Innovating university outreach

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Corra Boushel

Through funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and internal backing, the Science Communication Unit has been involved in developing an ambitious new UWE Bristol outreach programme for secondary schools in the region. We’ve worked with over 4,000 school pupils in the last 18 months, finding tardigrades, hacking robots and solving murder mysteries with science, technology, engineering and maths.

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The idea behind the project is not only to engage local communities and raise pupil aspirations. Our plan is to refocus outreach within the university so that it no longer competes with student learning or research time, but instead functions to develop undergraduate skills and to showcase UWE Bristol’s cutting edge research.

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The outreach activities are developed by specialists, but then led by undergraduate students and student interns, who develop confidence and skills. UWE Bristol students can use their outreach activities to count towards their UWE Futures Award, and in some degree courses we are looking at ways that outreach projects can provide credit and supplement degree modules. Researchers can use the activities to increase their research impact and share their work with internal and external audiences – getting students excited about research through explaining it to young people. Enabling students to lead outreach – including Science Communication Masters and Postgraduate Certificate students – means that the university delivers more activities, reaching more schools and giving more school pupils the chance to participate.

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The brainchild of UWE Bristol staff Mandy Bancroft and John Lanham, the development stages of the project have been led by Debbie Lewis and Corra Boushel from the Faculty for Health and Applied Science and the Science Communication Unit with support from Laura Fogg Rogers. The project is now being expanded into a university-wide strategy with cross-faculty support to cover all subject areas, not only STEM.

bradley-stoke-science-tweetSpecial thanks on the project go to all of our student ambassadors and previous interns, as well as our current team of Katherine Bourne, Jack Bevan and Tay-Yibah Aziz. Katherine and Tay-Yibah are employed on the project alongside their studies in the Science Communication Unit.

What IS storytelling? What IS NOT storytelling?

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What IS storytelling? What IS NOT storytelling? These two questions opened the 9th conference on “Storytelling: Global Reflections on Narrative” I attended from the 10th to the 12th of July in Oxford (UK). As participants, we were asked to reply, and we gave completely different answers, depending on our academic field and personal experience.

We defined storytelling as an engaging and dynamic form of communication, which must not be boring at all. Moreover, we emphasised the fact that storytelling does not include only what is told, but also what is kept silent, what is not remembered, and what is changed, and that it encompasses many points of view, many different stories, and many different ways of telling the same story.

During the conference, each speaker contextualised storytelling in a different field: literature, history, sociology, communication, education, sciences, and even medicine; and we discussed the topic taking into account professional and personal experiences as well, thus getting a broad and inclusive overview of storytelling.

Storytelling is not only influenced by the discipline in which it’s studied or applied, but also by many other factors, such as background, culture, education, ethnicity, nationality, social class, gender, and age of storytellers and of the audiences.

Novels, advertisements, TV shows, etc. communicate a story using language, semiotic signs, stereotypes, metaphors, and rhetoric figures that are tailored for specific target publics. Moreover, stories usually reflect the social values and characteristics of the audiences. For example, in Japanese anime the homogeneity of the Japanese society is represented by the possibility each character has to become the protagonist of the story, whereas individualistic feature of the Western societies is depicted by the presence of only one main character in Western comics.

Medium may change the way we tell or listen to a story. We read novels in a sequential way, page after page from the beginning to the end, whereas we can read a story on social media in a relational way (as in mind mapping), jumping from one point to any other as we please. Moreover, in digital interactive documentaries and videogames, we (as audience) can even change the story.

Storytelling also differs in its applications: we can use it for conveying information or entertaining, but we can also use it for advocacy campaigns, education, and research. Indeed, storytelling can be a suitable technique for advocacy, due to its capability of engaging audiences emotionally and personally, and it is effective in involving students in school lessons as well, and in stimulating their critical thinking, communication and writing skills, creativity etc.

The use of storytelling in the research field is particularly interesting. By analysing either ancient books or new TV fictions, we can investigate the individual characteristics of authors as well as well the social beliefs, values, and imaginary of a specific historical period, and we can study how they changed over time. We can acquire similar data by collecting witnesses’ stories of a specific event, as well as asking the research subjects to write a narrative on a specific issue. For example, patients’ stories on how they perceive their disease and how it is affecting their quality of life can provide further information to improve our comprehension of the disease from a clinical point of view, understand patient-physician communication, or improve the health care system. Even collecting stories on digital media and videogames we can yield insights on individuals and social groups’ characteristics.

What is storytelling? What is not storytelling? Though it may be very difficult to give a concise and inclusive answer to these questions, we can say that storytelling provides many different opportunities and challenges in science and health communication as well as in research.

