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

Postgraduate Science Communication students get stuck in on ‘Science in Public Spaces’

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Emma Weitkamp & Erik Stengler

September saw the lecturing staff at the Science Communication Unit welcoming our new MSc Science Communication and PgCert Practical Science Communication students to UWE and Bristol. It also sees the start of our refreshed programme offering, which includes significant changes and updates to two of our optional modules: Science in Public Spaces and Science on Air and On Screen.

The first three-day block of Science in Public Spaces (SiPS) marks the start of a diverse syllabus that seeks to draw together themes around face-to-face communication, whether that takes place in a what we might think of as traditional science communication spaces: museums, science centres and festivals or less conventional spaces, such as science comedy, theatre or guided trails. Teaching is pretty intense, so from Thursday, 29th September to Saturday, 1st October, students got stuck into topics ranging from the role of experiments and gadgets to inclusion and diversity.

Practical science fair

Thursday, 29th September saw the 13 SiPS students matched with researchers from the Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences. Students were introduced to cutting edge research and have been challenged to think about how this could be communicated to the public in a science fair setting. Each student will work with their researcher to create a hands-on activity which they will have the opportunity to deliver to the public at a science fair to be held during a University Open Day in the spring.

Towards the end of the three days a session on creativity generated intense discussion about how we might judge what creativity is through to practical techniques and tips we might use to stimulate creative thinking. The session included a word diamond (McFadzean, 2000), where groups considered how you might foster engagement and enjoyment amongst blind visitors to the Grand Canyon, how blind visitors could be involved in creating a sensory trail (for sighted people) at an arboretum or how to enable a local community to be involved in decision making around land use that involved ecosystem services trade-offs. Challenging topics that draw on learning from earlier in the week.

sips1

After a final session on connecting with audiences, students (and staff) were looking a little tired; three days of lectures, seminars and workshops is exhausting. We hope students left feeling challenged, excited and ready to start exploring this new world of science communication and public engagement and that they find ways to connect their studies with events and activities they enjoy in their leisure time – though that might not apply to the seminar reading!

Science in Public Spaces got off to an excellent start, thanks to the students for their engaged and thoughtful contributions in class. Up next is the Writing Science module, where Andy Ridgway, Emma Weitkamp and a host of visiting specialists will be introducing students to a wide range of journalistic techniques and theories. Then it will be the turn of the new Science on Air and on Screen where Malcolm Love will introduce students to techniques for broadcasting science whether on radio, TV or through the range of digital platforms now open to science communicators. Looks to be an exciting year!

McFadzean, E. (2000) Techniques to enhance creativity. Team Performance Management: An International Journal, 6 (3/4) pp. 62 – 72

 

Tackling the challenge of engaging with drought and frogs

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

Jeff Dawson
Jeff Dawson with the project research tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Blog post written by Emma Weitkamp & Hannah Conduit

 

 

MSc Broadcasting Science students in action!

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As part of our MSc in Science Communication students have the option to choose a Broadcasting Science module (‘Science on Air and On Screen’ for 2016/17 onwards). The module enables students to build their radio, TV and digital media skills by critically exploring the role of broadcast media in the communication of science. Students make an ‘as live’ radio magazine programme about science, and a short film. On many occasions these films were selected to be shown on the Big Screen on Millennium Square, Bristol, during the Festival of Nature.

The module is taught by Erik Stengler , Senior Lecturer in Science Communication and Malcolm Love , Associate Lecturer in Science Communication, and includes the use of facilities at the BBC Bristol and the production company Films@59.

You can watch the impressive short films made by our recent MSc students below.

2013

https://youtu.be/uoUoRtUcONE

https://youtu.be/bLYdhR036Aw

2014

https://youtu.be/p109XC_AIq4

https://youtu.be/OwAmq_0iDE8

2015

https://youtu.be/iUS57LWjuJU

2016

https://youtu.be/1tm6WSqJdKs

 

The Science Communication Unit at UWE Bristol is renowned for its innovative and diverse range of national and international activities designed to engage the public with science. Our MSc Science Communication course is an excellent opportunity to benefit from the Unit’s expertise, resources and contacts.

As well as drawing on the academic and practical experience of staff within the Science Communication Unit, our programme gives students an opportunity to meet a range of visiting lecturers and benefit from their practical experience. This also provides an excellent networking opportunity for students interested in developing contacts among science communication practitioners. The course combines a solid theoretical background with practical skill development, and has excellent links with the sectors and industries it informs.

 

 If you are interested in finding out more about our Science Communication Masters or Postgraduate Certificate, please visit our website.

Science communicators need to get it: science isn’t fun.

