Sci Comm Through the Lens – a science tour in Hong Kong

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By Tay Aziz and Sophie Pavelle

This time last year during our MSc Science Communication at UWE Bristol, we were buried under a mountain of coursework deadlines, research proposals and that creeping question of ‘what next’? We never thought that so soon after that joyous dissertation hand-in day we would be off on a sci-comm adventure to Hong Kong, to make a documentary and inspire 10,000 local school children to study science!

Monkey encounter

We teamed up with Anturus Education – a Welsh organisation that uses expedition, media and adventure to inspire kids to learn about the natural world. Our mission was to use film and public speaking to demonstrate that Hong Kong is far more than just an urban hotspot – it is in fact, a thriving wildlife hotspot with many nature-filled surprises!

Science communication is all about getting the public involved in scientific concepts and research findings — engaging them to take notice of the things that matter and spark curiosity.

Whilst we were there, we quickly became aware of the value of being creative in how we communicate science. Here are our thoughts on how filmmaking and different styles of presenting can reap meaningful rewards among your target audience.

Science Communication through filmmaking – Tay Aziz 

As well as delivering 30 school shows across Hong Kong, the Anturus team also filmed and produced a fifteen-minute documentary and a few shorter one-minute clips for YouTube. These videos were disseminated to schools and the public through the Anturus website and provided useful resources that teachers could access after the team had left, helping the team achieve a legacy once the project was complete.

As a science communicator, film and video is an incredibly useful tool – it can provide a sense of escapism, a new way to visualise information with animations, or an immersive experience in interactive 3D. Film can provide a platform for scientists to share their work and promote themselves as experts in a field, and it also has the potential to reach vast audiences and can impact an audience’s emotions as well as their knowledge on a topic. I first became interested in using film to communicate science whilst taking part in the Science on Air and on Screen module, as part of the MSc in Science Communication; since then I’ve created documentaries on plastic pollution, drought research and most recently, filmed presenter-pieces in Hong Kong.

Storytelling is an integral part of film and science communication films are no different. How we perceive the world is heavily influenced by forms of entertainment media, such as sci-fi novels, fictional films and documentaries. These depictions of science encompass more than just facts, but they include other elements of science such as its methods and allow non-scientists to ‘see’ where science happens, who does it, and how it works. When choosing a problem or focus for a film, it makes sense to consider the issues and themes and anchor those ideas in contextual evidence to create emotional appeal and build interesting discourse. World-class natural history documentaries, such as Blue Planet II, have gathered popularity as they follow key principles to engage interest in their audience.

‘If something is unusual it will be interesting. Where it comes to be dangerous is when you introduce an element of it being strange without relating it to the central idea of the topic you are talking about without a solid theoretical structure present.’

Sir David Attenborough

Choosing a subject which an audience can relate to (living creatures), they showcase surprising beauty and hidden stories in the real world, and they have substance to reinforce that initial generic interest.

Top Tips from Tay for getting into Science Communication filmmaking:

  • Don’t underestimate the value of your academic qualifications. Science production companies are always looking for people who are highly qualified in an academic area and are good writers.
  • You don’t need to go to film school. A qualification like the MSc can teach you most of the basics, and there are millions of excellent (and free) tutorials on YouTube. Try searching ‘documentary filmmaking’.
  • Practice makes perfect. Make your own stuff, even if it’s a small project about something down the road from where you live.
  • All the gear…no idea. Don’t spend tonnes of money on expensive equipment that you don’t need. Learn with what you have first – Sophie created a 22-part vlog series using just her iPhone!
  • Keep it simple. Make sure you don’t cram huge amounts of information into a film – there should be a main idea or two, with a sequence of ideas to hold the viewer’s attention and lead them to the end.

Science Communication through Presenting – Sophie Pavelle

Science can be communicated in many different ways, but I have enjoyed communicating my adventures in the natural world using contemporary media and online platforms. Since my rather quirky trek around Cornwall for my MSc project, I’ve been surprised with how much I have enjoyed presenting as a route into science communication – especially as I’m not the most confident of people! By talking through a topic out loud – I find that I not only offer information to others, but I have learnt so much through the process of film production and presentation. The research that goes into a script, the hours spent modifying it before delivery, help you to think about an environment, a process, a species of wildlife, much more creatively. Your ultimate goal is to leave the audience with more knowledge of a subject or an enlightened view on an issue than before – and so by dissecting information and identifying the key points to present, in a way that is interesting and understandable, well, you end up learning a huge amount!

Pieces to camera

Our presenting experience during Hong Kong was two-fold: pieces to camera and live presentation across 30 schools – both completely different methods of communication and new experiences for me! The documentary sought to uncover the wilder parts of the city and reveal the complex relationship the locals have with its wildlife. My job was to research what wildlife was in store for us during our visit. Learning about the natural history of Chinese white dolphins, black kites, Rhesus and Long-tailed macaques, was a refreshing change from the garden birds and local kittiwake colony back home! Being part of a small, inter-dependent production crew was also a valuable opportunity; making a welcome change from being a one-woman filming team as I am for my online content. Learning from our trip leader Huw James about shot composition, different presenting angles and even things such as stance, breathing techniques, voice cadences and body language; offered invaluable on-location hints and tips as to how to boost your chances of gaining and maintaining the attention of your audience. If there’s one thing I remember from the MSc Science Communication, it’s that knowing your audience is EVERYTHING.

