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.

Empowering WECA pupils with data for sustainable school streets

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Speeding cars, traffic jams, air pollution… these are but a few of the grievances the average city dweller contends with on a daily basis. Below the driving age, children in the West of England do not contribute to these problems, yet they are among the most vulnerable to their consequences.

To allow children to safely make their way to school, without the need to breathe in polluted air and to arrive in a timely manner, EU citizen science project WeCount, together with DETI Inspire, has launched a series of educational resources for KS2 and KS4 pupils. Covering a wide range of subjects, all curriculum linked, children are able to learn about the grand challenges’ cities face in relation to urban travel, and the steps they can take collectively to make their school streets, and cities, safer, healthier and happier. By taking part, schools can gain points towards Modeshift STARS Travel Plan accreditation.

This collaborative project is coordinated by UWE Bristol researchers from the Science Communication Unit. Project manager Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers explains why these resources are so important:

“Road transport is a leading cause of air pollution and climate change within the West of England. For our cities to become net zero carbon emissions by 2030, the date which scientists warn is our deadline to keep global warming below 1.5°C and prevent runaway climate change, drastic changes need to be made to every aspect of life, not least driving. WeCount sensors and associated school resources are one piece of the puzzle in helping citizens to create the changes they wish to see. “

What is WeCount?

WeCount, led by UWE Bristol, is a project that equips households, community centres and schools with low-cost traffic sensors to count cars, bikes, pedestrians and heavy vehicles, as well as the speed of cars. Over time, the citizen scientists can observe trends and use the evidence to lobby for changes on their roads. Among the successes with WeCount data so far, citizens across Europe have convinced their councils to install speed cameras and reduce road speeds, and consider bike lanes and pedestrianisation, spread awareness among residents and contributed to consultations on new housing developments.

How do we get involved?

WeCount is giving away 20 sensors to schools across the West of England. Contact engineeringourfuture@uwe.ac.uk to apply for one for your school.

KS2 resources are freely available here. KS4 due for release later this month. Email the above email address if you would like to be sent a KS4 pack directly to your school when available.

All resources can be delivered without a sensor, using the data available on the Telraam website.

You are also able to buy all of the components required for the sensor at PiHut. For more details on the equipment you need, please see this document .

What’s inside the KS2 pack?

A whole school assembly

Fifteen curriculum-linked worksheets, with instructions and PowerPoint for teachers, covering Geography, IT, Maths, Science, Art and English, Design and Technology. These include tasks to: collect and analyse data; understand different urban travel views; design a bike for the future; vision a healthier, happier school street; and persuade the mayor to consider your proposals.

Lessons can be delivered independently or combined for after-school clubs or themed curriculum, and can be teacher-led or with the support of UWE Bristol or STEM Ambassadors.

What’s inside the KS4 pack?

A whole school assembly

Ten curriculum-linked worksheets, with instructions and PowerPoint for teachers, covering nearly all GCSE subjects – Geography, Computer Science, Maths, Science, Citizenship and English, Design and Technology, History and Engineering. These activities include tasks to: learn about the influence of powerful actors on the proliferation of the car; collect and analyse data; explore the science behind the sensors; debate the role of AI in solving the climate crisis; research local travel issues and viewpoints; design interventions and deliver action projects; creatively write about their experiences.

Lessons can be delivered independently or combined for after-school clubs or themed curriculum, and can be teacher-led or with the support of UWE or STEM Ambassadors.

Sophie Laggan,  Research Associate, citizen empowerment and policy change for urban health and sustainability at UWE Bristol.

New Minecraft programme allows children to digitally engineer the West of England

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A new Minecraft programme featuring iconic Bristol and Bath landmarks is allowing children to digitally engineer the West of England, improving their scientific knowledge and encouraging them to consider Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers.

The Digital Engineering Technology and Innovation (DETI) programme team at UWE Bristol have been exploring digitally engineering the West with local children, using the incredibly popular block-building video game Minecraft.

Minecraft is the second-best selling video game of all time and extremely popular with children. Players place and break blocks with a wide range of appearances and properties, to build a huge variety of constructions. Players can easily make changes to their builds and quickly visualise new ideas, much like computer-aided design (CAD) software used for digital engineering.