Find out more about the conference ‘Storytelling: Global Reflections on Narrative

Elena Milani – PhD student, Science Communication Unit.

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Baby-led, puree, Annabel Karmel and me? When science impacts on the choices we make in parenting

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How we make choices as consumers, patients, parents and members of the public has, of course, long been of interest to science communicators, and topics like immunisation can continue to raise differences in perspectives, as well as media interest. A few years ago we started to think about the sometimes challenging process of weaning a baby. Ruth had recently had two young children herself, whilst completing her MSc Science Communication with us, and I’d been doing some research with parents and caregivers in community groups, so we knew weaning was a topic that was being discussed. But what about the parents who might not be out there in these social spaces, what was happening online? We asked the question ‘how do people on Mumsnet frame media coverage of weaning?’

As our starting point we considered a review of scientific evidence published in the British Medical Journal in 2011. This work, by Fewtrell and colleagues, suggested the period of exclusive breastfeeding recommended by the World Health Organisation be reduced from six months to four. Unsurprisingly the study attracted media attention, particularly in ‘quality’ newspapers like The Times, The Guardian, and especially, The Telegraph, and was frequently reported on by specialist health and science correspondents. They tended to talk about ‘risk’ but rarely contextualised that with further information on the study itself.

On Mumsnet it was clear that a vibrant community was keen to discuss the issue of weaning, and we located 112 comments that directly referred to the Fewtrell example and its media coverage. What were people most wanting to talk about? The inaccuracy of media coverage really stood out in their comments, as well as frustration that it was returning to the breast vs. bottle aspects of the debate. And the forum discussions often presented more context, nuances around the question of ‘risk’ and the details of the study itself. Of course, they had more room to do so, but it was interesting to see these types of details being discussed.

What does this tell us about science, the media and how it’s discussed online? Well it suggests that at least amongst this very small sample of Mumsnet users there is some awareness of the weaknesses that can be present in science and health reporting, but also that people often use scientific and personal information in transitionary means, embellishing some of the deficiencies of media coverage in interesting and new ways. As people become more and more reliant on social media sources for information, further work is needed on how this is supplementing and challenging our relationships with scientific and medical expertise but also how we use our social networks to support decision making. You can find out more about this work in a recent Journalism article or at:

http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/27843/3/The_Worries_of_Weaning_paper_10_10_15%20-%20Copy.pdf

Clare Wilkinson and Ruth Knowles

Tackling the challenge of engaging with drought and frogs

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SCU was well represented at the Bristol Festival of Nature (BFON) in June, with Associate Professor Emma Weitkamp manning the Drought Risk and You (DRY) stand on Saturday and MSc student Hannah Conduit showcasing her research with the Durrell Trust as part of UWE’s festival tent.

Emma is exploring communication and engagement barriers and enablers related to drought and water scarcity within the DRY project. At BFON, Emma was interested to hear what visitors think about a set of cartoons produced as part of the project and whether these might be a tool to open conversations about water scarcity; climate change models suggest the UK will have wetter winters and drier summers, increasing the risk that we will have serious droughts. . In the southern UK, the most severe in living memory is the drought of ’76.

Initial work within the DRY project highlights the challenges of engaging people with Drought. Unlike flooding which has immediate effects, drought has a slow onset and many not have immediate relevance to many people.  Rain during BFON highlights the challenge – how do you engage people with drought when it’s raining?

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Emma Weitkamp and DRY Project leader Lindsey McEwen at the DRY stand, Bristol Festival of Nature

 

 

Emma presented initial work on citizen science aspects of the DRY project at the Society for Risk Analysis meeting in Bath, 20th June, while Adam Corner, of Climate Outreach presented the project’s initial work on communication barriers.

 

 

 

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Jeff Dawson with the project research tools

Frogs are not the cuddliest of species, so Hannah is tackling similar challenges through her research with the Durrell Trust. Amphibians have suffered a dramatic decline in numbers, and around 40% of all amphibian species are now considered to be under threat. But in a world of glamorous tigers and cuddly lemurs, it is sometimes hard for frogs to get a look in.

Hannah’s research focuses on one particular species of frog; second largest in the world and perhaps one of the most endangered. The ‘Mountain Chicken’ is aptly named for its meat; prised locally as a delicacy with taste and consistency similar to that of its feathery cousin.

With less than 100 individuals remaining in the wild and continued threat from disease, the Durrell Trust and UWE are working together to find more effective ways of communicating the plight of amphibians like the Mountain Chicken.

At BFON, Hannah and her Durrell supervisor, Jeff, along with a small group of volunteers talked with the public about the Mountain Chicken’s story, as well as showing them some of the methods used by scientists and researchers to monitor the remaining wild frogs. Scanning the stall’s microchipped frog plushies and swabbing them for a fungal disease called Chytrid proved to be the weekend’s most popular activities.

