You hear a lot of advice from people when you are thinking of setting up a podcast. People have all sorts of opinions about how long episodes should be, what you should talk about, how you should talk, how often you should release episodes. I’m not sure any of them are right. Think about the podcasts you listen to. Are they all the same length as each other? All the same format? All series or all regular? I doubt it.
I’m the host of The Cosmic Shed podcast which was recently named as one of the Guardian’s favourite podcasts of 2018. It’s recorded in the crumbling garden shed at the bottom of my garden, somewhere in suburban Bristol. It really is an awful shed but guests on the podcast include Tim Peake, Alice Roberts, Benedict Cumberbatch, Nichelle Nichols and Chris Hadfield. We discuss science fact, science fiction and everything in between. Occasionally we take the podcast on the road for live events, like our takeover of Bristol’s planetarium with Andy Weir, the author of The Martian.
Podcasts are what the hosts make them to be. If you’re
thinking of setting one up, think about what your favourite podcast are and why
you like them. The thing that the best all have in common is that the people
hosting and presenting them have a huge passion for their topics. That passion
is infectious and vital for the listener but it takes many forms. My favourite
podcasts are a mixture of scripted, well researched shows like Caliphate and
RadioLab and the more relaxed, informal formats like Spooktator and The Adam
The idea for The Cosmic Shed came to me while I was studying
for the MSc in Science Communication at UWE. I had recently moved to Bristol
and bought a house which needed a lot of work. A lot of work. Water came up through
the floor and down through the ceiling. The waste pipe from the toilet went out
onto the roof. That’s the end of that sentence but I would add that this part
of the roof did not leak. In the garden stood a shed. A truly awful, rotting
shed with more holes than the house and half the floor missing. “That looks
like a great place to record a podcast”, I thought.
Several years later, The Cosmic Shed podcast has over 100
episodes, won awards and, yet, the shed still looks awful from the outside.
There are a cohort of co-hosts for the Cosmic Shed. We have a nanoscientist Dr Maddy Nichols, an aerospace engineer Dr Steve Bullock, a film nerd (understatement) Timon Singh and more regular guest/hosts like Tushna Commisariat (Physics World) and Achintya Rao (CERN). We all have our own expertise and our own loves of science fiction.
We get a fair amount of correspondence from people who tell
us that we are like friends to them. They look forward to our episodes and feel
like they are sitting in the shed with us as they listen. If you think of your
favourite podcasts, I suspect you’ll find most of them have regular hosts who
you get to know and like. It’s one of the main reasons why people like
podcasts. Not that that is deliberate from our point of view. I believe that
it’s just a natural consequence of the way we record the podcast.
The Guardian newspaper described us as a “light-hearted, curious and nerdy listen” and I think that’s what you get if you put a group of friends in a terrible shed, watch a bit of science fiction and record the conversation.
Your podcast should be as long as you want it to be, as often as you want it to be and about what you want to it be about. That way, you’ll enjoy doing it as much as your listeners love listening to it.
If you are a podcaster or you are thinking of becoming one,
do feel free to get in touch. I’d be delighted to have a chat with you but
beware. The first question anyone asks me is how we get such brilliant guests.
I never answer it.
As 2018 draws to a close, it’s over 15 years since we launched our first postgraduate programme in Science Communication. Today, we’re delighted to be launching our latest offering, designed to meet the needs of students wherever they are based. As our MSc Science Communication and Postgraduate Certificate in Practical Science Communication grow in numbers year on year, we’ve become more and more conscious that science communication is a growing field, both in the UK and internationally, but not everyone who would like to develop their expertise is able to travel to Bristol to study with us.
Over the last three years we’ve provided two, entirely online, CPD courses in science communication, which have provided training to over 100 students around the globe. Drawing on the learning we’ve gained from delivering these courses, we are pleased to offer the next generation of science communication students the chance to study for a Postgraduate Diploma in Applied Science Communication, without ever visiting our campus here in Bristol.
The programme has been designed to provide students with an applied and practical introduction to the science communication field, alongside the opportunity to develop their understanding of science communication research and techniques. The programme is intended to appeal to students with interests in face-to-face science communication (such as festivals and museums), science communication in digital environments, as well as the written form. A final research skills and project module will also equip students with key skills in science communication research and evaluation techniques. Students will leave the programme with all of the skills necessary to both convey and communicate scientific concepts, and assess the impact of that communication. Thus, the programme will appeal to recent graduates and those already working in the field alike.
