Do science fiction films teach us about science?

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Science fiction and fantasy films like Star Wars, The Hunger Games and Interstellar are hugely popular, with a reach for which many science communicators can only dream; particularly as these films typically reach beyond our usual audiences. But what if we think about these films as science communication examples in their own right?

It seems that science communication researchers are beginning to do just that. I attended two conferences in 2015 that explored this theme: Stories about Science: exploring science communication in entertainment media at Manchester University, UK in June and International Science in Popular Culture at Alpen Adria Universität, Klagenfurt, in Austria, in September. I was struck by the wide range of examples put forward of films with high quality science content – from Soylent Green to the Theory of Everything. Speaking in Manchester, Kevin Grazier, a planetary scientist, explained that Hollywood increasingly employed scientists as consultants on these (hopefully) blockbuster films. He did point out that while a consultant can influence how science is presented, they do have to be prepared to compromise.

David Kirby of Manchester University (organiser of the Stories about Science Conference and a speaker at the International Science in Popular Culture Conference) argues that scientists and some science funding agencies see popular culture as both an opportunity to stimulate popular interest and knowledge about science, and a threat to public understanding (e.g. if the science is incorrect). Given the interest and concerns raised by David Kirby, what do we know about the impact of science fiction films? The answer seems to be ‘not a lot’.

Searching the literature, I found studies of the impacts of science fiction films on children in schools (e.g. Lin et al, 2013; Arroio, 2010) suggesting that there is some interest in the potential of science fiction film and TV as a teaching tool, but few studies of ‘films in the wild’ or with adult audiences (i.e. studies of cinemagoers). Instead, much of the research on science fiction films seems to focus on content. This approach mirrors many studies of media communication which explore how science is portrayed in the newspapers and how accurate the content is, rather than its impact on readers.

Amongst the rare studies of science fiction films ‘in the wild’ are Lowe et al.’s (2006) study of The Day After Tomorrow. This study asked why cinema goers went to see this film, and found that only 5% were motivated by the environmental content. Actually, I find it surprising that as many as 5% state this, perhaps raising questions about how you ask audiences about their motivations. Nevertheless, Lowe et al.’s study provides some interesting insights into the potential of science fiction films as science communication. They conclude that films reach new audiences, not otherwise primarily motivated to engage with climate change, that films can raise awareness of issues and also that the audience is sophisticated – they recognise this type of film as fiction but also connect content with pre-existing knowledge.

Lowe et al.’s study, and the conferences, open many questions about the potential role of science fiction films as science communication. The wide reach of films and the mixed audiences they attract suggest they could have far reaching impacts on audiences, though Lowe et al.’s study highlights that these audiences read such films in sophisticated ways. Simple content analysis can only tell us what and how the science is presented; more sophisticated research is needed to understand the impacts on the public.

Dr Emma Weitkamp is Associate Professor in Science Communication at the University of the West of England.

References

Arroio, A. (2010). Context Based Learning: a Role of Cinema in Science Education. Science Education International, 21(3) 131-143.

Lin, K-L., Tsai, F-H., Chien, H-M., & Chang, L-T. (2013). Effects of a Science Fiction Film on the Technological Creativity of Middle School Students. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education, 9(2), 191-200.

Lowe, T., Brown, K., Dessai, S., de França Doria, M., Haynes, K. and Vincent, K. (2006). ‘Does tomorrow ever come? Disaster narrative and public perceptions of climate change’. Public Understanding of Science 15, pp. 435–457.

You can read more about the International Science in Popular Culture conference at: http://jcom.sissa.it/sites/default/files/documents/JCOM_1403_2015_E.pdf

Masters and beyond with the SCU

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Clare Wilkinson explains some of the programmes that UWE Bristol offers in Science Communication, and how coming back to school builds towards the ‘university of life.’

This year we had around 25 new students joining us to start our MSc Science Communication programme and Postgraduate Certificate in Practical Science Communication.

