A new Minecraft programme featuring iconic Bristol and Bath landmarks is allowing children to digitally engineer the West of England, improving their scientific knowledge and encouraging them to consider Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers.
The Digital Engineering Technology and Innovation (DETI) programme team at UWE Bristol have been exploring digitally engineering the West with local children, using the incredibly popular block-building video game Minecraft.
Minecraft is the second-best selling video game of all time and extremely popular with children. Players place and break blocks with a wide range of appearances and properties, to build a huge variety of constructions. Players can easily make changes to their builds and quickly visualise new ideas, much like computer-aided design (CAD) software used for digital engineering.
The DETI Skills Inspire team partnered with local design and engineering consultancy Atkins, and Minecraft experts Dr Laura Hobbs and Jonathan Kim, to create a scale recreation of Bristol and Bath within the game, allowing local children to explore, build, re-design and re-engineer their very own cities.
Consultants from Atkins created a programme to convert Ordnance Survey data into a to-scale Minecraft world, allowing a highly detailed Bristol and Bath to be created – the West in Minecraft.
This new world was then populated with famous engineering landmarks such as the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol Temple Meads Station and the SS Great Britain.
DETI Skills Inspire has been using this new Minecraft world at after-school STEM clubs recently established in Lawrence Weston and Easton, Bristol, as part of a STEM in the Community project funded by UWE Bristol and the STEM Ambassador hub West England, in collaboration with local community groups in both areas.
By re-creating these areas of Bristol within the game, children from both Lawrence Weston and Easton are able to explore the parts of their community that are familiar to them, piquing their interest and giving them power to reshape where they live.
Exploring new areas of the city through Minecraft also opens up opportunities for children to visit and talk about some of the city’s famous landmarks, many of which they may never have seen before, strengthening their knowledge and cultural connection with these areas and our city as a whole.
Liz Lister, Manager of the STEM Ambassador Hub West England, said: “Giving young people access to these places and giving them power to reshape them, even if it is just in Minecraft, offers them the opportunity to imagine their world as being different to what it is now. We hope that planting the idea that we can have some control over our own environment will lead some young people to think about the relevance of design and engineering to their lives, and then perhaps on to thinking of themselves as designers and engineers of the future.”
The activity utilises the approach developed by Science Hunters, which is based at UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit and Lancaster University, and is affiliated with their Royal Academy of Engineering-funded engineering strand Building to Break Barriers . The game has proven to be a successful educational tool, and evaluations undertaken by Science Hunters indicate that use of Minecraft through their approach both attracts children who might not otherwise have engaged with science learning, and successfully improves scientific knowledge and understanding after participating in sessions.
Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers, Senior Lecturer in STEM Education and Communication at UWE Bristol, said: “So far ‘the West in Minecraft’ has been a huge success amongst the young people attending these STEM clubs. There has been much excitement at finding their own homes within the model city, re-building structures and adding to existing ones. Farms have been built on rooftops as the children have been encouraged to think about how they would re-design their city for a net zero future.”
A set of school resources to explore digital engineering, using this new Minecraft world, are currently being developed by the DETI Inspire team for release next academic year. These 1-2 hour lessons are currently being trialled with local primary schools, linking activities to the curriculum and drawing on several different subject areas to allow for a cross-curricular and rather unique learning experience.
STEM @ Baggator is a community STEM club for young people in Easton that takes place after school on Mondays (3-8.30pm) and welcomes all young people in the area to drop by and join in!
The club was co-developed with members of the local community, with support from the STEM Ambassador hub for the West of England and the DETI Inspire team at UWE Bristol, as part of a STEM in the community project funded by UWE, which aims to help STEM Ambassadors and UWE students collaborate to run STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) initiatives that are relevant to their local communities.
STEM @ Baggator had a hugely successful launch event last week, with over 30 local young people joining in for some robot building and racing! There was a wonderfully positive atmosphere throughout the evening with everyone keen to get involved and even help tidy up all the stray pieces of Lego that had found their way onto the floor, as Lego tends to do!
At the next session, the team will be trialling a brand new activity which will have young people re-designing their local areas digitally, using the popular game Minecraft and a specially designed scale model of Bristol city.
STEM in the community is an ongoing project based at UWE Bristol and we’ll be sharing more news of the initiatives that are being co-developed with other communities in the West of England region. If you would like to know more about STEM @ Baggator or would like to collaborate on a new community STEM project, please contact the team at email@example.com
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.
