks-climate/


[1] Britain Talks Climate, a research project by Climate Outreach, segmented the UK population into different categories according to their views on climate change. 13% of the UK population identify as “progressive activists”, to which a large proportion are young people.

Engaging children with STEM through Minecraft: new practitioner guides

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Science Hunters has been engaging children with the computer game Minecraft since 2014. Originally initiated at Lancaster University, the programme is now run in collaboration between Lancaster University and UWE Bristol. Its engineering strand, Building to Break Barriers aims to engage children from under-represented groups with engineering, using the game.

Minecraft is an extremely popular computer game, and has various features that make it ideal for communicating about Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).

Over the course of delivery, the Science Hunters team have gained various insights into the practicalities of using Minecraft to engage children with STEM in schools, at Minecraft Clubs for specific groups and at small and large public events. As part of Building to Break Barriers, two guides, drawing on their extensive experience, have been produced for practitioners thinking of using Minecraft for STEM outreach and engagement:

Engagement through Minecraft: Available editions

Engaging children with STEM using Minecraft

The guides lay out why Science Hunters uses Minecraft to engage children with STEM including:

  • Its popularity makes it familiar and appealing to children
  • It can interest them in topics that they might not otherwise engage with, because they’re interested in the game
  • It is also relatively easy to use, and generally quickly picked up
  • Minecraft has various features which represent items and processes in the real world, which can help children explore and understand a range of scientific concepts.   

They also cover the versions of Minecraft available to choose from, and topics such as making STEM accessible, modes of Minecraft, options for setting up the game for use in engagement, face-to-face and virtual engagement and planning considerations. They are not official Minecraft resources. Building to Break Barriers was funded under the Royal Academy of Engineering Ingenious scheme from May 2020 to January 2022. Ongoing extension work is currently funded by a Biochemical Society Diversity in Science grant. For more information or to discuss future collaboration please contact sciencehunters@uwe.ac.uk.  

By Laura Hobbs and Sarah Behenna.

Please note that these guides were produced in 2021. Information contained within the documents may be subject to change and should be confirmed by users, and does not constitute recommendations.

Cover image build by Jay Fenney.

Scicomm and the Sea

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I grew up by the sea, with generations of my family making a living from our waters – it’s in my blood. I would spend countless hours exploring the local coastline, or waiting at the pier for my dad to come back with his latest haul, ever hoping for some weird and wonderful creature to come back amongst the lobsters, which I’d often gawk at before releasing back to the sea. Pipefish, eels, octopuses – they all captured my imagination; no wonder then that I began my academic journey studying marine science at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), where I discovered just how much, and how little, we knew about the largest habitat on Earth.

I explored every aspect of the marine world, from chemistry to conservation and everything in between, but I realised that my background afforded me an insight that few others had access to – I was able to see how policy is implemented based on science thanks to classes within academia, however, I was also witness to how these decisions, and the effects of climate change, were affecting those out-with academia, who depended upon good fish stocks and clean, accessible waters to make a living. Year after year I would return home, and find fewer and fewer boats in the harbour, until one day I came home, and there was my dad’s boat gone as well…

The threats to our oceans, and to those that rely upon healthy marine ecosystems, are now numerous, and intensifying; with ocean acidification, deep-sea mining, plastics, de-oxygenation, and more all having an ever-increasing impact on our marine ecosystems.  Only a few of these threats are seeing the attention that they deserve, I mean, when have you heard anyone talking about the expanding Oxygen Minimum Zones in our ocean? Now compare that with how many times you’ve heard folks chatting about the issue of plastics in the sea!