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I am writing on the flight that takes me to a conference in Warsaw, which will nicely draw to a close a research cycle that started shortly after I joined the SCU. As part of my job interview at UWE Bristol almost exactly 4 years ago, I said that one of the things I hoped to share was concerns about the role of “fun” in science communication, and specifically in science centres. These concerns had developed during the decade or so I had spent working in science centres and with the media and I felt they needed to be addressed through academic research alongside practitioners.

I am unable to tell exactly when and where I developed an interest in investigating this currently ubiquitous trend of “fun,” but I found I was not alone in this endeavour. I liaised and collaborated with Guillermo Fernández, an engineer and exhibit designer I knew from the times when he would offer his services to the science centre I worked at. We were later joined by Pere Viladot, a very experienced museum educator and since recently PhD in science education. I was also able to draw into the investigation various undergraduate students in their final year at UWE, through their third year project. I must say, as well as ticking the boxes of integrating research into teaching and providing a unique student experience (in that the students did real original research, as opposed to repeat experiments of well-known phenomena), this has been the part that I enjoyed most. It was simply awesome to see these undergraduates doing research work that was often of better quality than what we see in MSc dissertations, and to share their excitement at seeing their work being accepted and presented at international conferences.

Scientists see their work as fascinating, intriguing, exciting, interesting or important, but not “fun.”

So, quite early on, student Megan Lyons explored the perception of the “fun” in science by people at different stages of their scientific career, showing that with time and experience “fun” becomes less and less of an adjective used to describe their work, and that there are many other words that are preferred in its stead, such as “fascinating, intriguing, exciting, interesting, or important”, to name but a few. We presented this at a conference in Lodz (Poland), where people involved in Childrens’ Universities met to discuss their practice. It was quite an eye opener to encounter such a lack of understanding of what I was saying, and in the lively Q&A session I kept having to repeat again and again what we were warning against (conveying the message that science is fun) and what we weren’t (making science teaching and communication as fun as possible).

In the context of science centres, undergraduate student Hannah Owen had already explored whether science centres are actually addressing and providing opportunities for “dialogue” between science and society. Her analysis of At-Bristol and Techniquest that concluded that indeed they are not, and that the only attempts to do so are through activities and events, not through the exhibitions. This was presented at the 2013 edition of the Science in Public Conference in Nottingham and recently selected for publication in the Pantaneto Forum.

Science centres have tried and failed to understand their own role… and it sends out the wrong message about science.

This provided another example in which to understand how science centres have tried and failed to find a way to understand their own role, focusing on “fun” being just one more of these attempts. Reflecting on this we have been able to identify various “wrong messages” that are conveyed in this way: it sends out the wrong message about science communication (deterring scientists from engaging in it), about science (as being a scientist is definitely not about having fun), about science education (as it seems one has to go out of the classroom to have fun, the conclusion being that class is boring), about science centres (as they become a venue of entertainment only, displacing from them valuable approaches such as inquiry based learning, for which they are an ideal venue), and about children (as it condescendingly assumes they would only engage in things that are fun).

We presented these reflections at the EASST 2014 conference in Torun (Poland) and to Physics teachers at the TPI-2015 (Teaching Physics Innovatively) conference in Budapest, where undergraduate student Jessica Tee complemented the research with the outcomes of her final year project. She confirmed that science centres are indeed a valuable educational resource, thus reinforcing the message that this is not something they should lose at the expense of concentrating on providing “fun”.

Science centres need to return to the long forgotten principles of museology, which is the language they speak and master.

Now in Poland I will present all this to the science centre community, which were the only players of the field to which we had not yet had the occasion to communicate our proposal. We think that instead of “fun,” science centres should focus on what they do best and constitutes their core business, namely exhibitions. To do so, they need to return to the long forgotten principles of museology, which is the language they speak and master, just as movies use the cinematographic language. This means that museologists need to be engaged, something that does not currently happen. In the educational front, science centres could use such well-designed and conceived exhibitions as the “field” for data collection in inquiry based learning. Again, to do so they need a shift in their hiring: this needs highly qualified educators instead of – or at least in addition to – museum explainers that are volunteers, interns or other temporary staff. The alterative is science centres trying to compete with other venues or options in what these others do best (fun, entertainment, multimedia & audiovisual communication etc…), hardly a promising prospect in the long run.

Just two days ago we submitted an article about this to Ecsite’s SPOKES magazine, and another one in more detail is about to appear in the Spanish Journal of Museology. Together with the presentation in Warsaw they constitute a satisfactory culmination of this collaboration. As the plane prepares to land (and I am asked to switch of this tablet), I can’t help enjoying a sense of achievement and starting to look forward to the next research cycle on which I will report in due course…

Erik Stengler is a Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at UWE.
@eriks7