The Academy Zone: Reflective Online Science Communication Training

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This blog post is part of an exhibit for Engage Conference 2021.

“I’m a Scientist, get me out of here” is an online communication activity where school students interact with scientists. Classes of students ask scientists about their work and lives in a live, text-based, fast-paced chatroom, as well as on a question-answer platform which allows for more considered interactions.

Over the 10 years it has run, scientists have often reported that their communication skills have improved through participation in I’m a Scientist. However, this experiential training has never been formalised, and the scientists aren’t always aware of what they are learning. As such, in 2019 a short communication course was designed to run alongside the I’m a Scientist event.

This course comprised of resources, such as short videos and articles, and questions designed to help the scientists reflect on their learning from participation. They were also invited to participate in daily live text-based chats with a science communication expert to help them reflect on their learning, make connections and receive advice.

We evaluated the course using the responses scientists provided throughout the course to analyse their reflections and understanding. Data from 11 scientists, who gave their consent to have their responses analyzed and presented in this work, showed reflections around the themes of raising science capital, providing an inclusive environment for all students to ask questions and engage, and also an inclusive environment for the scientists participating too.

Scientists felt that the I’m a Scientist format worked to help the students lead the conversation to be about what interests them, and also to see the scientists as humans with lives and interests outside of science. This linked nicely to resources about science capital, as linking science to your interests or seeing scientists as sharing your interests can help students see that science could be for them (Archer et al., 2015):

“I like that we are not expected to tell the students about science and being scientists – sometimes it could seem like we are talking at them rather than them being able to find out what they really want to know. In this case, they are asking what they want to know, which probably isn’t what I would have talked to them about if I were to lead the conversation. That has been really eye-opening! “

“Often, in other outreach activities I have done previously, they would still emphasise your role as scientific expert, but not as human being with interests, hobbies, doubts and dreams.”

Scientists felt that the text-based, anonymous format worked to create an equal playing field between the scientists and students, and also among students, giving them the ability to all have their questions answered and preventing barriers for students who may be shy or anxious about asking something:

“Loud students don’t dominate our attention, and quieter, shier students can get their question across as equally as anyone else. Also, with anonymised names in the live chat, I don’t spot patterns of the same people talking to me all the time –  the pseudonyms aren’t memorable.”

“I think the text-only format helps in various ways. From the student perspective, it means that participants who might be shy or anxious about speaking in public have an opportunity to ask a question without having to actually vocalise. Students can prepare in advance exactly what they want to write, and the anonymous nature of the interactions frees students to ask anything they like without fear of embarrassing themselves. It also gives students a chance to digest the scientists’ answers at their own pace, and go back over things if they want to. From my perspective, it means that all the questions “look the same”: I won’t end up devoting all my attention to the loudest or most persistent voices in the room.”

There was also evidence that the text-only format made the chats feel more inclusive for the scientists too:

“I think the anonymity of the live chats helps immensely. It allows students to ask whatever they’d like, be it science or not, whilst removing the fear of asking a silly question in front of their classmates or even to you directly. I think being behind a screen/giving text answers works well for the scientists too! Just having a profile photo and not video chat removes a lot of visual biases – I’d be rich if I had a pound for every time someone has told me I don’t ‘look’ like a scientist! But with just the profiles, you ARE a scientist, and everyone was asked questions equally.”

By Dr Hannah Little, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at UWE Bristol.

References:

Archer, L., Dawson, E., DeWitt, J., Seakins, A., & Wong, B. (2015). “Science capital”: A conceptual, methodological, and empirical argument for extending bourdieusian notions of capital beyond the arts. Journal of research in science teaching52(7), 922-948.

Meet Me in Another STEM Career

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In science communication, we often talk about science capital: the concept of feeling like science is “for me” as a result of sum of all the experiences and resources we’ve encountered that build up an interest in science. Everything from having parents in science, being taken to science-related events and having just one excellent teacher can change our lives to one where we pursue a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths).

It’s sometimes difficult to work out exactly what might have pushed us into ambitions within science as a child, especially as we don’t know what we would have ended up doing if it wasn’t for that one teacher we had, or we had been ill the day the school trip went to the science centre. But what if we did have the opportunity to live our lives over and over again? We’d be able to work out exactly what it is that leads to the career paths we take. This is exactly what happens in Catriona Silvey’s “Meet Me in Another Life”, a soft sci-fi novel coming out on 8th July 2021. The novel follows two protagonists, Thora and Santi, who share the same preoccupation with science, the stars, and astronomy. They live their lives over and over, with each chapter painting them in a different relationship (e.g. friends, parent/child, teacher/student, colleagues, lovers, doctor/patient, etc.). In each life, they’re the same people, but due to different circumstances and relationships they don’t always end up following the same careers. Their careers are usually science-related, but not always, and it’s interesting to think about where they end up in their lives through the lens of science capital.