I’ve now made it my mission to not only raise awareness of the threats to our oceans, but also to shine a light on the depths of our seas, and the incredible life and habitats that we desperately need to protect, and yet, will never likely see. This brings me to where I am now, Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh, where I have the privilege of working as the Discovering the Deep project officer, helping to bring Scotland’s marine world, and rich marine heritage, to the fore. This project is one close to my heart, and it is beyond exciting. This National Lottery Heritage Funded project will look at Scotland’s relationship with our oceans; from the Challenger expedition, led by Charles Wyville Thomson of Edinburgh 150 years ago, bringing about the birth of a new field of science, Oceanography; to our cold water carnivorous coral reefs, found off of the Scottish West coast; and of course, we can’t discuss Scottish marine science without discussing the internationally collaborative marine research that Scotland is a leader in.

 I am currently assisting in developing a brand-new interactive museum gallery exploring these areas, but once that opens in April I will be running our activity plan, with events, school workshops, showcases, and so much more, all of which will bring the people of Scotland closer to our ocean, to this world that has such an impact on our everyday life without many of us even realising! I wear many hats in this role, of which more than a few my MSc in Science Communication at UWE Bristol has prepared me for well. Interviewing scientists, writing copy, and engaging with the public – everything that I do, I think back to my training, and every time, the first thought that comes to mind is a question that I was asked from day 1 of this course – who is this for? I am very lucky that in my position, I have a whole range of groups I will be working with, from young people, rural communities, community groups, schools and everyone in between – for the next couple of years I will be engaging with them all, tailoring my content to meet their needs.

Where I go from here, once this project reaches its conclusion is anyone’s guess, but what I do know is that I will be taking the skills and experiences that I have gained over these years, and I will fight to empower our communities, to give them a voice, so that they can properly contribute to decisions being made around our waters, and so they can fully understand just how critical our oceans are to our way of life. Our oceans are our last frontier, with only around 20% fully explored so far, but already the commercial opportunities are mounting, and we all know what happens when a natural area can be exploited for profit, so now is the time to give our communities the tools they need to fight for our largest, and arguably most important environment, our ocean.            

By Blair Watson, Discovering the Deep project officer at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh and former MSc in Science Communication student at UWE, Bristol.

The Importance of Being Interested

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Robin Ince is now renowned as “the science guy” of comedy. From The Infinite Monkey Cage on BBC Radio 4, to his huge cabaret-style shows with Professor Brian Cox and a whole host of scientists and comedians performing at venues as big as the Royal Albert Hall. With all this, he is possibly one of the biggest names in science communication in the UK and has recently written a book, The Importance of Being Interested, where he explains his long journey from being a child bored by science, to a comedian whose interest in science has grown to be career-defining.

The first time I saw Robin Ince was back in 2008 in a dark basement venue below a cinema in York where I regularly attended comedy gigs as an undergrad. At that point, his shows didn’t have the primary theme of science, but there was interesting bits of evolutionary theory peppered in to his set which I’d never heard in a comedy set before. I was a linguistics student myself, and a stand-up comedy nerd who had long ago decided, despite being quite good at it, that my love of science was very much secondary to my love for language. But something about Robin’s interest and enthusiasm got to me, and among his shows and a host of public engagement events around the 200th Anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, I started to wonder if I hadn’t made a terrible mistake in rejecting a future in science.

I distinctly remember at this time lamenting to my personal tutor in the linguistics department that I was struggling with feeling like I should have gone in to evolutionary biology. I remember her considering this before asking me if I knew evolutionary linguistics was, in fact, a thing. The study of how humans evolved to communicate using language. I didn’t, but as soon as I was aware I was hooked and ended up doing my master’s degree in language evolution and ultimately a PhD on the topic. In that moment, I found my “thing”, and I can’t imagine my life without it now. In many ways, I think I only made the choices I did because of Robin Ince raising evolutionary topics into my consciousness at a time when it wasn’t too late. In science communication, we often talk about the objective of raising the “science capital” of children to try and get people to feel like science is “for me” at an age where it can still affect their subject and career choices. I feel like Robin Ince pushed me into that space at the very last second when it could have still affected my career. And now, here I am, a lecturer in science communication who researches, among other things, science comedy.