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Erik Stengler, Hannah Conduit and Jeff Dawson, at the Saving the Mountain Chicken Frog stand, Bristol Festival of Nature

Research is currently ongoing for Hannah’s project, and will culminate in a handbook for use by the Mountain Chicken Recovery Programme in raising awareness and gathering interest amongst the public for the species.

 

Blog post written by Emma Weitkamp & Hannah Conduit

 

 

Communicating research: do we need to be more creative?

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Clare Wilkinson and Emma Weitkamp are Associate Professors based at the Science Communication Unit, University of the West of England, Bristol.

A press release and tracking of the resultant media coverage, or a public talk, are relatively easy methods of public communication, which most researchers are comfortable adding to their pathways to impact, but what about those wanting to be a bit more adventurous or wishing to undertake public engagement right from the start to help shape research design or data collection? In our new book Creative Research Communication: Theory and Practice, we explore a range of emerging or non-traditional approaches that the research community is exploring for public communication and engagement; from collaboration with the arts, to digital storytelling and gaming, through to the use of comedy in locations like community spaces and festival sites.

By considering an array of different research communication opportunities, we argue that researchers may find compelling niches for both themselves and their research participants, to engage creatively alongside, or perhaps despite, increasing institutional agendas around engagement:

‘This is an era to channel creatively away from metrics or “one size fits all” and to engage in ways that work for you as an individual researcher in the context of your own disciplinary potential and desires, and that embrace and recognise the ways that people beyond the context of an organisation or university may creatively add to your research process as well as experience benefits of their own.’ (Wilkinson and Weitkamp, p.10)

We’re not suggesting in the book that all approaches to research communication need to be entirely new or novel, rather that there is a rich history of research communication which can be drawn on to develop effective, insightful and engaging approaches. Starting with a history of the field, and moving through chapters examining many tried and tested approaches, we offer the novice research communicator a set of tools and ideas via which they may build and advance their practice, often using more recent or contemporary techniques.

The book is peppered with case studies drawn from around the world; you can read up on how researchers are embedding art at CERN, using apps to allow people to experience their city in roman times via the Virtual Romans project, and supporting communities to tackle their local environmental worries through the Public Lab approach. Most chapters are supported by clear advice on practical aspects of research communication, for instance there are sections on how to utilise audience segmentation approaches, manage conflict and controversy, and principles to keep in mind when working with policymakers.

In writing the book we tried to keep a range of research areas firmly in view. As co-authors coming from two contrasting disciplines (originally working in sociology and biochemistry) we tried to consider a range of ways in which research communication can and may be relevant, and that for some researchers this may be at different points of the research journey:

‘From a research communication perspective, and particularly conversations around “impact”, there can be a tendency to focus on engagement after the fact, rather than before or during research. This neglects that whilst research has an impact on people, people also have an impact on research.’ (Wilkinson and Weitkamp, p.74)

And whilst we’ve titled the book Creative Research Communication, don’t be deceived that we see communication as only occurring in a one-directional manner. We envisage communication to include a variety of approaches, including those which embed people within research and engagement, from a participatory and dialogic perspective.

But of course impact is a very relevant issue for many research communicators at present and it can stimulate particular notions of the direction of any such impact. Recognising that, we have included a chapter on impact, which contains evaluation approaches which can be used to track the outcomes and impacts of your research communication activities on a range of participants including the researcher, as well as ways in which you might adapt evaluation to be more creative in itself. For us impact is also tied to ethical quandaries around the wider role of research communication. Is research communication about engendering change, learning, attitudes that align to our ways of thinking? Is it for all but really for some? Does research communication in and of itself need an ethical code of practice? We explore some of these themes within the book, as well as providing resources to equip researchers with techniques for ethical best practice in the design and evaluation of their research communication efforts.

In summary, we hope that the book provides a space for researchers to reflect on the ways they can engender creativity in their own research communication efforts, whilst recognising that taking such ‘risks’ requires support and encouragement:

‘Creativity can involve taking risks, having failures, pushing beyond one’s boundaries, and evaluation is one space in which to capture this, continuing to move the trajectory of research communication forwards without simply reducing research communication activities to those which might tick a box. Creative research communication is a recipe, concoction, a craft and a science, and it is up to each researcher to consider where their path lies on their own map of research communication.’ (Wilkinson and Weitkamp, p.266).

To answer our original question, do we need to be more creative in communicating research, not necessarily, but we hope the book provides a wide variety of reasons why you can.

Find out more about this publication.