UWE OD 166
MSc student discusses a project during a UWE open day

At postgraduate level we work with students in a number of ways. Most students join our MSc Science Communication programme, as either a full or part-time student. Running for over ten years this programme has developed an excellent reputation for its combination of theory and practice. This means it continues to attract both those who have just completed a university degree and have already made the decision that their future lies in science communication, as well as students who have been working in a related field for a while and either are looking to make a career transition or to firmly establish a more formal qualification.

Running for over ten years this programme has developed an excellent reputation for its combination of theory and practice.

We also have a smaller number of students who take our Postgraduate Certificate in Practical Science Communication. Typically students on this programme tend to be practicing researchers who have been communicating their own research alongside their ‘day job’ and are looking to develop that experience further. On similar lines we also have a number of PhD students, from a wide range of areas at UWE, who are taking one or two of our science communication modules as part of their PhD programme. It’s fantastic to see early career researchers identifying a role for communication and engagement and building this into their research from the outset.

I tend to think about the programme in three ways; as ‘back to school’, the ‘light bulb’ moment and the ‘university of life’.

Back to school

As programme leader I tend to be in touch with our new students a lot, even before they start their courses. I’ll be confirming people’s module choices, double checking they are on the right programme and often having last minute meetings to let new students, and sometimes their families, get a feel for our campus and team.

Deciding to undertake postgraduate study is a big commitment, intellectually but also from a time and financial perspective, and so it’s understandable that often our students, their partners and families can feel a little nervous about it. I vividly remember once having to explain the potential job prospects of our course to an applicant’s father. Science communication was new to him and he wanted to be 100% sure it would offer his science graduate son a potential route to his desired employment in the future. I’m also well practiced in finding the odd coloured pen or piece of paper for a restless five-year old accompanying their parent to a UWE open evening, with very little interest in the new MSc their caregiver is about to undertake.

Any fearfulness will turn to smiles. A realisation takes hold that they have found a place where everyone shares their interests.

So, whatever the age, circumstances or commitments of our new students, starting a postgraduate programme will often mean change, uncertainty and challenges. My aim is that by the first day all new students feel confident that they have made the right decision for them, so that the ‘back to school’ feeling is one they (and their families) can embrace.

The light bulb moment

The start of the programme is always really busy, and this year was no different. Amongst registration activities, introductions to the library and the practicalities of life as a UWE student we also try to fit in content about life as a science communicator, and importantly, lots of opportunities for our students to meet and talk with each other. You only need to look around the room on the first day to realise that people are feeling nervous, anticipating what they will have in common with their new peers and eyeing up those they might potentially be friends with. This brings me to the light bulb moment.

We get introductions happening straight away… ‘Tell us about yourself’, I will say to each person, ‘just some snippets about you, where you are from and why you are here’. It’s then that it starts, each person around the room expressing their passion for communicating, that they love their subject (whatever that might be – we don’t only accept only science-based students on our programme), but that they think their real strengths lie in engaging around it. And one after another, any fearfulness will turn to smiles. A realisation takes hold that they have found a place where everyone shares their interest in communicating and that this will be their home for the coming weeks, months or years.

The university of life

On the first day, we distribute module guides and assessment information, talk about the various disciplines that influence science communication, and outline the expected level of reading. It will become clear that no student can learn all that there is to know about science communication in the first days or weeks of teaching and that much, much more is to come. As one door has closed on their undergraduate studies, the possibilities at Masters level can seem endless. It can be overwhelming, but as with the start of any new project the possibilities are exciting.

 If you are interested in finding out more about the UWE Bristol Science Communication Masters or Postgraduate Certificate, please go to our website.

The story behind the cameras: filming robots

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In 2013, just as I was finishing my Masters in Science Communication at UWE Bristol, I was asked to help film the euRathlon robotics competition in Germany. euRathlon was inspired by the situation that officials were faced with after the nuclear accident in Fukushima in 2011. The competition challenges robotics engineers to solve the problems of dealing with an emergency scenario, pushing innovation and creativity in the robotics domain. The project is led by Prof. Alan Winfield from UWE alongside seven other partner institutions. The 2015 euRathlon competition in Piombino, Italy combined land, sea and air challenges for the robots to overcome. Our 2015 film team included three of us (Josh Hayes Davidson on graphics, Charlie Nevett on camera and myself – Tim Moxon – as producer and sound engineer), taking with us all the lessons I learned from 2013.