Live Science Shows

Following the first few days of filming in some impressive national parks such as Sai KunGreatand secondary schools. Here was our chance to now personally interact with our audience, to initiate that all-important dialogue that is integral to effective science communication. Our tour formed part of the Hong Kong Science Festival, coinciding with Science Week back in the UK. Organised by the Croucher Foundation which aims to promote science communication and teaching over Hong Kong, we had quite the schedule! 10 days. 30 different schools. 30 shows. Travelling in-between. I arrived having never done a live science show before – it was safe to say my last stage performance may well have been Villager Number 5 in the school nativity!! Many of the schools required translation into Cantonese – adding an extra hurdle to the learning curve.

Being a team of three co-presenters worked well; while two presenters steered the show, the other became the stage hand. It also meant that I could spend the first few shows nursing a lost voice and learning from Huw and Tay, both of whom are far more experienced with delivering science content on stage. The shows were largely based around ‘Our Wild World’, covering everything from deep-sea adaptations of the blobfish, how to be more ‘plastic-smart’, to exploring how volcanoes and glaciers interact. The Hong Kong students were a dream to present to – polite, attentive and practically bursting with enthusiasm to volunteer for on-stage activities and ask questions; it was an opportunity I relished as someone so fresh from education myself, to interact with such eager students and try and inspire them to further their curiosity in science and the natural world.

It was wonderful to see the children’s reactions to seeing photos and film of awesome nature – my favourite being their reaction to seeing clips from our documentary of the azure waters of the Geopark and its dramatic coastline, as many of them were not aware of its proximity to their home. We soon realised the apparent disconnect Hong Kong has with its natural land, particularly during one bizarre moment with a teacher, who was asking us for recommendations on which national park to visit!

Top Tips from Sophie for getting going with Presenting

  • Just go for it. Nothing is harder but more important than just getting over those first few hurdles of getting your content out there. Experiment with different styles – but just practise, practise, practise. Take every opportunity you can to speak publicly, grow in confidence and learn your style.
  • Do your research. As a science communicator its so important to do your research and be sure you’re conveying the correct facts to your audience. Keep your facts accurate – but keep them snappy and interesting.
  • Be creative. This industry is competitive. Try to think of stories or angles to present that are different and innovative – give your audience something remember and your cameraman/woman something fun to film.
  • Network. The MSc Science Communication has been amazing for meeting likeminded individuals who are passionate about the same ultimate goal. If you want to try out presenting, see if you can find someone who wants to practise their filming and plan some fun filming trips together.

Overall, as newbies into the science communication world, Hong Kong offered a vibrant, challenging and fascinating experience to develop technique and learn an invaluable amount about the various elements that form a documentary and a science show.

Follow us on social media @scicomm_tay and @sophiepavs– we’d love to hear from you!

Tay:

Tay Aziz is a passionate science communicator, physiologist and filmmaker. She is currently working as a researcher for the BBC’s Natural History Unit and is the curator of STEMinist, an online community to empower women and girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.

Sophie:

Sophie is an adventurous zoologist with a passion for using expedition to learn about the natural world. Sophie regularly explores the UK and overseas, sharing fun stories about wildlife and conservation through social media, writing, public speaking and workshops.

Sophie’s next project will involve working alongside The Wildlife Trust’s, making some online content for their 30 Days Wild Campaign in June. She’ll also be running digital content workshops for the City Nature Challenge in Bristol and speaking at the Festival of Nature.

May the Force be with you: Channelling boredom effectively

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If you are, or have around you, a fan of Star Wars, you will have heard about the controversy over the latest installment of the franchise, The Last Jedi. Many fans were really angry after watching it. Yes, I, too, was angry. I have been a Star Wars fan since my childhood, and I felt insulted by what I perceived to be a disrespectful mockery of what had been hitherto taken seriously in the universe of that galaxy, far, far away. But I understand that others see it differently, and, after all it’s just a movie, so does it really matter? Doesn’t the director, and don’t the producers who have allowed this to happen, have a legitimate option to, as they say, “take things in a new direction”?

The same has happened with the tenth and eleventh seasons of The X-Files. Die-hard fans had been asking and waiting for a revival for 14 years. When it finally happened, reception was divided, and many expressed disappointment. Again, the filmmakers seem to have felt the need for a new approach, rather than just offer “more of the same”. After all, isn’t innovation and forward-looking progress all about doing new things?

Star Wars and The X-Files are of course highly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. What they do in these franchises or whether they are successful or not has no transcendence whatsoever in the “real” world”. But to me, with my science communication perspective, both cases and the heated arguments that ensued turned into an example of what may also be happening in many science communication contexts.

I have sometimes seen planetarium show makers and wildlife filmmakers grow tired of explaining to their audiences for the n-th time how to find the polar star starting from the big dipper, or how dangerous it is for migrating zebras or wildebeests to cross rivers infested with crocodiles. I, myself, when I worked creating planetarium shows, had the feeling that we needed to do something new and different. In other words, to take planetariums in “a new direction”.

However, now that I am involved in projects that aim to evaluate science communication initiatives, I have seen how this urge can be very misguided. Of course, it is necessary to acknowledge and reflect that audiences evolve and technologies advance, offering amazing possibilities. But one’s own lethargy in offering the same stories again and again cannot be the guiding force to adapt to the times.