An Ethical Roboticist: the journey so far

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What do robots have to do with ethics? And how do you end up with the job of “roboethicist”? Prof. Alan Winfield, Director of the Science Communication Unit at UWE Bristol, explains his recent professional journey.

It was November 2009 that I was invited, together with Noel Sharkey, to present to the EPSRC Societal Impact Panel on robot ethics. That was I think my first serious foray into robot ethics. An outcome of that meeting was being asked to co-organise a joint AHRC/EPSRC workshop on robot ethics – which culminated in the publication of the Principles of Robotics in 2011: on the EPSRC website, and with a writeup in New Scientist.

Shortly after that I was invited to join a UK robot ethics working group which then became part of the British Standards Institute technical committee working toward a Standard on Robot Ethics. That standard was published earlier this month, as BS 8611:2016 Guide to the ethical design and application of robots and robotic systems. Sadly the standard itself is behind a paywall, but the BSI press release gives a nice writeup. I think this is probably the world’s first standard for robot ethics and I’m very happy to have contributed to it.

Somehow during all of this I got described as a roboethicist; a job description I’m very happy with.

In parallel with this work and advocacy on robot ethics, I started to work on ethical robots; the other side of the roboethics coin. But, as I wrote in PC-PRO last year it took a little persuasion from a long term collaborator, Michael Fisher, that ethical robots were even possible. But since then we have experimentally demonstrated a minimally ethical robot; work that was covered in New Scientist, the BBC R4 Today programme and last year a Nature news article. I was especially pleased to be invited to present this work at the World Economic Forum, Davos, in January. Below is the YouTube video of my 5 minute IdeasLab talk, and a writeup.

 

 

To bring the story right up to date, the IEEE initiated an international initiative on Ethical Considerations in the Design of Autonomous Systems, and I am honoured to be co-chairing the General Principles committee, as well as sitting on the How to Imbue Ethics into AI committee. The significance of this is that the IEEE effort will be covering all intelligent technologies including robots and AI. I’ve become very concerned that AI is moving ahead very fast – much faster than robotics – and the need for ethical standards and ultimately regulation is even more urgent than in robotics.

 

It’s very good also to see that the UK government is taking these developments seriously. I was invited to a Government Office of Science round table in January on AI, and just last week submitted text to the parliamentary Science and Technology committee inquiry on Robotics and AI.

You can find out more about Alan’s research and engagement on his own blog.

Engaging with strangers

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 What happens when social scientists and natural scientists start to work together? Clare Wilkinson summarises her recent research.

As a social scientist whose research has spanned a range of scientific issues, from genetics, to nanotechnologies, robotics to the environment, I’ve always been intrigued to think about the roles that social scientists play when they are working in cross or interdisciplinary settings. A few years ago, with the support of some funding from the British Academy I had the opportunity to consider some of those roles, as well as their benefits and challenges with a small group of interviewees based here in the UK.

Why then? It was a timely opportunity to talk to social scientists about these topics. The social science community was really starting to consider how it demonstrated impact, serves a real purpose and has a role to play in the types of large-scale interdisciplinary research projects that now seem so common. Examples like The Campaign for Social Science and the LSE Impact blog were spurring social scientists to think critically about disciplinary relationships and influence, and I was interested to explore some of these themes within this small piece of research.

Social scientists found working in the field inspiring, thought provoking and fascinating… they also expressed challenges in collaboration.

21 social scientists participated in the interviews, and they were working at a variety of career stages and in a range of different areas associated to science and technology. It was clear from the data that they found working in the field inspiring, thought provoking and fascinating, and that collaborating with scientists is often essential when you are interested in some of the social ramifications science potentially creates. However, they also expressed challenges in collaboration. Creating shared languages and understandings of the differing disciplinary approaches was often the most obvious, and this is of course not isolated to working with scientists, the language and approaches used in the social sciences can often be as daunting to ‘outsiders’ as that used in any other academic field.

Collaboration works best when it is given the time, trust and respect to be nurtured and cherished.

What really came across in the data though was that collaboration works best when it is given the time, trust and respect to be nurtured and cherished. When assumptions around what a disciplinary perspective might provide could be set aside, by both parties, there were opportunities to create fruitful and more creative collaborations. At a time when talk of ‘the two cultures’ is often revisited (see, for example, the recent British Science Association collection of essays Science: Not just for scientists which has some fascinating reflections on this age old argument) the paper concludes that for the best collaborative opportunities we don’t need ‘shotgun ceremonies’ or ‘brief encounters’ but more sustainable relationships over time.

Clare Wilkinson is an Associate Professor in the SCU at UWE.

You can read the research article on which this post is based in the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 34 (3-4). A copy is also available via the UWE Research Repository. With thanks to the British Academy [SG-54670].

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

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