Filming robots, particularly complex robots designed to respond to emergency scenarios, is a daunting task. Trying to make sure that we didn’t get too technical was always going to be a problem. We had the additional issue that English was not the first language of most of the people being interviewed which really added to the challenge. Taking care and with plenty of re-shoots we managed to get round both of the problems by sticking to the golden rules: take it slow and keep it simple. This made sure that we never lost sight of what we were trying to do. Our focus was always to bring 21st century robotics into the public eye.Picture 2

The first two days of the competition presented the individual land, sea and air trials. On site we first created two “meet the teams” films where we interviewed all 16 teams and got to know them. Luckily they were all super friendly and very cooperative which meant we got all the teams interviewed in two days. After that the real work began. The land trials were easy enough to film and get a good story line of shots as the robots were almost always visible.  However the underwater robots required a bit more imagination. In the end a GoPro on a piece of drift wood got us the shots we needed.


The aerial robots had some issues too as getting long distance shots was not always easy. Fortunately Josh and Charlie were more than up to the task.

Day 3 and 4 focused on combining two domains, so land and sea or air and land etc. Day 3 went well with fantastic interviews with judges and teams helping to really give some depth to the videos. Again underwater proved to be a bit challenging but we managed, with the help of some footage given to us by the teams that they took on-board their robots. Day 4 didn’t go as well as the second half of the competition had to be cancelled due to strong winds. Wind had been an issue throughout the competition and all of our equipment required regular cleaning to keep the dust out, as well as dealing with constant wind when recording sound.

That day however you could barely stand in the open for all the dust and sand being kicked up by the wind and getting good sound for interviews was nearly impossible. We could only hope that the weather improved for the Grand Challenge.

The final days were the Grand Challenge, as much for us filming as for those competing. The timescale was starting to tighten as we only had two days to film, cut and polish the remaining two videos. With increasing pressure to produce high quality products we pulled out all the stops. Fortunately all the teams rose to the occasion and provided us with some spectacular on-board footage as well as some nice underwater diver footage. The Grand Challenge turned out to be a great success with all the teams at least competing even if they didn’t all finish the challenge.

Tim Moxon completed the UWE Bristol Masters in Science Communication in 2013.

For more information about EuRathlon please visit the project website.

Science communicators need to get it: science isn’t fun.

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I am writing on the flight that takes me to a conference in Warsaw, which will nicely draw to a close a research cycle that started shortly after I joined the SCU. As part of my job interview at UWE Bristol almost exactly 4 years ago, I said that one of the things I hoped to share was concerns about the role of “fun” in science communication, and specifically in science centres. These concerns had developed during the decade or so I had spent working in science centres and with the media and I felt they needed to be addressed through academic research alongside practitioners.

I am unable to tell exactly when and where I developed an interest in investigating this currently ubiquitous trend of “fun,” but I found I was not alone in this endeavour. I liaised and collaborated with Guillermo Fernández, an engineer and exhibit designer I knew from the times when he would offer his services to the science centre I worked at. We were later joined by Pere Viladot, a very experienced museum educator and since recently PhD in science education. I was also able to draw into the investigation various undergraduate students in their final year at UWE, through their third year project. I must say, as well as ticking the boxes of integrating research into teaching and providing a unique student experience (in that the students did real original research, as opposed to repeat experiments of well-known phenomena), this has been the part that I enjoyed most. It was simply awesome to see these undergraduates doing research work that was often of better quality than what we see in MSc dissertations, and to share their excitement at seeing their work being accepted and presented at international conferences.

Scientists see their work as fascinating, intriguing, exciting, interesting or important, but not “fun.”

So, quite early on, student Megan Lyons explored the perception of the “fun” in science by people at different stages of their scientific career, showing that with time and experience “fun” becomes less and less of an adjective used to describe their work, and that there are many other words that are preferred in its stead, such as “fascinating, intriguing, exciting, interesting, or important”, to name but a few. We presented this at a conference in Lodz (Poland), where people involved in Childrens’ Universities met to discuss their practice. It was quite an eye opener to encounter such a lack of understanding of what I was saying, and in the lively Q&A session I kept having to repeat again and again what we were warning against (conveying the message that science is fun) and what we weren’t (making science teaching and communication as fun as possible).