The DETI Skills Inspire team partnered with local design and engineering consultancy Atkins, and Minecraft experts Dr Laura Hobbs and Jonathan Kim, to create a scale recreation of Bristol and Bath within the game, allowing local children to explore, build, re-design and re-engineer their very own cities.

Consultants from Atkins created a programme to convert Ordnance Survey data into a to-scale Minecraft world, allowing a highly detailed Bristol and Bath to be created – the West in Minecraft.

This new world was then populated with famous engineering landmarks such as the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol Temple Meads Station and the SS Great Britain.

DETI Skills Inspire has been using this new Minecraft world at after-school STEM clubs recently established in Lawrence Weston and Easton, Bristol, as part of a STEM in the Community project funded by UWE Bristol and the STEM Ambassador hub West England, in collaboration with local community groups in both areas.

By re-creating these areas of Bristol within the game, children from both Lawrence Weston and Easton are able to explore the parts of their community that are familiar to them, piquing their interest and giving them power to reshape where they live.

Exploring new areas of the city through Minecraft also opens up opportunities for children to visit and talk about some of the city’s famous landmarks, many of which they may never have seen before, strengthening their knowledge and cultural connection with these areas and our city as a whole.

Liz Lister, Manager of the STEM Ambassador Hub West England, said: “Giving young people access to these places and giving them power to reshape them, even if it is just in Minecraft, offers them the opportunity to imagine their world as being different to what it is now. We hope that planting the idea that we can have some control over our own environment will lead some young people to think about the relevance of design and engineering to their lives, and then perhaps on to thinking of themselves as designers and engineers of the future.”

The activity utilises the approach developed by Science Hunters, which is based at UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit and Lancaster University, and is affiliated with their Royal Academy of Engineering-funded engineering strand Building to Break Barriers . The game has proven to be a successful educational tool, and evaluations undertaken by Science Hunters indicate that use of Minecraft through their approach  both attracts children who might not otherwise have engaged with science learning, and successfully improves scientific knowledge and understanding after participating in sessions.

Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers, Senior Lecturer in STEM Education and Communication at UWE Bristol, said: “So far ‘the West in Minecraft’ has been a huge success amongst the young people attending these STEM clubs. There has been much excitement at finding their own homes within the model city, re-building structures and adding to existing ones. Farms have been built on rooftops as the children have been encouraged to think about how they would re-design their city for a net zero future.”

A set of school resources to explore digital engineering, using this new Minecraft world, are currently being developed by the DETI Inspire team for release next academic year. These 1-2 hour lessons are currently being trialled with local primary schools, linking activities to the curriculum and drawing on several different subject areas to allow for a cross-curricular and rather unique learning experience.

New community STEM club launched in Easton

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STEM @ Baggator is a community STEM club for young people in Easton that takes place after school on Mondays (3-8.30pm) and welcomes all young people in the area to drop by and join in!

The club was co-developed with members of the local community, with support from the STEM Ambassador hub for the West of England and the DETI Inspire team at UWE Bristol, as part of a STEM in the community project funded by UWE, which aims to help STEM Ambassadors and UWE students collaborate to run STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) initiatives that are relevant to their local communities.

Lego Mindstorms being assembled at STEM @ Baggator

STEM @ Baggator had a hugely successful launch event last week, with over 30 local young people joining in for some robot building and racing! There was a wonderfully positive atmosphere throughout the evening with everyone keen to get involved and even help tidy up all the stray pieces of Lego that had found their way onto the floor, as Lego tends to do!

At the next session, the team will be trialling a brand new activity which will have young people re-designing their local areas digitally, using the popular game Minecraft and a specially designed scale model of Bristol city.

A swarm of robots at STEM @ Baggator!

STEM in the community is an ongoing project based at UWE Bristol and we’ll be sharing more news of the initiatives that are being co-developed with other communities in the West of England region. If you would like to know more about STEM @ Baggator or would like to collaborate on a new community STEM project, please contact the team at deti@uwe.ac.uk

DETI is a strategic programme of the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), delivered by the National Composites Centre, in partnership with the Centre for Modelling & SimulationDigital Catapult, the University of the West of England, the University of Bristol, and the University of Bath. DETI is funded by £5m from WECA, with co-investment from the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and industry.