Blue pink and white galaxy photo

Star Wars fans, old and new, expect stories where “the Force” is taken seriously by the characters, where the good guys make heroic decisions that actually achieve something, or where there is a core of nobleness in Han-Solo like characters. The Last Jedi did not offer any of that, but rather the contrary. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, on the other hand, did feel like a whole new take on the franchise, without disrespecting everything that had come before. So, it is certainly possible. X-Files fans want to see either “monster of the week” chapters or episodes that move the alien conspiracy story-arc forward. Too many chapters of seasons 10 and 11 do neither, but some do, so clearly it can remain part of the storyline.

In the same way, people who walk to a planetarium for the first time, may want to hear about the night sky and learn to find their way among the constellations, as well as learn about Space and the Universe. The transition from the optomechanical systems to digital theatres opened up a wealth of possibilities to share this type of knowledge, in many new ways, that can “wow” audiences. But parents who take their child to the planetarium for the first time may want their kids to experience the same awe and fascination that they did when they attended a planetarium show themselves. Both children and technologies have changed considerably in the meantime and the reduced attention-spans of an audience accustomed to the dynamism of digital devices can be met with the endless possibilities of digital planetariums, and most of all, with creativity, without the need to “take things into new directions”.

A wildlife documentary of the 70s will undoubtedly feel dated, but we can still convey the same sense of drama that amazed audiences at that time using incredible new image and sound technology, including high resolution and high-speed cameras, or drones, for example.

Of course, there is room for experimenting and for having fun, but as a science communicator I would recommend keeping this contained, and perhaps experimenting with professional groups, long-term members, or with audiences that one knows are equally bored with the topic, not necessarily with the first time visitor. Just as with angry Star Wars fans and disappointed X-files followers, I have seen planetarium visitors looking nonplussed after what is supposed to be a ground-breaking production, expressing their wish for more astronomy content, or wildlife documentary viewers feeling that the filmmakers had not taken the content seriously enough.

To me the difference is clear, but maybe the line between adapting to the times and disappointing audiences’ expectations is thinner and more complex than I think. But I do think that the difference lies in whether the guiding force is one’s own boredom or not. If you have lost enthusiasm for a job or task, it’s probably better to take a break and do other things for a while and come back with renewed energy to do the same things repeatedly, trying to improve and innovate, but also respecting an audiences’ expectations.

Erik Stengler

How do local residents across England and Wales value Mining Heritage? Experimenting with the Q Method.

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Margarida Sardo and Danielle Sinnett

Dr Danielle Sinnett (Architecture and the Built Environment) and Dr Margarida Sardo (Science Communication Unit) recently delivered workshops with residents to investigate how they value local mining heritage, as part of the INSPIRE project: IN Situ Processes In Resource Extraction from waste repositories.

With a total of six workshops across the country, the events were held at key mining locations across the South West (Tavistock and Redruth), the Pennines (Matlock Bath and Reeth) and Wales (Capel Bangor and Barmouth). At each paired location one workshop was held on a Wednesday evening and the other over a Thursday lunchtime  –  we wanted to ensure that the workshops were attended by a range of people, rather than those with a specific interest in mining heritage.

The Q method was used to examine the preferences of those living in areas of metal mining in England and Wales. This method was selected as it is suitable for contentious issues where there is no consensus of opinion and is effective at ensuring participants prioritise different outcomes. For example, instead of reporting that everything is ‘very important’, the Q Method allows participants to ‘sort’ a series of statements based on the degree to which the statement represents their perspective on a subject: the Q sort.

Evaluation on the chosen method was carried out and the data is currently being analysed. Preliminary results show this is a promising method of in-depth engagement. The Q sort was perceived by the participants as a time-consuming and demanding process but also interesting, thought provoking and challenging (in a good way!). Definitely a method to consider in a public engagement context, especially when looking for in-depth thoughts and views on certain issues.

We are now busy analyzing both the Q Method results and the full data from the evaluation and look forward to sharing the results in the near future.

 

Renewable energy? We’re big fans!

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The Science Communication Unit supported three successful bids to the British Council to participate in their Science in Schools initiative. Alongside sending Robotics PhD students and BoxED interns to France to run two weeks of activities, former BoxED interns Jack Bevan and Katherine Bourne were invited to deliver a week’s worth of engineering workshops in Martinique, a French department in the Caribbean.

Getting started

In January 2018, Jack Bevan and I were invited to deliver a week’s worth of engaging STEM workshops (in English) to primary school children in Martinique as part of the Science in Schools initiative.

Having worked together at the University of the West of England (UWE, Bristol) for the past two years on a similar outreach project, we both accepted instantly and ideas began to form in our minds. First thing’s first: which project to choose?

Globally we are becoming more and more dependent on renewable and sustainable energy. Wind turbines are an icon for clean energy, and also, it turns out, pretty fun to build out of recycled materials.

Our aim was to invite the children to consider the impact that we as humans have on our planet, and also to begin ‘thinking like an engineer’. That is: focus on your objective and try, try, and try again.

Having designed central hubs and provided DC motors to measure any potential voltage generated, it was now up to the children of eight different schools in Martinique to design and produce their very own turbine. The competition began.