In the context of science centres, undergraduate student Hannah Owen had already explored whether science centres are actually addressing and providing opportunities for “dialogue” between science and society. Her analysis of At-Bristol and Techniquest that concluded that indeed they are not, and that the only attempts to do so are through activities and events, not through the exhibitions. This was presented at the 2013 edition of the Science in Public Conference in Nottingham and recently selected for publication in the Pantaneto Forum.

Science centres have tried and failed to understand their own role… and it sends out the wrong message about science.

This provided another example in which to understand how science centres have tried and failed to find a way to understand their own role, focusing on “fun” being just one more of these attempts. Reflecting on this we have been able to identify various “wrong messages” that are conveyed in this way: it sends out the wrong message about science communication (deterring scientists from engaging in it), about science (as being a scientist is definitely not about having fun), about science education (as it seems one has to go out of the classroom to have fun, the conclusion being that class is boring), about science centres (as they become a venue of entertainment only, displacing from them valuable approaches such as inquiry based learning, for which they are an ideal venue), and about children (as it condescendingly assumes they would only engage in things that are fun).

We presented these reflections at the EASST 2014 conference in Torun (Poland) and to Physics teachers at the TPI-2015 (Teaching Physics Innovatively) conference in Budapest, where undergraduate student Jessica Tee complemented the research with the outcomes of her final year project. She confirmed that science centres are indeed a valuable educational resource, thus reinforcing the message that this is not something they should lose at the expense of concentrating on providing “fun”.

Science centres need to return to the long forgotten principles of museology, which is the language they speak and master.

Now in Poland I will present all this to the science centre community, which were the only players of the field to which we had not yet had the occasion to communicate our proposal. We think that instead of “fun,” science centres should focus on what they do best and constitutes their core business, namely exhibitions. To do so, they need to return to the long forgotten principles of museology, which is the language they speak and master, just as movies use the cinematographic language. This means that museologists need to be engaged, something that does not currently happen. In the educational front, science centres could use such well-designed and conceived exhibitions as the “field” for data collection in inquiry based learning. Again, to do so they need a shift in their hiring: this needs highly qualified educators instead of – or at least in addition to – museum explainers that are volunteers, interns or other temporary staff. The alterative is science centres trying to compete with other venues or options in what these others do best (fun, entertainment, multimedia & audiovisual communication etc…), hardly a promising prospect in the long run.

Just two days ago we submitted an article about this to Ecsite’s SPOKES magazine, and another one in more detail is about to appear in the Spanish Journal of Museology. Together with the presentation in Warsaw they constitute a satisfactory culmination of this collaboration. As the plane prepares to land (and I am asked to switch of this tablet), I can’t help enjoying a sense of achievement and starting to look forward to the next research cycle on which I will report in due course…

Erik Stengler is a Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at UWE.
@eriks7

Bristol Bright Night summary

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BBN groupOn Friday 25th September 2015 Bristol was one of the many European cities celebrating research and researchers. The European Researchers’ Night takes place every year, on the last Friday in September. The event is known locally as Bristol Bright Night and it’s jointly organised by UWE Bristol, the University of Bristol and the Bristol Natural History Consortium.

BBN talkRunning for the second year, Bristol Bright Night offered an array of activities including talks, hands-on, debates, comedy and many others. Margarida Sardo from UWE Science Communication Unit was responsible for evaluating the event. The evaluation was designed to suit different venues and audiences.BBN crop

For this event the methods used included paper and online questionnaires (using an ipad didn’t work very well!), observations, a feedback wall – which was particularly popular with school children – and post-event interviews with researchers and organisers.

For more photos from the event, go to the BNHC website.

 

 

 

Student opportunities at the Latitude Festival

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One of the nice things we’re able to do from time to time is offer our Masters students work experience on a public engagement project.