This post was originally published on the Engineering Our Future blog.

Women Like Me engineers inspire Bristol primary school students

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Based in the Science Communication Unit and Department of Engineering Design and Mathematics at UWE Bristol and organised by Dr Laura Hobbs and Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers, Women Like Me is a peer mentoring and outreach project, aimed at boosting female representation in engineering. It is supported by the initiative for Digital Engineering Technology & Innovation (DETI).

Engineers on our Women Like Me programme are currently undertaking engineering outreach and engagement with children in the Southwest. Recently, Whitehall Primary School in Bristol asked if our engineers could answer questions from their Year 2 pupils as part of their ‘Amazing Engineers’ topic.

The children’s perceptive questions ranged from ‘Why did you want to be an engineer?’ to ‘Did you play with Lego when you were 7 years old?’:

  • Why did you want to be an engineer? 
  • Do you know what your next invention/work will be? 
  • How hard is engineering? 
  • Did you play with Lego when you were 7 years old? 
  • What kind of things do you use at work? 
  • What kind of engineer are you? 
  • Do you like your job? 
  • Did anyone help you with your first project? 

Four women in engineering, three from our current cohort and one a Women Like Me alumna, produced videos in which they answered the children’s questions, giving them both insights into the varied roles in engineering, and representation of diversity within the sector.

With women making up only 12% of engineers in the UK, more girls need to connect with engineering as a career, with positive female role models, and more women need to be supported to make a difference in the workplace. Find out more about the importance of diversity in engineering here.

More ‘meet an engineer’ videos can be found in our playlist.

The school described the connection with engineers as a “great experience for the children”. They really enjoyed watching the videos and hearing from real-life engineers answering their questions.

The children absolutely LOVED the videos! They were talking about them for days – really excited and buzzing! We’re so grateful for the time taken by your engineers to record them.

Kathie Cooke, Whitehall Primary School

Digital Engineering Technology & Innovation (DETI) is a strategic programme of the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), delivered by the National Composites Centre, in partnership with the Centre for Modelling & SimulationDigital Catapult, the University of the West of England, the University of Bristol, and the University of Bath. Industry partners include Airbus, GKN Aerospace, Rolls-Royce, and CFMS, with in kind contributions from UWE, Digital Catapult and Siemens. DETI is funded by £5m from WECA, with co-investment from the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and industry.

This post was originally published on the Engineering Our Future blog.

Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in delivering Citizen Science projects: Insights from the WeCount project

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Margarida Sardo and Sophie Laggan

WeCount is a citizen science research project funded by the H2020 SwafS-programme and aims to empower citizens to take a leading role in the production of data, evidence and knowledge around mobility in their own neighbourhoods. The project started in December 2019 and was designed to have lots of face-to-face engagement and interaction between the project team and citizens in five European cities and regions (Leuven in Belgium; Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, Ljubljana in Slovenia, Dublin in Ireland and Cardiff in the UK).

Just as the project started recruiting citizens and running workshops, the world was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant restrictions on who we could meet and where we could meet them. Eventually, all WeCount countries went into lockdown, which placed additional challenges on delivering the project as it was originally planned.

Dr Margarida Sardo, from the Science Communication Unit conducted a short evaluation aimed at understand the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in running and delivering a large-scale, international citizen science project.

Main challenges faced by the WeCount team:

  • Uncertainty
  • Changing priorities
  • Reaching specific groups, such as senior citizens and low socio-economic groups
  • Online fatigue
  • Fear of face-to-face
  • Digital skills
  • Logistics

The COVID-19 pandemic has no doubt created new challenges for some citizen science projects, but with hybrid approaches to participant recruitment and engagement, projects can still thrive. This study provides useful advice for creating the flexibility, adaptability, refocus required to overcome the challenges faced.

Based on the findings of this evaluation, Sophie Laggan has created a full infographic, highlighting both the challenges faced by the WeCount team, but also offering helpful approaches to counterbalance the impacts of the pandemic on delivering the project.