A Welcome Surprise

On arrival, we were warmly welcomed by Catherine Ciserane (Academic Delegate for European and International Relations and Cooperation) as well as the exotic sights and sounds of the beautiful Caribbean island of Martinique. Once I had confidently conquered driving on the right (wrong) side of the road, and settled into our hotel, it was time to visit the first of our many schools; Ecole Constant Eudaric.

It has to be said that we were absolutely delighted with the warmth of our welcome from all of the schools that we visited that week. Students were rushing to us immediately with greetings in English, and offers to help carry our heavy equipment. Teaching staff were equally enthusiastic and hospitable, ensuring we had plenty of delicious fruit and sugarcane juice, as well as pastries and chocolates (a staple component of every teacher’s diet).

Once teaching began, we were impressed with the students’ levels of English, and the confidence with which they spoke. Some pupils at Case-Pilôte school had even prepared a welcoming song for us in English, as well as a message of thanks to send us on our way.

Getting Stuck In

At the beginning of each of our workshops, we set the scene for the children. Imagine a world where there was no electricity, and it was your job to make your own energy using only whatever materials you had available to you (in our case: cardboard, egg boxes, and plastic cups).

Once the scene had been set, students rushed to begin building their designs, taking inspiration from other wind turbines around the world. Each and every workshop is different and we are constantly amazed and impressed with the originality of the designs that the children produce.

Using a multi-meter, we are then able to test the amount of electricity (volts) generated by the various turbines. Although some students were disappointed to find their turbine didn’t turn, they had ample opportunity to refine their prototypes and return for another test, often racing to front of the queue!

After some time, our mini engineers were able to generate upwards of 40V electricity. Enough to power an LED light, and even charge a mobile phone (how else could you check your social media during a power cut?).

Looking back

As well as working with school children, we also had the opportunity to provide a ‘Master Class’ for a collection of professional science communicators and educators across Martinique. We were able to share with them the challenges in STEM that we have faced and the ways in which we can overcome these problems together.

We found that the adults got very into our turbine workshop – it was literally battle of the engineers – but were unsuccessful in beating one child’s high score of 47V!

We received very positive feedback from everyone we encountered, and have faith that our passion and enthusiasm for such a critical and pivotal subject has been instilled into all of the schools we visited.

We are very thankful for this opportunity and would like to encourage any others to embrace the adventure and show their support for the Science in Schools initiative.

Biographies

Katherine Bourne is a biologist specialising in science communication. She has worked at the University of the West of England for three years, designing and evaluating engaging science workshops for students across the South West of England. She is hoping to complete her secondary school science teacher training in 2019.

Jack Bevan is a mechanical engineer with a passion for widening participation in all STEM subjects. Based at the University of the West of England for two years, he is committed to delivering fun science workshops in both the school and community setting.

What the Postgraduate Certificate in Science Communication means to me

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I am not a scientist. There, I said it. But I am a science communicator.

A couple of decades ago, someone like me, with an airy fairy English literature degree, wouldn’t have found themselves working with university scientists. But these days, more and more people like me – science cheerleaders but not necessarily actual scientists – are helping communicate research in the real world.

Science is definitely changing – even in the last five years since I’ve been working closely with researchers. The Research and Excellence Framework (REF) and funding bodies now demand impact that’s way beyond papers, posters and citations. In this climate, enrolling on UWE’s Postgraduate Certificate in Practical Science Communication made total sense to me.

The fact such a qualification even exists signals that the discipline of science communication is definitely A Thing, and should be taken seriously. Researchers are an increasingly diverse bunch: the days of the don in his (or sometimes her) ivory tower are (mostly) a thing of the past. Scientists are open to communicating their findings with a wider audience beyond other academics – and we science communicators have a vital part to play in helping them do this well. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about researchers in the last few years, it’s that they respect academic qualifications.

Health is my area of expertise, where it’s vital that we get messages from research right. If a physicist discovers something new about the origins of the universe and it gets misreported, that’s frustrating but it’s not exactly life-threatening. But health stories are bread and butter for certain sections of the mainstream media, and scientific nuance can be sacrificed on the altar of clickbait headlines. Obviously I’m not going to change that culture singlehandedly, but if I can help research teams produce accurate copy that’s still accessible and engaging to the person in the street that’s a good start.

For me, there’s also a political drive at work. In the current climate of fake news and the devaluing ‘experts’, helping more people understand science is a small but valuable contribution to a better, more informed society.

And there are also personal gains. I wanted to hone my skills and formalise the knowledge I’ve accumulated from my work. It’s been fascinating to discover that things I do intuitively, like framing a story, have whole bodies of theory behind them. In fact, sometimes this new knowledge has brought a sort of paralysis when writing something that I would normally knock out quickly in my day job. It’s certainly made me take stock and adopt a more analytical approach to what I do at work, though pressures still demand the odd bit of knocking stuff out.

I spend a lot of time training and supporting other people to be good communicators, so the course has enhanced my confidence in doing this. It’s reinforced the fact that I do already know a lot about effective science communication, and rounded the rough edges off things I’ve picked up informally over the years.

It’s well known that lifelong learning is an essential element of personal wellbeing. This course has invigorated me, helping me see new perspectives, meet new people and work on out of the ordinary projects. I’ve created a magazine with a group of people I didn’t know six months ago, and developed a board game for a UWE air quality project. It’s been an energising experience.

