Only 11% of engineers in the UK are women. Is this enough?
No, it’s really not – we have an engineering skills shortage as it is, and the low proportion of women in the workforce means that a whole pool of talent is going untapped. Girls need to be able to see engineering as for them, connect with it as career and have access to positive female role models. And in turn, women need to feel supported to make a difference in the workplace once they get there, so that they not only go into, but stay in engineering roles.
So what can we do about that, and how can we bring people together? Here at the Science Communication Unit at UWE Bristol, we’re launching ‘Women Like Me’; a project which aims to open doors to girls and build resilience for women in engineering. I will be running the project with Laura Fogg Rogers over the next year; we both have lots of experience of delivering outreach and engagement projects and are passionate about making Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths accessible to everyone, at all stages.
Supporting women and girls in engineering
Women Like Me is a peer mentoring and outreach project aimed at boosting female representation in engineering. So what does that actually mean?
The project will pair senior women engineers with junior women engineers to give them mentoring support as they start out in their engineering careers. In turn, junior women will undertake engineering education outreach in schools and at public events in the Bristol and Bath area. Engineering is a creative, socially conscious, and collaborative discipline, and this project aims to support girls and women to make a difference in society.
Who can take part?
Mid-career and early career female engineers working in the Bristol and Bath area can get involved in the project. Senior women engineers are those who are more than five years post-graduation from their first degree. Junior women engineers are those with less than five years of experience since entering the engineering profession, and can include apprentices, trainees, postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers.
Undergraduates aren’t eligible to take part; whilst they are fantastic role models, UWE already provides public engagement training for undergraduate engineering students through the Engineering and Society module.
What will it involve?
We will offer networking opportunities to all participants at the start (October 2018) and end (April 2019) of the project. Senior engineers will receive training in mentoring and meet with their junior engineer mentee at least twice during the project.
Junior engineers will receive mentoring support from senior engineers and training in public engagement. They will then undertake at least three engineering outreach activities in local schools and at local public events. Activities and coordination of events is provided and supported by UWE; participation is voluntary and we’ll cover travel expenses.
Women Like Me is based in the Science Communication Unit at the University of the West of England, Bristol (UWE), supported by the WISE Bristol Hub and STEM Ambassador Hub West England and funded by a Royal Academy of Engineering Ingenious grant. The project is organised by Dr Laura Hobbs and was initiated by Laura Fogg-Rogers. By matching senior and junior female engineers and supporting junior engineers to connect with the children and young people as the engineers of tomorrow, the project will lead to impact both in the workplace today, and for the future of the engineering profession.
UWE Bristol Exhibition and Conference Centre,
Bristol, BS34 8QZ
Take part in science and engineering demonstrations, and see the inspiring designs from the Leaders Awards – the children’s engineering design competition for the South West.
On Saturday 30th June, UWE’s engineers will showcase their latest research and technology in the Exhibition and Conference Centre at UWE. The event is free to all and will be a public open day for families and schools.
The event and Leaders Awards sponsorship have been organised by Laura Fogg-Rogers, a Senior Research Fellow in UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit, as part of her work on the Children as Engineers project. Activities include having a go with drones, taking on the role of a city planner in a cardboard version of Bristol, and experiencing the latest virtual reality data controllers.
Laura Fogg-Rogers, who has coordinated the event said, “Engineers are highly creative people who can help to solve many of society’s problems. It’s a really collaborative profession, where you have to work together in teams to see your visions and designs come to fruition. The range of roles and careers is really diverse, and that’s what we’d like to emphasise to all young people, particularly girls. You can make your own mark in engineering!”
The public event forms part of UWE’s Week of Engineering which has been organised by the SCU, which celebrates the national Year of Engineering alongside International Women in Engineering Day. It will follow a series of activities including the Big Bang Fair at UWE and the Engineering our Future schools event, which will see 240 girls attend UWE to experience being engineers.
Alongside the public activities will be an exhibition displaying the shortlisted and winning designs for the South West Leaders Awards. UWE has teamed up with DE&S (part of the Ministry of Defence) this year to sponsor the South West England Region of the Primary Engineer & Secondary Engineer Leaders Award; a national engineering competition for schools.
School pupils answered the question “If you were an engineer what would you do?” by identifying a problem in society that engineering could solve and devising a solution. UWE students from EngWest Studio will turn one of the winning designs into reality later this year.
The TEAN (Teacher Education Advancement Network) Commendation Award for Effective Practice in Teacher Education was presented at an awards event held in Birmingham in May. Senior Research Fellow Laura Fogg-Rogers and Senior Lecturer Juliet Edmonds collected the award on behalf of UWE. The project team also brings together Dr Fay Lewis from the Department of Education and Childhood and Wendy Fowles-Sweet from the Department of Engineering Design and Mathematics.
The Children as Engineers project developed an undergraduate degree module called ‘Engineering and Society’ which pairs engineering students with teachers to bring hands-on science programmes into primary schools. It aims to address science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills gaps in primary schools – for teachers and children.
The project sits against a backdrop of an urgent need for enough trained engineers to meet the country’s future needs. Estimates suggest the UK will need 100,000 new engineers in the next 20-30 years to solve problems affecting society, grow the economy, and design products for manufacture. In particular, more girls and women are encouraged to take up engineering as a career.
Pilot research indicates that student teachers specialising in science at primary school improved their subject knowledge and confidence to teach STEM in the future. Meanwhile, the engineering students taking the ‘Engineering and Society’ module benefit by developing their communication and presentation skills and creating a broad-based understanding of the relevance of their subject.