For a closer look at the infographic below or to download a copy, please click here.

Seeing people in the data

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By Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers

We’re living through a Climate and Ecological Emergency and we urgently need to reduce carbon emissions. And yet society seems frozen into inaction. Could a new modelling and communication approach help to gather momentum?

The ClairCity project was led by UWE Bristol and brought together the Air Quality Monitoring Resource Centre and the Science Communication Unit. The project reached over 818,000 citizens through innovative public engagement methods including an online game, extensive workshops and surveys, and schools activities.

In a journal paper recently released, the research team detailed their innovative method to bring these results together, through citizen-centred source apportionment. Traditional methods for monitoring air pollution and carbon emissions look at what is creating the emissions (vehicles, heating etc), and where the emissions end up (pollution hot spots).

Focus on Who and Why

This new approach focusses on who is burning fossil fuels and why they are doing so. This means we can understand the human dimension of emissions to improve policymaking, accounting for demographics (gender or age groups), socio-economic factors (income/car ownership) and motives for specific behaviours (e.g., commuting to work, leisure, shopping, etc.).

The modelling produced some surprises when applied to traffic in Bristol – as leisure travel accounted for the most km travelled, and therefore the most emissions per year.  Local councils usually focus on school traffic or commuting, but this provides a new way to approach emissions reduction. Policymakers plan to look at ways to reduce car use for leisure travel, for instance locating leisure venues near to public transport or cycling paths, or even considering plans for 15 minute cities, where any necessary city amenities are within a 15 minute walk from homes.

Figure 1. (a) This infographic presents the relative contribution of each motive to total kilometres travelled by car in Bristol in 2015. It was designed to highlight recognisable social practices and activities.
Figure 1. (b) This social card links to the data and was designed to resonate with activities that people do every day that contribute to carbon emissions and air pollution.

For science communicators, there is also much to think through as well. The modelling showed that emissions are not evenly produced; certain types of people produce more emissions than others, and some feel the effects of pollution more than others. For instance, men travel by car more than women, and people who earn over £50,000 per year tend to own more cars, and therefore drive far more often.

Figure 2. Infographic (top) and social card (bottom) showing differences in air pollution produced through men’s and women’s different travel habits.

Perceptions of ‘sensible’ climate action vary between groups

We therefore need a far more nuanced approach to communicating about climate action. Climate Outreach have done some excellent work on this topic, with their work on seven segments of British society and their attitudes to climate action. Science communicators need to focus on the segments polluting the most, and tailor communications showing the benefits of each relevant action they can take.

The UWE team’s new journal paper take this further using social psychology theories, explaining how the social contexts of the groups to which we belong influence what we perceive to be ‘normal’ in society. This means that cultural realities can change between social groups, cities, regions and countries. This ‘Overton Window of Political Possibility’ can shift over time so that an idea moves from unthinkable to radical, to acceptable, to sensible, to popular and finally into policy. For example, a climate change policy which is considered quite sensible in one city, such as an extensive network of segregated bike lanes allowing for cars to be curtailed in the city centre (Amsterdam in the Netherlands), may be considered to be quite radical in another city (such as Bristol, U.K.).

Science communications needs to focus on group lived experience of this ‘normality’, in order to understand more about why our day-to-day behaviours happen, and how we can change if we see others doing the same. Politicians will generally only pursue policies that are widely accepted throughout society as legitimate policy options, or otherwise, they may risk losing popular support and become unelectable. In order to introduce new policies, we therefore need to show how an idea can be communicated so that it resonates with what is deemed ‘acceptable’ or ‘sensible’ to the majority of citizens.