One unique aspect of this programme, for UWE Bristol, is its entirely online delivery format. This will allow students, wherever they are based, and alongside other commitments, to undertake a UK science communication qualification. Students will also be able to direct their learning towards topics and examples of relevance to them, in their home and working environments, as well as cultural contexts, and even though it’s online, we’ll be using the latest techniques to help them to network with our staff, as well as each other.
In developing this new programme we’ve worked with staff throughout our team, as well as having input and insights from our current postgraduate students and stakeholders who are working in the field. The stakeholders we spoke to, many of whom are already employing some of our past graduate students, commented on the contemporary relevance of the programme, the connection of assessments to real situations students will face in their employment contexts, and the opportunities for students to build portfolios and practice in a varied way.
We’re now recruiting students who would like to start this programme in January 2019, you can contact Jane.Wooster@uwe.ac.uk for further information and find out more on the programme here. We are also able to offer discounts to students who have previously studied an online CPD course with us.
Emma Weitkamp & Clare Wilkinson, Co-Directors of the Science Communication Unit
The early part of the summer of 2018 saw the UK facing a heatwave and a lack of rain affecting many parts of the country. In some areas dairy farmers hit by a lack of rain needed to supplement grass-fed cattle with silage (normally used in the winter months). Many UK residents however remained unaffected, and may have enjoyed the stretch of BBQ weather and the certainty of being able to leave the house in their shorts without a brolly or jacket to hand! There are those who find it hard to believe that the UK, which is perceived as a wet and rainy country, can be severely affected by drought and water scarcity.
The UK is reliant on rainfall to fill its reservoirs which provide water to homes and businesses across much of the country. Industries such as farming and horticulture as well as the environmental sector are effected by drought and water scarcity. Summer water shortage as a result of a lack of precipitation can also be accompanied by high temperatures – a heatwave – which affects many sectors including fire services and medical settings, as vulnerable people can be susceptible to dehydration or heatstroke. These phenomena are nothing new, with drought and water scarcity being evidenced in the UK for as long as records of precipitation and river flow have been kept – well into the early 1800s. Recent droughts in 1976 and 1990 are still alive in the memories of many. With climate change, extreme weather events are more likely in the future and, as such, drought and water scarcity awareness is important to encourage people to embrace water-saving behaviour changes, and understand that this is something that affects the UK.
‘About Drought’ is a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded project designed to maximise the impact of UK research on drought and water scarcity, and to engage diverse stakeholders and publics with the outputs from the UK Droughts and Water Scarcity Programme. As part of the project, a series of films will be produced aiming to debunk some common misconceptions about drought and water scarcity. This first film in the series introduces the viewer to people with expert knowledge on drought and water scarcity in the UK and the effects it can have.
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.
With a total of six workshops across the country, the events were held at key mining locations across the South West (Tavistock and Redruth), the Pennines (Matlock Bath and Reeth) and Wales (Capel Bangor and Barmouth). At each paired location one workshop was held on a Wednesday evening and the other over a Thursday lunchtime – we wanted to ensure that the workshops were attended by a range of people, rather than those with a specific interest in mining heritage.
The Q method was used to examine the preferences of those living in areas of metal mining in England and Wales. This method was selected as it is suitable for contentious issues where there is no consensus of opinion and is effective at ensuring participants prioritise different outcomes. For example, instead of reporting that everything is ‘very important’, the Q Method allows participants to ‘sort’ a series of statements based on the degree to which the statement represents their perspective on a subject: the Q sort.
Evaluation on the chosen method was carried out and the data is currently being analysed. Preliminary results show this is a promising method of in-depth engagement. The Q sort was perceived by the participants as a time-consuming and demanding process but also interesting, thought provoking and challenging (in a good way!). Definitely a method to consider in a public engagement context, especially when looking for in-depth thoughts and views on certain issues.
We are now busy analyzing both the Q Method results and the full data from the evaluation and look forward to sharing the results in the near future.
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.
Standing behind the counter of Cheltenham Library one Saturday, a colleague beamed at me “Let’s do a Fun Palace”. I had no idea what she was on about. Was she suggesting a new craze I hadn’t heard of? Hmmm, she already works as a Science Communicator so was it something along those lines? My eyes darted around looking for hints – I came clean, I hadn’t the foggiest idea.