Recently, I had the pleasure to interview Robin Ince to mark the publication of his new book. In the interview, we discuss in depth the role of science fiction in engagement with science, the role of comedy and cabaret in the communication of science, and attitudes towards offense in both science and comedy. You can listen here:

By Dr Hannah Little, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at UWE Bristol.

The Academy Zone: Reflective Online Science Communication Training

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This blog post is part of an exhibit for Engage Conference 2021.

“I’m a Scientist, get me out of here” is an online communication activity where school students interact with scientists. Classes of students ask scientists about their work and lives in a live, text-based, fast-paced chatroom, as well as on a question-answer platform which allows for more considered interactions.

Over the 10 years it has run, scientists have often reported that their communication skills have improved through participation in I’m a Scientist. However, this experiential training has never been formalised, and the scientists aren’t always aware of what they are learning. As such, in 2019 a short communication course was designed to run alongside the I’m a Scientist event.

This course comprised of resources, such as short videos and articles, and questions designed to help the scientists reflect on their learning from participation. They were also invited to participate in daily live text-based chats with a science communication expert to help them reflect on their learning, make connections and receive advice.

We evaluated the course using the responses scientists provided throughout the course to analyse their reflections and understanding. Data from 11 scientists, who gave their consent to have their responses analyzed and presented in this work, showed reflections around the themes of raising science capital, providing an inclusive environment for all students to ask questions and engage, and also an inclusive environment for the scientists participating too.

Scientists felt that the I’m a Scientist format worked to help the students lead the conversation to be about what interests them, and also to see the scientists as humans with lives and interests outside of science. This linked nicely to resources about science capital, as linking science to your interests or seeing scientists as sharing your interests can help students see that science could be for them (Archer et al., 2015):

“I like that we are not expected to tell the students about science and being scientists – sometimes it could seem like we are talking at them rather than them being able to find out what they really want to know. In this case, they are asking what they want to know, which probably isn’t what I would have talked to them about if I were to lead the conversation. That has been really eye-opening! “

“Often, in other outreach activities I have done previously, they would still emphasise your role as scientific expert, but not as human being with interests, hobbies, doubts and dreams.”

Scientists felt that the text-based, anonymous format worked to create an equal playing field between the scientists and students, and also among students, giving them the ability to all have their questions answered and preventing barriers for students who may be shy or anxious about asking something:

“Loud students don’t dominate our attention, and quieter, shier students can get their question across as equally as anyone else. Also, with anonymised names in the live chat, I don’t spot patterns of the same people talking to me all the time –  the pseudonyms aren’t memorable.”

“I think the text-only format helps in various ways. From the student perspective, it means that participants who might be shy or anxious about speaking in public have an opportunity to ask a question without having to actually vocalise. Students can prepare in advance exactly what they want to write, and the anonymous nature of the interactions frees students to ask anything they like without fear of embarrassing themselves. It also gives students a chance to digest the scientists’ answers at their own pace, and go back over things if they want to. From my perspective, it means that all the questions “look the same”: I won’t end up devoting all my attention to the loudest or most persistent voices in the room.”

There was also evidence that the text-only format made the chats feel more inclusive for the scientists too:

“I think the anonymity of the live chats helps immensely. It allows students to ask whatever they’d like, be it science or not, whilst removing the fear of asking a silly question in front of their classmates or even to you directly. I think being behind a screen/giving text answers works well for the scientists too! Just having a profile photo and not video chat removes a lot of visual biases – I’d be rich if I had a pound for every time someone has told me I don’t ‘look’ like a scientist! But with just the profiles, you ARE a scientist, and everyone was asked questions equally.”

By Dr Hannah Little, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at UWE Bristol.

References:

Archer, L., Dawson, E., DeWitt, J., Seakins, A., & Wong, B. (2015). “Science capital”: A conceptual, methodological, and empirical argument for extending bourdieusian notions of capital beyond the arts. Journal of research in science teaching52(7), 922-948.

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