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

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.

Be visible or vanish

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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.
  • Set up a YouTube channel in your name.
  • 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

BlogAn 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!

Jane Wooster and Kate Turton

 

Student opportunities at the Latitude Festival

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

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

debs
Debs (2015) handing out feedback cards

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

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

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

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

louisa
Louisa (2015) doing a snapshot interview

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

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

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

Knowledge is power?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the Science Communication Unit Blog

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

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

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

Clare Wilkinson, Associate Professor in Science Communication.