For the last two years (2014 and 2015) Margarida Sardo and I have carried out an evaluation of a strand of activities sponsored by the Wellcome Trust at the annual Latitude Festival.

debs
Debs (2015) handing out feedback cards

The Latitude Festival is a well-known and wide-ranging cultural festival, which includes comedy, music, theatre, literature, poetry, dance and more (think Glastonbury but with less mud and more writers!). The Wellcome Trust events are also hugely varied, including poetry, music and theatre performances, presentations, discussions, dialogues and interactive events.

Margarida designed the evaluation, including snapshot interviews with members of the audiences, informal feedback via comment cards, observations of events and interviews with presenters, while I led the evaluation at the festival. In both years, the students were chiefly responsible for carrying out the audience interviews and looking after the informal feedback, so it was an excellent opportunity to gain an understanding of what is involved in the evaluation of a live event as well as strengthen their communication skills.

Tariq and Tom (2014)
Tariq and Tom (2014) sorting out feedback on post-it notes

With around 26 events taking place in half a dozen locations around the three days of the Festival, the help and support of our students was absolutely invaluable in helping to collect as much data as possible. Between them, the 2015 team observed 14 full events, persuaded 45 people to be interviewed and got 192 people to complete a comment card!

louisa
Louisa (2015) doing a snapshot interview

In return for students’ support, we offered a modest payment, subsistence expenses during the Festival and free transport to and from Suffolk. The students also had free tickets to the Festival, which gave them access to most of its 200 or so events. As most of the science events took place during the day, and the big comedy and music headliners were on late at night, the students got to see some really interesting stuff!

You can find our report from the 2014 Festival on the UWE repository. And the hard work of the students is also contributing to two papers that Margarida and I are currently working on.

Ann Grand and Margarida Sardo are research fellows in the Science Communication Unit.

What I learnt working with robots, children and animals

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Put two robotics researchers in a small room with a bad tempered snake, 30 children and a zoologist. And make sure everyone learns something and enjoys themselves.

Robots v Animals logo small

That was the goal of a recent SCU-led project called ‘Robots vs Animals,’ a collaboration with Bristol Zoo Gardens education unit and Bristol Robotics Laboratory, with funding from the Royal Academy of Engineering. I’ll admit that was not how the project was originally defined, but it was the situation I found myself in as project coordinator last March.

The snake was a grumpy Columbian rainbow boa called Indigo, who was supposed to be demonstrating energy efficiency in the animal kingdom. The researchers were specialists on Microbial Fuel Cells, a system that can convert organic matter into electricity. They work on highly innovative designs that get power from urine – but only a small amount at a time, hence the need for energy efficiency. The kids were 12 and 13 year olds from a local school who were learning about biomimicry and seeing the cutting edge applications of science and maths. In this project I think I learnt as much about public engagement as they did about robots.

  1. Make contact.

Zoo 25th Nov2014 30I mean human, skin contact. It’s an old chestnut of engagement, but it proved itself once again. Even when bits of equipment broke – or were broken before we even started – the audiences really appreciated getting to hold and touch things themselves. This applied as much to the wires, switches and circuit boards of the robots as the cuddly and creepy animals. A ‘robot autopsy’ (bits and bobs from the scrap bin at the Lab) went down a storm in a Bristol primary school and a Pint of Science pub quiz. Watching school students handle a Nao robot as carefully as a baby was a project highlight for me and featured strongly in their positive feedback.

  1. Keep contact.

I was physically based in the Bristol Robotics Laboratory for the duration of the project, and it made a huge difference being around the researchers outside of our meetings and in between emails. I could get a much better sense of their projects, interests and personalities by seeing them every week, even if I theoretically could have coordinated the project from the SCU offices on the other side of the campus. Being around also helped to give the project a higher profile inside a busy, hard-working research lab where time for public engagement is limited.

  1. Have contacts.
Jade Duggan
Photo credit: Jade Duggan

The project evolved from its main focus of classes at Bristol Zoo Gardens to include a short film with a local science centre, talks and stalls at public events and even a teacher training seminar. Being able to say ‘yes’ to opportunities as they arose from different quarters is a luxury that not all projects can afford, but I found it was important to stay open to opportunities as the project developed. Attention to how the project outputs are worded in the first place helps, so does listening carefully to the needs of participants and interested parties and having a great project manager (thanks Laura Fogg Rogers!).