Catriona Silvey

I recently interviewed for Catriona Silvey for The Cosmic Shed and asked her about science capital. In her answer she lays down barriers resulting from internal, personal struggles, interpersonal relationships, and structural barriers in our society. She said: “I realised that I’d written book about these two very driven, very passionate people who mostly repeatedly fail to achieve their dreams.”

“Barriers can be very different for different people depending on their circumstances. Thora’s problem, especially towards the beginning of the book, is that she feels like she has too many choices. Which is quite a privileged position to be in, but it means she sort of ends up sabotaging herself, because quite often she won’t pick the thing she really wants to do because, fundamentally, she’s scared she’ll fail at it, and there’s nothing worse than failing at the thing you really, really want to do. So that’s very much a personal, internal barrier.”

“Another barrier for her is her parents,” Silvey goes on, “her parents have a very fixed idea of the person she is and what she should focus on, and it’s the humanities. And that, in some of her lives, really strongly influences her.”

“Santi’s problem is kind of the opposite of Thora’s problem in that he has a lack of opportunities. He’s a man and he’s straight, but on every other access he has less privilege than Thora has. His parents are working class, whereas hers are professors. He is not a native English speaker, whereas she is. Thora’s family are usually immigrants by choice, whereas Santi’s family are immigrants through economic necessity. For all these reasons, he often doesn’t have the opportunities he wishes he would have, and so his barriers are a lot more structural.”

While investigating what leads us into our careers certainly isn’t the central point of the book (the most pressing theme is really the need to find out why the protagonists are stuck in a time loop), I think for those working in science communication, Meet Me in Another Life offers an interesting meditation on science capital, giving us an experiment we can’t do in real life and wrapping it up in a vivid, gripping, beautifully-written novel.

You can listen to the podcast here:

Dr Hannah Little, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at UWE Bristol.

Modernising the iconic Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

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A team of Science Communication Unit researchers was selected by the Royal Institution (Ri) to explore ways to continue modernising the Christmas Lectures, an iconic series that has run since 1825. Margarida Sardo, Hannah Little and Laura Fogg Rogers conducted research to explore strengths and opportunities for improving the series, created for children and televised annually for the past 50 years fronted by presenters including David Attenborough and Carl Sagan.

A centrepiece of the national conversation about the place of science in our lives, the lectures were started by scientist Michael Faraday in 1825 and are now designed to be engaging and mind-expanding viewing for people of all ages but particularly children. A series of three on a single topic, the lectures are filmed in London in mid-December every year then broadcast on three consecutive days during the Christmas period. In 2018, biological anthropologist, author and TV presenter Alice Roberts and genetics expert Aoife McLysaght brought the evolutionary story to life in a series called ‘Who Am I?’

Aoife McLysaght and Alice Roberts. Photo credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography

Following interviews with children attending the 2017 and 2018 events, a social media analysis of the 2018 broadcasts and survey of science enthusiasts, researchers found the lectures were cherished by audiences of all ages but format changes could help broaden their appeal among young people, as well as older audiences. They recommended exploring ways that the channel and time of the broadcasts (currently BBC4 at 8pm) could be made more suitable for a younger audience, including cutting the lectures down into short clips for social media to reflect changing viewing habits.

Photo credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography

The research team noted that some adult viewers believed the lectures were so focused on a younger audience that they lacked appeal for older viewers. To continue to attract a significant adult audience, they recommended creating a companion lecture aimed at older science fans.

Photo credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography

Researchers also found audience members enjoyed the live shows, particularly the engaging, interactive and high-quality demonstrations. TV viewers valued the televised shows and many remarked that watching with relatives had become a family tradition. But some science enthusiasts suggested the Ri needed to re-evaluate its target audience and questioned whether the needs of a live lecture and a TV programme were being confused. Viewers were roundly supportive of female scientists presenting the show, with particular praise reserved for the performance of Alice Roberts and Aoife McLysaght in 2018.