People like me create emissions, and people like me can take action

The UWE team showed how social cognitive theory can be used to help improve individual and collective self-efficacy for climate action. Using an example of more women cycling to activities, we need to focus on:

  1. Vicarious experiences (i.e., comparisons of capability to others, modelling and observing)—a woman deciding whether to cycle will be influenced by whether other women cycle; if this is considered a ’normal’ thing for women to do, then other women will likely join in.
  2. Mastery or performance accomplishments (i.e., experiences of relevant success)—a beginner female cyclist will be more likely to continue cycling if they have a positive experience cycling on main roads; they will then have a memory to recall about their ability to cycle alongside cars.
  3. Verbal persuasions (positive feedback from peers and supervisors, coaching)—to continue cycling, the female cyclist would need to receive direct positive feedback on this activity.
  4. Emotional arousal – both vicarious (indirect) and mastery (direct) experiences can influence our emotional states. To improve self-efficacy for an activity, we need to experience positive emotional responses. Therefore, the woman would need to feel that she is capable and confident at cycling and that other people approve or admire her behaviour.

So climate action needs positive (and relevant) role models, alongside positive press or communications (in relevant media) in order to help change our behaviours.

The ClairCity project showed how new thinking about the role of people in relation to air pollution and carbon emissions can widen options for action, leading to more acceptable and effective policies. Climate communications should draw on social learning in order to tailor communication efforts towards relevant groups. Ultimately, we need to become more aware that ’people like me’ create emissions and, equally, ‘people like me’ can take action to reduce emissions.


Fogg-Rogers, L.; Hayes, E.; Vanherle, K.; Pápics, P.I..; Chatterton, T.; Barnes, J.; Slingerland, S.; Boushel, C.; Laggan, S.; Longhurst, J.. Applying Social Learning to Climate Communications—Visualising ‘People Like Me’ in Air Pollution and Climate Change Data. Sustainability 2021, 13(6) 3406 doi.org/10.3390/su13063406

“It gave me the confidence to consider science communication as a career…”

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Kassie at NASA Ames in front of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)

My name is Kassie. I’m a storyteller, science facilitator, and science advocate. I work as a federal contractor for the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute at NASA Ames in Silicon Valley. A decade ago, I would have never expected my career to head in this direction. I’ve always enjoyed science – especially robotics and space science – but early on I was drawn to the humanities. Reading literature taught me about the human condition and prepared me to think critically and communicate clearly. Effective science communication follows a similar thread: communicate clearly and connect with your audiences through good storytelling. We’re not data processors, after all.

I discovered science communication after a bit of soul-searching. In my early 30s, I worked as a research communicator at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford and I wanted to level up my practical experience with training courses. Well, I didn’t find research communication training, however, ‘science communication’ popped up. Huh, interesting. I was curious and signed up to the week-long Science Communication Masterclass taking place in Bristol and organised by the SCU. At the end of the week I was hooked. That was it for me. I didn’t know in what shape or form, but science communication needed to be in my future!

At NASA, I’m the go-between for our scientists (the science community) and members of the public. The best way I can explain it is finding that sweet spot connection between exploring the science and humanity in our work. I do a lot of interviewing. I ask scientists about their science journey and challenge them to explain their science like they were presenting at a science museum and to eager science enthusiasts. Explain the acronyms! 

I learned to practice upstream engagement at UWE Bristol. Now I understand how to better incorporate inclusive learning experiences and fostering two-way dialogues. Just as it sounds, it implies creating space for members of ‘publics’ early on in science conversations and working together – as opposed to disseminating and hoping for the best. It challenges perceptions in our current model of science discourse. At NASA this can be a tricky, however, things are getting better! Citizen science is where it can really take off.

Kassie in front of the new Hidden Figure Way, at NASA HQ in Washington DC.

It took a few years, but we’ve recently developed a citizen science proposal around this concept. We – a small group of astronomers and science communicators – are developing engaging science communication content via videos, inviting people along the science journey with astronomers as they look through data – augmenting a current citizen science project called ‘Planet Hunters’. We are not shying away from technical aspects and delving into the nitty-gritty astronomers experience during the process. Citizen scientists will lend their expertise, lead video content, and can influence the direction of the tutorials. Instead of pushing out content WE think people are interested in seeing, we will be working alongside citizen scientists and listening to their anxieties, concerns, and building our project together with them. Scientists, citizen scientists, and science communicators. Our little project is only just starting – wish us luck!