Turns out Fun Palaces is an international campaign, bringing science, art, craft and tech together for one weekend a year, free for everyone and run by the community. Libraries are community hubs. In the Gloucestershire service, we offer more than books. A Fun Palace fits in well here.
Once I knew about Fun Palaces, I enthusiastically agreed to help since it tied in to the skills I had been developing on the Science Communication MSc here at UWE. As long as it could wait until after all my assessments were handed in of course. My colleague wrote a proposal, we were given the ‘nod’, and away we went.
So which modules and skills from the MSc were invaluable for the event? I cannot decide. I filled this post with important aspects of the course, then realised no one wanted to read a thesis on this. Basically, I used skills learnt from every module.
The experiences provided by Science in Public Spaces (‘We the Curious’, the Explorer Dome, training by VOX and a self-selected visit to one of the Science Museum ‘Lates’) were extremely useful in highlighting how some ideas work well in some spaces and for some audiences, but not others. It also provided practical skills via the BoxEd project. Writing Science came in handy when it came to publishing promotional tweets, producing marketing materials and writing a last-minute media release. The compulsory modules provided an understanding of audiences, whether people feel able to engage in STEM and how you can get around those who feel they can’t, and the Two Cultures debate.
During our MSc Science Communication at UWE Bristol we focus a lot of effort on supporting students to develop their networking and employability skills whilst they study our modules. That’s one of the reasons why our graduates seem to be pretty successful in finding a job in science communication after studying with us and it also means our students get to meet a wide range of science communication practitioners and academics who are working at the ‘coalface’.
One way in which we build in an opportunity to work with an external organisation is via our Science Communication project module. Since the programme started 15 years ago we’ve had well over 150 students working on projects with our Unit and in 2009 we introduced a specific opportunity for students to conduct their projects in partnership with an external organisation. This has resulted in collaborative projects with organisations and charities including We The Curious, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Public Health England, and the British Science Association to name just a few. As our current students complete their projects we spoke to some of the students working with external organisations this year about their experiences.
Anastasia Voronkova, joined our programme from her home in Russia in September 2016. Anastasia said ‘in my project, I am analysing Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust’s, one of the biggest international charities’, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram social media strategies and trying to understand how the audiences on these websites perceive conservation related posts.’ Digital and social media communication have been popular topics for our project students in recent years, and it’s also a space where many organisations are still finding their way, or coming up with contemporary and new approaches to reach audiences.
Anastasia was pleased to have chosen to work with an external organisation, who had been offering ‘great help and support’ alongside her UWE supervisor. Anastasia said her project had also ‘given me a unique opportunity to gain some knowledge about conservation from its active practitioners and to contribute to that field, even if only in the form of a research.’
Lindsey Cooper is a part-time student who began studying her MSc in September 2014 whilst working as an outreach and recruitment officer at Plymouth University. Lindsey has been working with We The Curious (formerly At-Bristol) on her MSc project, which offered exciting opportunities to explore not only the combination of art and science but also the relationship of science centres to underserved audiences, in her case those with physical disabilities. Lindsey said: ‘I have been evaluating a new exhibit called The Box, to see if people with physical disabilities interact and respond to the exhibit in the same way as individuals without a disability.’ The Box celebrates the synergy between art and science, and feature exhibitions and artists that occupy the space where art and science meet.
‘I have really enjoyed the experience of working with an external organisation on my project’, said Lindsey, ‘but involving more individuals has (inevitably) made the process more lengthy and complex. It took me a while to develop my research question and balance what I was interested in with what was useful to the exhibit designers at We The Curious. However, I feel like I’ve ended up with a stronger research question and results than I would have otherwise.’
Ben Sykes was also working whilst undertaking his MSc, though in his case this involved him developing his freelance writing career, following a change of direction after many years working at Research Councils. Ben worked with the WWT Steart Marshes which is a created wetland in Somerset. Ben said ‘this is one of the largest and most ambitious managed coastal realignment projects ever undertaken in the UK’ and the project provided him with a real opportunity to get on site at with the WWT, and to consider the issues they face in ‘communicating the science behind its creation and the ongoing research being conducted there by a consortium of universities.’