The Christmas Lectures branding includes the prestigious Christmas Lectures broadcast on BBC, as well as live shows, a Schools Conference, the Ri Advent Calendar and “I’m a Scientist… get me out of here” – most of which were covered by the evaluation.

The full evaluation report can be accessed here.

Photo credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography

SCU at the Festival of Nature: a celebration shared by staff & students

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May and June saw staff and students from the Science Communication Unit prepare for the Bristol and Bath Festival of Nature, run by the Bristol Natural History Consortium, of which UWE Bristol is a consortium member. For many years now, research and teaching from the Department of Applied Sciences and the Science Communication Unit have been an important part of UWE’s contribution to the Festival, alongside contributions from a variety of research projects from across the university. This year, the Department of Applied Sciences showcased research by Stephanie Sargeant and team (eDNA and eel conservation), Ruth Morse and team (genetics research on chemotherapy), and by Saliha Saad and team (oral microbiology research on oral malodour), with activities that were developed by MSc Science Communication students. An EU funded project on air pollution, ClairCity, also showcased work that had been produced by a Postgraduate Certificate student as part of the Science in Public Spacesmodule.

The activities on eDNA and genetics were developed by students of the MSc in Science communication Jake Campton and Sophie Smith and supported by postgraduate students as part of the public engagement element of their portfolio. The activity on oral malodour was supported by CRIB through the BoxEd project, led by Debbie Lewis. MSc in Science Communication student Jennie French ran the final vote of a photography competition on Nature in and around Bristol and Bath, entirely organised from her own initiative. Science Communication Unit staff from the Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences ran a stall for the Our City Our Health project, which included a board game which engaged people in weighing up the costs to health of our built environment, and a 3-metre sculpture of a diesel soot particle, created by local artist Luke Jerram entitled Inhale, that featured prominently outside UWE’s tent and attracted significant attention from visitors and press. Science Communication Unit staff from the Faculty of Engineering and Technology showcased the ClairCity project, which communicated about citizen-led air pollution reduction, and also allowed people to view real diesel soot particles through microscopes – thee million times smaller than the Our City Our Health sculpture outside.

Our presence at the Festival reached well beyond the space of the UWE tent. Many Science Communication MSc students of the current cohort were helping as volunteers for the Festival as a whole, or representing their workplace in the corresponding tents. Films made by many of the MSc students were being shown several times a day on the Big Screen presiding over Millennium Square, and Dr Hannah Little was helping at the stall of the British Science Association.

Good weather, a festive atmosphere and the enthusiasm and hard work of all involved made the event a success, with more than 15000 visitors, most of which (it felt like all of them, really) engaged with the activities of UWE Bristol’s tent. It will not be long before preparations for the 2019 edition of the Festival begin, providing a new opportunity for HAS to celebrate its commitment to research, teaching and public engagement at this fantastic event.

SCU to evaluate Royal Institution Christmas lectures

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The Christmas Lectures are an internationally known landmark of the Science Communication landscape, and we refer to it in our teaching as one of the earliest examples of scientists engaging with the public with institutional backing. Physicist Michael Faraday initiated this series that has run at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (Ri) since 1825, without interruption except World War II. Well known science communicators like David Attenborough and Carl Sagan are among more recent speakers.

It therefore came as a great opportunity to tender for the Ri’s call for an evaluation project, and an honour to be selected to deliver it. A team formed by Margarida Sardo, Laura Fogg-Rogers, Hannah Little and Erik Stengler, supported by the expertise in the wider SCU, has undertaken a close collaboration with the Royal Institution to explore strengths and opportunities for improvement of what has now become a much wider project than the actual lectures delivered at the Ri headquarters around Christmas each year and broadcast for over 50 years, mainly by the BBC. The Christmas Lectures has grown into a project that also includes continued provision of materials and activities for schools, public events such as talks at the Big Bang Fair and a traveling show that reaches out beyond the UK, all of which is also brought into the dimension of social media via different platforms, including YouTube, where the recordings of the Christmas Lectures are actually made available to be enjoyed at any time.

The evaluation by the SCU team will cover all these dimensions of the project and also explore what would attract people who do not yet engage with the Christmas Lectures in one way or another. It will be a great experience to be able to be part of and contribute to the continued success of the Christmas Lectures in these  years leading to their 200th anniversary.

If you have any views and suggestions about the Christmas Lectures, do not hesitate to contact us so we can include them in this exciting evaluation!

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.