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.
Neurodiversity Week (15-21 March 2021) celebrates our unique strengths and differences, while recognising that the many talents of people with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and other neurodiverse ways of thinking and learning are often not suited to traditional, formal learning environments. Science Hunters is a Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) outreach and research programme that uses Minecraft to engage children from under-represented groups with STEM. Projects have covered a wide range of topics such as the Amazon rainforest, understanding diabetes, earth science and volcanoes and space, with the Building to Break Barriers project currently running at UWE Bristol engaging children with many aspects of engineering.
Minecraft is the second-best selling video game of all time and extremely popular with children. Players place and break blocks with a wide range of appearances and properties, to build a huge range of constructions. It can be played either as a single-player game or in a shared virtual world with multiple users playing together, and was chosen for Science Hunters because of its popularity (children want to play it!), particular appeal to children who learn differently, and suitability for explaining science.
A key target group for Science Hunters is children with Special Educational Needs (SEN), particularly through a dedicated Minecraft Club that has been running since 2015. It soon became clear that taking part in the club, alongside children with similar needs in an accepting environment, and playing a game which was a shared special interest, had more benefits for participants than STEM learning alone.
When face-to-face sessions are possible, as they were until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Minecraft Club uses a dedicated server, so that children can play together in a safe social online space. Most of the children who attend have ADHD, autism and/or dyslexia. Spaces are limited to no more than 16 at a time, with simple guidelines to keep the club fun; children are not under pressure to conform to ‘neurotypical’ behaviour norms as may be expected in non-specific settings. STEM topics are briefly introduced, and then participants are free to build in Minecraft in relation to that topic; while adults are there to guide and support, children are encouraged to follow their own interests and ideas to create their own unique designs. For four years, data were collected from participating children and their parents/carers, who attended with them, through surveys and interviews.
During this time, 101 children aged 5-17 years attended; responses were gathered from 29 children and 37 caregivers. Results indicated that children both enjoyed and learnt something from attending, and while their feedback understandably often focused on Minecraft, they also indicated that they had benefitted socially and emotionally from being in the shared space with other children with similar interests. This was supported by insights from parents and carers, who described benefits outside the club, such as improved confidence and wellbeing, improved social skills, and reduced need for formal learning support.
Interest in playing Minecraft is what motivates children to attend, and the game provides a range of opportunities for children to potentially develop social and educational skills. This is supported by the process of designing and completing builds, independently or collaboratively, and communicating with others within the shared virtual world. Playing in the same physical space enhances this, as communication can move between the virtual and real worlds and allow in-person peer support and the ‘safe space’ provided in our Minecraft Club supports children with SEN to interact naturally and spontaneously. While it was set up as part of STEM outreach, the social communication impacts of our Minecraft Club – such as making friends, fitting in, and feeling valued without judgement regardless of completing tasks or conforming to expected social behaviours – are at least as important.
Minecraft Club is currently running virtually as part of Building to Break Barriers. We’ve looked at earthquake-proof buildings, protecting against flooding, tunnels, drones and more, and are exploring the effects of the change to meeting online.
When children are asked what an engineer is, and what they look like, it can often be a tricky question. They may jump to the image of an engine mechanic, or a man in overalls with a spanner and a hard-hat. They may also have trouble recognising familiar jobs as coming under the umbrella of engineering.
Engineering is defined as ‘working artfully to bring something about’. More literally, it is the application of science and maths to solve problems. And it’s a career that is more relevant than ever – to achieve net zero and a low carbon global economy, everything we make and use, from aircraft to cars, batteries to wind turbines, will need to be completely re-imagined and re-engineered.
When a child does not personally know an engineer, or does not recognise the role of engineering in solving the problems faced by a society, then this notion of an engineer becomes more removed from their view, and critically, from their career aspirations. In science communication, we encounter children with low science capital throughout our work. So how can the children dream of becoming an engineer, if they don’t know what one is?
You can’t be what you can’t see
It is difficult for children to imagine themselves in that job, when the engineer does not look like them. Encouraging girls and children from minority ethnic groups into engineering careers, and STEM careers more broadly, is a key focus of the DETI Inspire team working out of UWE.
In collaboration with My Future My Choice, as well as many local engineers; the DETI Inspire team at UWE have developed the Engineering Curiosity cards and lesson resources for schools. The aim is to bring the diversity of the West of England’s amazing engineers into the classroom and enthuse and inspire both primary and secondary pupils. Through not only learning about what an engineer is and recognising their role, but also introducing them to real-life local engineers that may come from similar beginnings, so that they can start to think of engineering as something that could be for them!