I won’t pretend it’s all been easy. I have a family and a full time job, and fitting the course in around these responsibilities has been challenging. I’m lucky that my employers have funded and supported me to do this course and have been generous in allowing me study leave. My partner has taken up the slack and generally been a rock when deadlines bite. I wouldn’t have been able to do the PGCert without the support of colleagues, friends and family.

Science communication is an alchemical mix of creativity and scholarship, where apparently clashing cultures meet. This course has really brought that to life for me. I’ve enjoyed the journey so far so much that I’m seriously considering doing the full MSc – if my work and personal life can accommodate it!

Zoe Trinder-Widdess is Communications Manager for Bristol Health Partners and NIHR CLAHRC West.

Under the Sea: My year as the European Rolex Scholar

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Sometimes I am amazed at how life just seems to fit seamlessly into place. You have to take a step back on the odd occasion to see how every step has added to the goal that you may still not see.

I was always fascinated with the sea from a young age. It captivated me, fuelled my curiosity, and enticed me to explore its depths and this caused me to pursue a degree in marine biology. To be totally honest, I didn’t really know what I was going to do after I had completed my childhood dream of studying marine biology but my part-time job at the National Marine Aquarium ignited a passion in communicating to visitors the incredible creatures of the sea. By my final year at university I became aware that, despite us still discovering novelties in science and marine biology, many people were unaware of some of the most crucial threats our oceans were facing.

I found out about the MSc Science Communication at UWE Bristol, and knew that I needed to learn more about how to bridge the gap between contemporary science and peoples’ perspectives of the seas around them. When I started the MSc I quickly found out about the complexities of communicating current research to the “public” and started to understand why it was so hard to initiate change.

However, after six months in the MSc programme I needed to decide what I’d do for my final project. I hadn’t found a subject matter that resonated with me and I didn’t want to carry out a project on something for the sake of completing my Masters. It meant more to me than that.

Again, life gave me an answer. On a complete whim, I applied for a scuba diving scholarship, which happened to be one of the most prestigious awards that could be bestowed on a young person seeking to forge a path in the underwater world. The Our World Underwater Scholarship Society offers three scholarships a year; one in North America, one in Australasia and one in Europe. I was lucky enough to be the 2017 European scholar, sponsored by Rolex.

At the time I wondered why I had been picked out of so many others. And now I truly believe it was because of my time spent on the MSc course, studying a programme which combined my love of marine science, with communication, social science and practical engagement skills. It gave me the chance to redirect myself and see where I wanted to be. The scholarship now presented me with time to put it in action, to be at that forefront of scientific discovery and learn from others who were taking theory to practice. And so, with the MSc course being so flexible to my needs, I put my final project on hold and began my year of adventure into the blue!

Ascending back to the boat from 6 hour dives in Micronesia. Photo credit : Prof. Andrew Baird.

In the last 12 months I’ve learned new techniques in both diving and underwater photography and have been privileged to travel to some of the most stunning marine landscapes on the planet. These have included exploring mesophotic reefs (the twilight zone) in Micronesia, diving with bull sharks in Fiji, conducting repellent tests on Great White Sharks in Australia and clearing up ghost fishing nets from Wellington Harbour in New Zealand. I also, for a short while, left behind my diving gear and joined a bike tour around New Zealand carrying out school outreach on plastic pollution.

It has been an incredible journey and throughout it, my project has always been at the back of my mind. In Micronesia, I was able to participate with award winning scientists in talking to local college students about their reefs. In Australia, I was able to change people’s opinions of the most iconic and misrepresented predator, the Great White Shark. In Fiji, I witnessed locals, who would have in the past sold sharks as a commodity, instead help volunteers tag sharks and release them back into the wild to try and understand where the sharks give birth in their local marine environment.

Lead Scientist Gauthier Mescam of Projects Abroad – Fiji, awaits for the all clear before releasing a tagged white tip shark back out into the sea.

Without always realising, I have been communicating science and conservation issues throughout my blogs and social media presence, which have not only showcased the beauty and mysteries of oceans but have also rallied my family and friends to start to make changes in their own lives, especially in terms of plastic pollution.

I am now almost spoilt for choice in terms of ideas for my final project, and as my scholarship year comes to a close, I am excited to return to UWE Bristol for my final project, knowing once again that every step of the way I’m getting closer to where I want to be… even if I still don’t know quite where that is yet.

Mae Dorricott is an MSc Science Communication student at UWE Bristol with a BSc in Marine Biology. Diving since the age of 12, she has always been passionate about the sea. The Masters programme contributed to her winning an international diving scholarship that provided the perfect space for her to explore the seas and initiate ideas for her final year project.

You can find out more about Mae’s experiences at https://owusseurope.org/ and via Instagram at ‘maekld’.

MSc projects: science communication research in the real world

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Clare Wilkinson

During our MSc Science Communication at UWE Bristol we focus a lot of effort on supporting students to develop their networking and employability skills whilst they study our modules. That’s one of the reasons why our graduates seem to be pretty successful in finding a job in science communication after studying with us and it also means our students get to meet a wide range of science communication practitioners and academics who are working at the ‘coalface’.

One way in which we build in an opportunity to work with an external organisation is via our Science Communication project module. Since the programme started 15 years ago we’ve had well over 150 students working on projects with our Unit and in 2009 we introduced a specific opportunity for students to conduct their projects in partnership with an external organisation. This has resulted in collaborative projects with organisations and charities including We The Curious, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Public Health England, and the British Science Association to name just a few. As our current students complete their projects we spoke to some of the students working with external organisations this year about their experiences.