None of this would have been possible without my training at UWE, which I continued after the Masterclass by completing an MSc in Science Communication. The teaching staff nurtured my budding interest in robotics and electric vehicles. I decided to focus my MSc project dissertation on public perceptions of autonomous vehicles. I felt a personal sense of accomplishment with my deep dive dissertation. Shortly thereafter, I interviewed with NASA leadership and moved back to California for this job. Like any new role, it has evolved over time. I still get to write about cool science topics, but now I’m more involved in day-to-day management as a managing editor and my brand new citizen science project!

My advice: if you’re thinking about science communication, give it a go. Attend a taster, attend the Masterclass. It will be rigorous and challenging, but you’ll walk away with skills and confidence to go after anything. I know I did. Then come join me at NASA!

Kassie Perlongo

Creating a short science based multilingual film for a European audience

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I recently had the opportunity to produce a documentary about the concerning shortage of early career pollinator taxonomists in Europe. The film was made to complement a Science for Environment Policy (SfEP) report that I co-authored, about the  important role of pollinators in the survival of the global ecosystem, and highlighting the vital role of monitoring them, to understand the causes of their declining numbers1. As a former TV documentary producer, and now science communicator, it is always enjoyable to revisit my filmmaking skills. But, for anyone contemplating making a film – whether it’s the first — or the twentieth they have made — it is always a little daunting and exciting to figure out where to start, and who will be your charismatic interviewees that compel your viewers to watch the film to the end?

Focus

The first task, after deciding on the outline of content for the pollinators report, was to come up with a list of topics for our client that the film could focus on. Our client, the European Commission’s Environment Directorate-General, chose the decline in taxonomy — the classification of species — as a scientific discipline for the narrative focus of the film. Experts in this discipline are vital in monitoring pollinator populations in different habitats over time, to record the causes and effects of pollinator decline. This topic encompassed both professional and citizen science monitoring projects, as both are needed to understand the immense diversity of pollinators present in Europe, whilst collecting robust data over space and time to inform pollinator conservation measures.

On a budget

Budget constraints, coupled with a request from our client to feature scientists from across Europe set the parameters for the content of the film. Working within these constraints required careful consideration of how the film could be made — assessing content versus cost for each of the potential shoots we were planning.

For example, changing the logistics of a particular shoot, by asking an expert to travel to a more convenient location, saved a great deal of time and money. It is all too easy to become fixed on an approach when setting up a film, but sometimes, out of necessity and with flexibility, creative solutions can be found which end up working better.

To free up some additional budget I managed to negotiate a discounted rate with our camera hire company and due to the environmental nature of the films they part sponsored us to complete the project. Further savings were made when instead of hiring a sound operator to work alongside me on camera, I gave my colleague Michelle, a science writer on the report, on-the-job training on how to swing a boom. Michelle’s lesson, learned from one of our outdoor shoots, is to always wear long trousers when filming outdoors in a field to avoid biting insects! Similarly, I regretted my lack of hat on that shoot, as there was little shade. Preparation is key — always look at the weather forecast beforehand (and out of the window on the day) and bring all that you may need, including lots of water whatever the weather.

Painted Lady butterfly in a specimen pot for identification, before release, by a Citizen Science Volunteer of the CBMS.

Interviewees

Securing the right interviewees for our film meant finding people who could tell the story of pollinator monitoring in Europe, covering both citizen science involvement and the need for professional career taxonomists. A longlist of potential experts had been recommended to us by our client, and this made the process somewhat quicker. However, we still needed to speak to these individuals and ascertain what they had to say on the topic, and how comfortable they might be at articulating their viewpoints for a non-specialist audience.

Adam Vanbergen being interviewed for the documentary on a balcony at the headquarters of the Institute National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) in Paris.

We were pleased to secure interviews with our scientific advisor for the written report, Adam Vanbergen, Director of Research, Agroecology, for the Institute National de la Recherche Agronomique, in Paris. In addition, we spoke to a pollinator expert based just outside Barcelona in Spain — Constanti Stefanescu, who manages a long-running citizen science butterfly monitoring programme. Constanti also helped us with another of the sequences on our wish list, filming a group of citizen scientists conducting a butterfly monitoring transect (a fixed-route walk on which butterflies are recorded). On this shoot we interviewed some of the dedicated citizen science volunteers, who, for a number of years, had been regularly monitoring butterfly populations near their homes across Spain. Their voices spoke of the joy of conducting butterfly transects, walking in the natural environment and contributing to a long-term scientific project.