Ben described his project as a ‘huge challenge’ communicating in an outdoor, remote environment but by creating three Quick Response (QR) codes which were deployed across the reserve, Ben was able to see some real impacts from his work. Ben continued ‘By linking this to web-based science content, my project resulted in a third of Steart Visitors accessing content on the web and learning something about science. It was a super project to work on.’
Our thanks to all organisations who contribute their time and ideas to work with our students, as well as Ben, Lindsey and Anastasia for their contributions to this blog post. If you are based at an organisation who would like to work with student projects in future please contact Clare.Wilkinson@uwe.ac.uk. Find out more about our Science Communication programmes.
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.
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.
I see existing work in cultural evolution fitting into science communication in 3 main areas:
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.
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!
In July, I travelled to the Centre for Life in Newcastle upon Tyne for the BIG Event – an annual science communication conference organised by the British Interactive Group. The schedule was jam-packed with workshops on a range of topics, from maths and magic to mapping and makery, and I came away buzzing with inspiration and ideas. Here, I reflect on three sessions and consider how these themes influence my science communication practice:
Thinking, doing, talking science
I have young children, so I was interested to learn about ‘Thinking, Doing, Talking Science’ (TDTS) – a programme that aims to make primary school science lessons more practical, creative and challenging and encourage higher-order thinking. Rather than teaching facts, teachers ask ‘big questions’ and the children use their knowledge creatively. Teachers using the approach have found that Year 5 pupils make three additional months’ progress in science, compared with standard teaching practice 1.
The idea of moving away from factual recall comes from educational psychology. It was developed by Dr Benjamin Bloom to promote analytical and evaluation skills and the pyramid of higher-order thinking (see diagram) is known as Bloom’s taxonomy 2.
TDTS shows that children become more confident in science when they are encouraged to ask questions and given the opportunity to think. And there are some easy ways to do this, like the Odd One Out game: choose three random objects and say which is the odd one out and why. Of course, there is no right answer but it’s a great way to practise lateral thinking.
My daughters inspire my blog, which celebrates their curiosity. I don’t have answers to all their questions but Simple Scimum gives us a platform for discussion. Do you know how do mermaids go to the loo? Me neither. But with some higher-order thinking, we think we’ve worked it out!
Over the past decade, ‘impact’ has emerged as a buzzword (see RCUK and HEFCE definitions) to describe the positive effects that academic research can have on the world. And, whilst the concept is becoming normalised in academic practice and research assessment 3 – for example, those who seek Research Council funding must consider Pathways to Impact (i.e. who could benefit from their research and how?) – the potential breadth of impact is vast. By attempting to pin it down, we confer on researchers a responsibility to evaluate and collect evidence of impact. They therefore face a challenge in balancing their scholarly role as teachers, mentors and researchers with their societal role as public intellectuals and ‘impact-makers’.
This is great news for me because my role as a Research Fellow is to work with researchers to co-develop projects that engage public audiences with research at UWE, Bristol and to evaluate and analyse the effectiveness of these engagement activities. So far this year, I’ve developed a genetics activity for BoxED and looked at the impact of continuing professional development on science communications practice. I’m also investigating attitudes towards festivals and the effects these events can have on communities, co-designing an approach to create music from bioluminescent bacteria, and visualise what it is like to live with chronic pain.
Not everyone chooses to visit a museum or attend a lecture, so I try to use the everyday ways that people communicate to engage audiences with information about research and make science part of our cultural narrative. For my collaborators, I hope the impact will be in raising the profile of their research, thinking about how it can be informed by the experiences of those outside academia, and celebrating the outcomes and benefits with a public audience.
It is suggested that we live in a ‘post-truth’ era in which objective facts have a lesser influence on public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs. And if believing is more important than fact-checking, ‘alternative facts’ that undermine established theories can gain currency. But attempting to redress this by flooding people with evidence is not the answer – indeed, it can make things worse as people become more closely anchored to their core beliefs and align themselves with those with similar views 4.
But what if science curiosity could counteract biased information processing 5 ? Perhaps our role as science communicators is to make science part of public culture and cultivate curiosity, rather than to educate public audiences about scientific issues? And if we can do this by making emotional connections with our audiences and drawing on lived experiences, so much the better.
Maybe we should learn from the TDTS programme and develop innovative and creative communications that promote higher-order thinking across all audiences? And what if this encourages critical thinking and normalises scientific literacy in everyday life. Just think what impact that could have…