Anastasia Voronkova
Anastasia Voronkova

Anastasia Voronkova, joined our programme from her home in Russia in September 2016. Anastasia said ‘in my project, I am analysing Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust’s, one of the biggest international charities’, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram social media strategies and trying to understand how the audiences on these websites perceive conservation related posts.’ Digital and social media communication have been popular topics for our project students in recent years, and it’s also a space where many organisations are still finding their way, or coming up with contemporary and new approaches to reach audiences.

Anastasia was pleased to have chosen to work with an external organisation, who had been offering ‘great help and support’ alongside her UWE supervisor. Anastasia said her project had also ‘given me a unique opportunity to gain some knowledge about conservation from its active practitioners and to contribute to that field, even if only in the form of a research.’

Lindsey and participants
Lindsey with some of her participants

Lindsey Cooper is a part-time student who began studying her MSc in September 2014 whilst working as an outreach and recruitment officer at Plymouth University. Lindsey has been working with We The Curious (formerly At-Bristol) on her MSc project, which offered exciting opportunities to explore not only the combination of art and science but also the relationship of science centres to underserved audiences, in her case those with physical disabilities. Lindsey said: ‘I have been evaluating a new exhibit called The Box, to see if people with physical disabilities interact and respond to the exhibit in the same way as individuals without a disability.’ The Box celebrates the synergy between art and science, and feature exhibitions and artists that occupy the space where art and science meet.

‘I have really enjoyed the experience of working with an external organisation on my project’, said Lindsey, ‘but involving more individuals has (inevitably) made the process more lengthy and complex. It took me a while to develop my research question and balance what I was interested in with what was useful to the exhibit designers at We The Curious. However, I feel like I’ve ended up with a stronger research question and results than I would have otherwise.’

Ben Sykes
Ben Sykes on site at Steart Marshes

Ben Sykes was also working whilst undertaking his MSc, though in his case this involved him developing his freelance writing career, following a change of direction after many years working at Research Councils. Ben worked with the WWT Steart Marshes which is a created wetland in Somerset. Ben said ‘this is one of the largest and most ambitious managed coastal realignment projects ever undertaken in the UK’ and the project provided him with a real opportunity to get on site at with the WWT, and to consider the issues they face in ‘communicating the science behind its creation and the ongoing research being conducted there by a consortium of universities.’

Ben described his project as a ‘huge challenge’ communicating in an outdoor, remote environment but by creating three Quick Response (QR) codes which were deployed across the reserve, Ben was able to see some real impacts from his work. Ben continued ‘By linking this to web-based science content, my project resulted in a third of Steart Visitors accessing content on the web and learning something about science. It was a super project to work on.’

Our thanks to all organisations who contribute their time and ideas to work with our students, as well as Ben, Lindsey and Anastasia for their contributions to this blog post. If you are based at an organisation who would like to work with student projects in future please contact Clare.Wilkinson@uwe.ac.uk. Find out more about our Science Communication programmes.

Welcoming Hannah Little, new lecturer in the Science Communication Unit

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My name is Hannah Little. I’m a new lecturer at the Science Communication Unit. I will be teaching Science Communication at foundation, undergraduate and postgraduate levels, specially focussing on areas in digital communication.

Previously, I have worked professionally in science communication, primarily coordinating the STEM Ambassador and Nuffield Research

Placement programmes in the North East of England. I have come to the Science Communication Unit after completing a PhD at the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the VUB in Belgium, and a PostDoc at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. My work throughout both my PhD and PostDoc was primarily on the evolution of linguistic structure. One method I have used in my research is cultural transmission experiments in the lab.

These experiments investigate how language (or any behaviour) is changed as a result of being passed from one mind to another in a process similar to the game “Telephone”. One person’s output becomes the input for a new person, whose output is fed to a new person and so on! This method is being used more and more to look at processes of cultural evolution, and I am interested in using these methods to investigate processes in science communication.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), “The Gossips,” 1948. Painting for “The Saturday Evening Post” cover, March 6, 1948.
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), “The Gossips,” 1948. Painting for “The Saturday Evening Post” cover, March 6, 1948.

I see existing work in cultural evolution fitting into science communication in 3 main areas:

Science Writing

Using experiments to investigate how stories and information are culturally transmitted isn’t new. As far back as 1932, Bartlett’s book “Remembering” describes experiments that looked at how transmission of a memory from one person to another can affect what information persists, and what is forgotten through a failure in the transmission process. More recently, Mesoudi et al. (2006) used similar experiments to systematically investigate whether information is transmitted more faithfully when it is embedded in a narrative around social interactions compared to equivalent non-social information. I am keen to explore these findings in practical contexts in science communication, for instance looking at how well information persists from scientific article to press release to media story as a result of different types of content in a press release.

Digital Communication

The internet is the home of the “meme” a culturally transmitted idea (this could be any idea, picture, video, gif or hashtag). New methods from big data analysis are being used by scholars interested in cultural evolution to explore the proliferation of memes, and this is even starting to happen in science communication too. Veltri & Atanasova (2015) used a database of over 60,000 tweets to investigate the main sources of information about climate change that were proliferated on twitter and the content of tweets that were most likely to be retweeted. They found that tweets and text with emotional content was shared more often. These findings fit with the findings from Mesoudi et al. (2006) above, demonstrating that multiple sources and methods can be used to accumulate evidence on what it is that allows scientific information to be a) transmitted in the first place, and b) transmitted faithfully.