The last two contributors we needed to secure for our film, were a late stage career bee taxonomist, and a new entrant scientist considering taxonomy.  I focused my research on locating a female bee expert, to give balance to the film as both the other experts were male. These enquiries led me to Professor Concepción Ornosa Gallego, and her PhD student Daniel Romero in Madrid. I knew from my initial conversation with Concepción, that she was perfect for the film and keen to be involved — she preferred speaking in Spanish, so we recorded her interview in her native language, with Daniel kindly translating.

This was the first time I’d conducted an interview in this way, and it certainly made things a bit tougher in the edit. However, it worked well on location, and Concepción spoke eloquently about the current barriers discouraging young people viewing taxonomy as a good career choice, and how these might be overcome. She also showed us how difficult it can be to identify one species from another — when it comes to the thousands of bee species that exist, the anatomical differences can be tiny. This is in contrast to butterfly species, which are much easier to identify and lend themselves well to citizen science monitoring programmes.

We had a number of locations open to us at the University of Madrid — Concepción’s office, the ‘type’ collection of pollinators housed at the university and the botanical gardens. This gave us a range of filming options on the day, an important insurance for inclement weather when a recce trip prior to filming isn’t possible and there is only a limited time period for the shoot to take place.

Concepción Ornosa Gallego examines bee specimens in her laboratory in Madrid, for a scene in the documentary – explaining the very small anatomical differences between some bee species.

Daniel’s interview gave the viewer the perspective of an early career scientist, who is currently choosing which path to take. Pollinator taxonomy was an option; however, he explained that the lack of jobs in this area, and difficulty in getting publications in this discipline in publications (which aid career development) put him off this choice. This is an issue he believes should be addressed to encourage more young people to enter this discipline. With many late career taxonomists set to retire, without more career entrants, we could be left with a dearth of expertise in identifying and monitoring pollinators, which are vital for the health of our ecosystems.

Having a balance of experts, early career scientists and volunteer citizen scientists, gives the viewer a range of relatable voices. It is important to reflect the diversity of the viewing public within your film as much as possible.

Finishing touches

The interviews and actuality footage were secured, but the film still needed something to add visual interest and colour, which, when you are discussing pollinators, should be the critters themselves, pollinating in all their wondrous forms. The film was made with the available light and a standard camera, which is great for filming interviews in brightly lit rooms, or in a sunny garden or field, but not so good for filming small pollinators on the wing. Luckily, there is a plethora of amazing Creative Commons footage available on a number of websites, shot by members of the public or budding natural-history camera operators.  This footage added the movement, colour and beauty of the pollinators to the narrative voices of the interviewees.

Butterfly identification chart, and data collection sheet for a field survey by the CBMS.

The editing and post production process are as important as all other aspects of making a film. I edited this film, but benefitted in doing so from the input of other members of the SfEP team, as well as several of the client’s team. These varied opinions help produce a good product.  However, it is always good to remember the mantra of professional editors ‘that the client is always right’. This doesn’t mean that you cannot offer your perspective to them, but ultimately, they know their end aims and audience best.

The written facts that were chosen to appear over some parts of the film, were an important aspect of the finished product, as was the subtitling. The latter was the very last thing that was added, and it was rewarding to see the final subtitled product delivered to the client. The client and contributors were pleased with how the film conveyed the message about the import of monitoring of pollinators, and have distributed it amongst their networks, and at conferences.

The film highlighted the need for understanding and classifying pollinators whose enormous economic and social importance is crucial for raising awareness about the cascading effects that will ensue from their absence. However, it is worth noting that the current lack of evidence for some groups of pollinators should not delay the urgent work of putting in place solutions we know will help: creating and preserving bigger, higher-quality and better-connected habitat for pollinator species.

You can watch the film below:

Nicky Shale, Science Writer and Communicator


1This report was written for the European Commission’s Science for Environment Policy environmental information service, jointly run by the Science Communication Unit (SCU) at UWE Bristol and Ecorys, a European research company.