Pupils benefit from hands-on sessions delivered by the students, where they engage in activities such as building mini-vacuum cleaners, testing floating platforms and exploring flight. Children aged between eight and 11 learn about the skills, challenges and excitement of engineering.
Laura said: ”We were delighted that our team’s hard work over several years has been recognised at a national level by teacher educators. We plan to continue expanding this project to bring real benefits to teachers, engineers, and pupils, to inspire creative STEM teaching and practice for the future.”
The project is believed to be the first in the country to pair university students in these two disciplines to enhance the learning of both groups as well as delivering real benefits to school teachers and pupils.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?).
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.
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.
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!
After Cristina Rigutto’s informative seminar on post-publication digital engagement, we asked for her advice about blogging and how to increase our visibility online. Cristina reminded us that a key element of an academic’s profile is their digital footprint (including blogposts, Twitter feed, Instagram and webpages) – but to be effective in communicating your research online, you need people to find and follow you. We’ve all spent time trying to track people down online, sifting through a myriad of content – so how can you raise your profile to let people know you’re out there beavering away?
You need to be found on Google, the best way to do this is to create a Google Scholar profile. The profile can include all your output, not just peer reviewed content.
Put your presentations on Slideshare (one of the 10 most viewed sites in the world) it connects to Microsoft and LinkedIn.
Wikipedia. – whilst Wikipedia is notoriously difficult to add content to you can easily insert a reference to your paper/ presentation into an existing page about your topic.
WordPress – put all the information about yourself in one place that then links out to your Twitter profile, Instagram account, blog etc.
It may not be practical to utilise all of these but any one will bump you up the list and help people connect with you.
Tips for academic blogging
An increasing number of academics are using blogs to reach a wider audience and share their research in a more comprehensible way. However, a staggering 81% of people will only read your first paragraph (71% the second, 63% the third and 32% the fourth, you get the idea if you’ve read this far…).
So the opening paragraph needs to contain your key message and words (detail can follow in subsequent paragraphs):
Keep to 300-750 words.
Repeat key words and their synonyms.
Use links inside the post including internal links to other posts.
Use lists as often as possible (see what we did there!) – a search engine reads html tags and will place your post higher on the results page.
Tweet a lot about the post – most people only catch a snapshot of the content on their twitter feeds, give your post a chance by shouting about it frequently!
Send as a Direct Message to anyone who may be interested – you don’t need to ask them to share it, you can just ask their opinion and often they will share your content anyway.
So there you have it, once you’ve set up your digital presence it is relatively easy and not too time consuming to maintain, build it into the everyday activities you carry out as an academic!
One of the nice things we’re able to do from time to time is offer our Masters students work experience on a public engagement project.
For the last two years (2014 and 2015) Margarida Sardo and I have carried out an evaluation of a strand of activities sponsored by the Wellcome Trust at the annual Latitude Festival.
The Latitude Festival is a well-known and wide-ranging cultural festival, which includes comedy, music, theatre, literature, poetry, dance and more (think Glastonbury but with less mud and more writers!). The Wellcome Trust events are also hugely varied, including poetry, music and theatre performances, presentations, discussions, dialogues and interactive events.
Margarida designed the evaluation, including snapshot interviews with members of the audiences, informal feedback via comment cards, observations of events and interviews with presenters, while I led the evaluation at the festival. In both years, the students were chiefly responsible for carrying out the audience interviews and looking after the informal feedback, so it was an excellent opportunity to gain an understanding of what is involved in the evaluation of a live event as well as strengthen their communication skills.
With around 26 events taking place in half a dozen locations around the three days of the Festival, the help and support of our students was absolutely invaluable in helping to collect as much data as possible. Between them, the 2015 team observed 14 full events, persuaded 45 people to be interviewed and got 192 people to complete a comment card!
In return for students’ support, we offered a modest payment, subsistence expenses during the Festival and free transport to and from Suffolk. The students also had free tickets to the Festival, which gave them access to most of its 200 or so events. As most of the science events took place during the day, and the big comedy and music headliners were on late at night, the students got to see some really interesting stuff!
You can find our report from the 2014 Festival on the UWE repository. And the hard work of the students is also contributing to two papers that Margarida and I are currently working on.
Research shows that audiences at a health science festival prefer lectures.
We all know the debates about deficit versus dialogue, but what do audiences prefer? This was the central research question in my recent study looking at a health science festival in New Zealand.
Science festivals offer an interesting environment to explore preferences for format design, as they usually feature a huge variety of different event styles. The science festival in question was held in Auckland, New Zealand, and focussed on health science research around the brain and psychology. Held as part of international Brain Awareness Week, ‘Brain Day’ attracts over 3000 people to this free one-day annual event- not an insignificant number in a country of just 4.5 million people!
The festival formats under question were lectures, discussions, a community expo, laboratory experiments and a general good day out. Festival entrants were handed a questionnaire to fill in, and could return it anonymously to a drop-box at the exits, with a prize draw incentive. The experiment was repeated over three years, and in total we reached a sample of 661 people.
So which format did they prefer? Overwhelmingly, this sample significantly preferred lectures; with 76% ranking them the main attraction, 89% attending them, and 84% stating lectures were the most useful. This was irrespective of age, gender, education, or the year the festival was run. In open response questions participants described their reasons – stating that ‘knowledge is power’. Participants were attending the festival to learn something new, and lectures presented a good way to hear about research and expert opinion.
But wait – don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! We conclude that all formats have a part to play in the science communication landscape. Over two-thirds of the sample visited more than one format, and indeed, laboratory experiments were the second choice for family visitors. Yet however you look at it, the much derided format of lectures is still clearly popular with audiences.