Hands-on science activities

Another hot topic in cultural transmission is the role of innovation and creativity in the transmission of information resulting in an accumulation of information. Caldwell and Millen (2008) investigated this process using an experiment whereby participants were asked to build the tallest tower possible using just dried spaghetti and blue tack, or the paper aeroplane that flew the furthest. Participants were able to see the attempts of people who had gone before, giving them the option to copy a design that had already been tried, or innovate a new design. The study found that participants got better at building successful towers and aeroplanes later in transmission chains than earlier, indicating that successful engineering skills were being acquired just from the process of cultural transmission. This, of course, is a brilliant finding in its own right, but there is a huge amount of scope for using this paradigm to investigate what affects cumulative cultural evolution in the context of issues relevant to science communication. For example, does explicit learning or simple imitation affect rates of innovation and success? This question has previously been explored using cooking skills in Bietti et al. (2017) and paper aeroplanes in Caldwell & Millen (2009). You can also use these methods to investigate questions about whether the characteristics of the person transmitting the information plays a role in faithful transmission or innovation (e.g. their gender, age, perceived authority, etc.).

Together, I think these case studies of existing literature outline the scope of methods and insight available from the field of cultural evolution to questions in science communication, and I look forward to working with the unit at UWE to generate some new research in these areas!

Hannah Little

References

Bartlett, F. C. (1932). Remembering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bietti, L.M., Bangerter, A., & Mayor, E. (2017). The interactive shaping of social learning in transmission chains. In G. Gunzelmann, A. Howes, T. Tenbrink & E.Davelaar (Eds.), Proceedings of the 39th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 1641-1646) Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.

Caldwell, C. A., & Millen, A. E. (2008). Experimental models for testing hypotheses about cumulative cultural evolution. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29(3), 165-171.

Caldwell CA & Millen A (2009) Social learning mechanisms and cumulative cultural evolution: is imitation necessary?, Psychological Science, 20 (12), pp. 1478-1483.

Mesoudi, A., Whiten, A. & Dunbar, R. (2006) A bias for social information in human cultural transmission. British Journal of Psychology 97(3), 405-423.

Veltri, G. A., & Atanasova, D. (2015). Climate change on Twitter: Content, media ecology and information sharing behaviour. Public Understanding of Science, 0963662515613702.

The BIG Picture

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Blooms taxonomy
Bloom’s Taxonomy

In July, I travelled to the Centre for Life in Newcastle upon Tyne for the BIG Event – an annual science communication conference organised by the British Interactive Group. The schedule was jam-packed with workshops on a range of topics, from maths and magic to mapping and makery, and I came away buzzing with inspiration and ideas. Here, I reflect on three sessions and consider how these themes influence my science communication practice:

 

Thinking, doing, talking science

I have young children, so I was interested to learn about ‘Thinking, Doing, Talking Science’ (TDTS) – a programme that aims to make primary school science lessons more practical, creative and challenging and encourage higher-order thinking. Rather than teaching facts, teachers ask ‘big questions’ and the children use their knowledge creatively. Teachers using the approach have found that Year 5 pupils make three additional months’ progress in science, compared with standard teaching practice 1.

The idea of moving away from factual recall comes from educational psychology. It was developed by Dr Benjamin Bloom to promote analytical and evaluation skills and the pyramid of higher-order thinking (see diagram) is known as Bloom’s taxonomy 2.

TDTS shows that children become more confident in science when they are encouraged to ask questions and given the opportunity to think. And there are some easy ways to do this, like the Odd One Out game: choose three random objects and say which is the odd one out and why. Of course, there is no right answer but it’s a great way to practise lateral thinking.

My daughters inspire my blog, which celebrates their curiosity. I don’t have answers to all their questions but Simple Scimum gives us a platform for discussion. Do you know how do mermaids go to the loo? Me neither. But with some higher-order thinking, we think we’ve worked it out!

Impact

Over the past decade, ‘impact’ has emerged as a buzzword (see RCUK and HEFCE definitions) to describe the positive effects that academic research can have on the world. And, whilst the concept is becoming normalised in academic practice and research assessment 3 – for example, those who seek Research Council funding must consider Pathways to Impact (i.e. who could benefit from their research and how?) – the potential breadth of impact is vast. By attempting to pin it down, we confer on researchers a responsibility to evaluate and collect evidence of impact. They therefore face a challenge in balancing their scholarly role as teachers, mentors and researchers with their societal role as public intellectuals and ‘impact-makers’.

Thankfully, public engagement is one way to increase research impact. The REF 2014 impact database contains 4,871 case studies with ‘public engagement’ as keywords. And a quick search identified 35 case studies submitted by UWE, including one about engaging with a local patient group to improve leukaemia treatment.

This is great news for me because my role as a Research Fellow is to work with researchers to co-develop projects that engage public audiences with research at UWE, Bristol and to evaluate and analyse the effectiveness of these engagement activities. So far this year, I’ve developed a genetics activity for BoxED and looked at the impact of continuing professional development on science communications practice. I’m also investigating attitudes towards festivals and the effects these events can have on communities, co-designing an approach to create music from bioluminescent bacteria, and visualise what it is like to live with chronic pain.