 

So how did all of that help with an irascible snake, excitable kids and nervous researchers? Firstly, Zoo staff quickly went to find a snake that would be more amenable to being stroked, to allow for first contact. I attended the session alongside the researchers even though they were leading it. This meant I could give feedback and support, and had the honour of watching as they became more skilled and relaxed. Having seen how they kept their nerve with the uncivil serpent, I knew I could rely on those researchers to handle other difficult situations – like appearing in front of a camera when the opportunity arose. Finally, when we had the chance to showcase their research at another event, we made use of our contacts and took the docile cockroaches with us rather than Indigo the snake.

@robotsvsanimalsRobot and animals for web small

Corra Boushel is a project coordinator in the Science Communication Unit. Robots vs Animals was supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering Ingenious Awards. Thanks to the Science Communication Unit and Bristol Robotics Laboratory at the University of the West of England and Bristol Zoo Gardens.

No snakes were harmed during this project.

Knowledge is power?

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Research shows that audiences at a health science festival prefer lectures.

We all know the debates about deficit versus dialogue, but what do audiences prefer? This was the central research question in my recent study looking at a health science festival in New Zealand.

Science festivals offer an interesting environment to explore preferences for format design, as they usually feature a huge variety of different event styles. The science festival in question was held in Auckland, New Zealand, and focussed on health science research around the brain and psychology. Held as part of international Brain Awareness Week, ‘Brain Day’ attracts over 3000 people to this free one-day annual event- not an insignificant number in a country of just 4.5 million people!

The festival formats under question were lectures, discussions, a community expo, laboratory experiments and a general good day out. Festival entrants were handed a questionnaire to fill in, and could return it anonymously to a drop-box at the exits, with a prize draw incentive. The experiment was repeated over three years, and in total we reached a sample of 661 people.

So which format did they prefer? Overwhelmingly, this sample significantly preferred lectures; with 76% ranking them the main attraction, 89% attending them, and 84% stating lectures were the most useful. This was irrespective of age, gender, education, or the year the festival was run. In open response questions participants described their reasons – stating that ‘knowledge is power’. Participants were attending the festival to learn something new, and lectures presented a good way to hear about research and expert opinion.

But wait – don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! We conclude that all formats have a part to play in the science communication landscape. Over two-thirds of the sample visited more than one format, and indeed, laboratory experiments were the second choice for family visitors. Yet however you look at it, the much derided format of lectures is still clearly popular with audiences.

Laura Fogg-Rogers is a Research Fellow in the SCU at UWE.
@laurafoggrogers

This post was originally published in the STEM Communicators Network newsletter Issue 32.The research article it is based on is available in Science Communication 37 (4).

Welcome to the Science Communication Unit Blog

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Hello new readers and welcome to the first post of the Science Communication Unit Blog. If you don’t know much about us we are a team of staff based at the University of the West of England, Bristol who work in science communication practice, teaching and research. We comprise PhD students, science writers and editors, researchers and academics, who come from a variety of academic perspectives to consider the theory and practice of science communication. You can visit our website to find out more about us.Blog spelled out in Scrabble tiles

In recent years our team has expanded considerably and so now seemed a good time to launch a blog dedicated to the Unit to help us, and you, to keep up-to-date on our latest happenings. On this blog we will be regularly posting our thoughts and ideas on a range of subjects associated to science communication. This will include updates on our current projects, reflections on science communication theories and ideas, our responses and thoughts on current issues facing the sector, as well as some occasional image and video-based content. We will be posting content every two to three weeks and whilst a lot of the material will be drawn from research evidence and academic materials, we will also use this as a space to occasionally share our personal views.

Does this sound like a good idea? Are there other subjects you’d like to see covered on the blog? Don’t forget you can also use the blog as a space to interact with us, sharing your views and ideas on the subjects we post around.

Clare Wilkinson, Associate Professor in Science Communication.