Not everyone chooses to visit a museum or attend a lecture, so I try to use the everyday ways that people communicate to engage audiences with information about research and make science part of our cultural narrative. For my collaborators, I hope the impact will be in raising the profile of their research, thinking about how it can be informed by the experiences of those outside academia, and celebrating the outcomes and benefits with a public audience.

Post-truth

It is suggested that we live in a ‘post-truth’ era in which objective facts have a lesser influence on public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs. And if believing is more important than fact-checking, ‘alternative facts’ that undermine established theories can gain currency. But attempting to redress this by flooding people with evidence is not the answer – indeed, it can make things worse as people become more closely anchored to their core beliefs and align themselves with those with similar views 4.

But what if science curiosity could counteract biased information processing 5 ? Perhaps our role as science communicators is to make science part of public culture and cultivate curiosity, rather than to educate public audiences about scientific issues? And if we can do this by making emotional connections with our audiences and drawing on lived experiences, so much the better.

Maybe we should learn from the TDTS programme and develop innovative and creative communications that promote higher-order thinking across all audiences? And what if this encourages critical thinking and normalises scientific literacy in everyday life. Just think what impact that could have…

Kate Turton

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References

  1. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Campaigns/Evaluation_Reports/EEF_Project_Report_Thinking__Doing__Talking_Science.pdf
  2. Adams, N. E. (2015) Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive learning objectives. J. Med. Libr. Assoc. 103(3) p152-153
  3. Wilkinson C. (2017) Evidencing impact: a case study of UK academic perspectives on evidencing research impact. Studies in Higher Education. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2017.1339028
  4. Broks, P. (2017) Science communication: process, power and politics. JCOM. 16(4), C02
  5. Kahan, D. M. et al (2017) Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing. Advances in Political Psychology. 38, Suppl 1 p179-199

Are women part of mankind?

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The ‘leaky pipeline’ has been in the press again thanks to the now infamous Google staff memo  and the BBC2 programme about ‘no more boys and girls’. Adapted from her original article in the Journal of Science Communication, Laura Fogg-Rogers considers what this has to do with science communication.

To boldly go where no (one or man?) has gone before…

As a science geek growing up in the 1980s, I wasn’t aware of the cultural idea that women who did STEM were considered to be strange. It turns out that this was in fact the tail-end of the gender-neutral movement and indeed I attempted to live my life by the idiom, “To boldly go, where no one has gone before”. It wasn’t until my late childhood that I realised that this was a ‘politically-correct’ adaptation of the original 1960s Star Trek catchphrase, which urged us “To boldly go, where no man has gone before”. It is a subtle word change, but a whole new world of meaning for a little girl with big hopes.

Of course, I have since been thrown out of my utopia and metaphorically crashed into the societal expectations waiting for both myself and my two children (a girl and a boy). Gender roles, expectations, and futures are reinforced in society through multiple interactions every day. Right from day one, girls are given pink dolls and soft teddies, and boys are given loud cars and construction tools. Going against the grain takes exceptional tenacity and strength of character, or perhaps a blinkered view of social norms. This is why we still consider it unusual for men to become nurses or nannies, or women to become mechanics or soldiers (or neurosurgeons in this video).

Is STEM socially acceptable for women?

Humans are social creatures, and more than anything, most of us want to fit in. It is therefore common sense that the things which we see others doing around us, are the things which we want to copy or be part of. The psychologist Albert Bandura termed this ‘social cognitive theory’ (previously social learning theory). This explains how an individual’s learning is not only related to their personal capabilities and experiences, but also by observing others; this can be through social interactions, life experiences, or outside media influences.

Projects like Inspiring the Future show how far we have to go. It is why we specifically recruited women into our Robots vs Animals project to give a 50/50 gender representation, even if it proved controversial . Fundamentally, if girls don’t see women being received positively in STEM roles, then they will never think that STEM is a ‘normal’ thing for women to do.

You can’t be what you can’t see

I therefore argue that if we wish to influence whether it is considered socially acceptable for women to take part in STEM, we need to change the representation of STEM, scientists, and engineers in all aspects of society. The saying goes that ‘it is the straw which broke the camel’s back’, and so it is the everyday ‘microaggressions’ which I believe can make the most difference. We are all responsible for reinforcing gender norms and behaviours, and so we can all make an effort to change!

  1. Try to use gender neutral language where possible e.g. firefighter instead of fireman, police officer instead of policeman etc. And don’t be afraid to speak up and challenge others if they state what boys and girls can do, even in everyday social situations.
  2. Use the pronoun ‘she’ instead of ‘he’ in stories or descriptions of professions. You’ll be surprised about how odd it sounds (which says a lot…)!
  3. Show pictures of women as the active archetype, instead of a passive bystander. For instance, in a presentation about what engineers do, simply showing a picture of a woman being an engineer is very powerful (you don’t even have to mention that she is a woman).
  4. Support projects like the Hypatia Project to improve science capital for girls and families from socially deprived areas.
  5. Support projects in the workplace to tackle pay disparity and employment rights, such as the Athena Swan project in higher education.

If we all work together, maybe we really can reach a future where we can ‘boldly go where no one has gone before’!

Laura Fogg-Rogers