Engineering Curiosity is a collection of 52 cards, based upon 52 local engineers in a wide variety of different roles and industries, in a kind of ‘Top Trumps’ meets ‘Happy Families’ style game. The engineers featured have also each produced an engaging TikTok style video, giving a fun snapshot of their role and their route into it. The project has developed lesson plans, curriculum linked worksheets and activities, and school-wide assemblies to accompany the cards and videos, all to aid schools in running sessions that involve the real engineers joining them live in the classroom through video link.
During the recent British Science Week, local schools around the West have been taking part in DETI’s ‘Big Beam In!’, bringing the sessions to life and reaching over 3500 pupils. Some of which may just be the West’s future engineers!
Looking to inspire in your science communication, or want to check out all the engineering roles for yourself? You can find the resources, lesson plans and cards on the Curiosity Connections website.
Building to Break Barriers is a new outreach project that aims to engage children from under-represented groups with engineering, using the computer game Minecraft, which allows players to build almost limitless creations.
The project will co-produce ten new engineering outreach sessions with engineers, children, and young people, and deliver them around the UK. To increase representation, the children involved will be from under-represented groups, and so will some of the engineers. Engineers will receive outreach training and support throughout the project. Activity will take place online during COVID-19 restrictions.
Building to Break Barriers is a Science Hunters project. Science Hunters uses Minecraft to engage children with Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) for three key reasons:
Minecraft has various features which represent items and processes in the real world. This makes it ideal for communicating about, and building understanding of, a range of scientific concepts.
The game can be used in different modes on a range of hardware, including Creative mode, which allows unlimited building and therefore has high flexibility.
Children and schools
UK children and schools are invited to participate in co-designing outreach sessions with the project team and engineers. This may look different for each school and child, and could include: contributing an idea for a session topic, voting on a selection of session topics, suggesting hands-on resources, or designing part of a Minecraft challenge. They will also be able, circumstances permitting, to trial or take part in the developed sessions.
Ideally, this project would take place in schools. During COVID-19 restrictions, these elements can be conducted remotely with children who are either attending school (supported by teaching staff) or learning from home (with family support). The specific approach for each school will be discussed individually with staff.
Engineers will also have the opportunity to co-design and deliver outreach sessions. This may be directly with schools and children as above, with Minecraft Clubs for specific groups, at public events, or with the project team (activities dependent on COVID-19 restrictions). Engineers will be able to choose their type and level of involvement to suit them.
Engineers will also receive 1:1 outreach training and have the opportunity to participate in group discussions, which will be conducted remotely to improve access and inclusion (e.g. for those with caring responsibilities).
Children, their teachers and parents/carers, and engineers will all be asked to provide evaluative information and will be able to contribute to the project’s ongoing direction and development.
Who can take part?
This project aims to reach children who may face barriers to accessing educational opportunities and have characteristics that mean they are under-represented in Engineering.
The project has a particular focus on supporting:
Women and girls
People with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities
People from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds (e.g. eligible for Pupil Premium, or from areas with low progression to Higher Education)
Looked After Children/Care leavers
Under-represented groups can also include people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicities, with disabilities or long-term illnesses, in rural areas or limited access to services, who were/would be the first generation in the their family to go to university, who are carers/young carers, and with English as an Additional Language (NB this list is not exhaustive).
Representation is really important in enabling young people to feel that engineering is ‘for them’, so engineers who fall (or would have fallen, as children) into these groups are particularly encouraged to join the project.
Engineers can be from any engineering field, based in the UK. Whilst we recognise the value of undergraduate students, we are not able to offer places to them for this project. UWE provides public engagement training for undergraduate engineering students through the Engineering and Society module.
Schools who are interested in being involved should contact Laura and Sophie on ExtendingSTEM@uwe.ac.uk. Unless already involved with Science Hunters, parents/carers of children should ask their child’s school to contact us.
Engineers who are interested in being involved can complete an expression of interest here, and will be contacted when outreach can begin. Engineers in the West of England can also become part of the new initiative for Digital Engineering Technology and Innovation (DETI) Diversity Demonstrator database of diverse engineering role models; sign up to the mailing list here.
The project ends in January 2022. For more information or if you have any questions, please contact Laura and Sophie at ExtendingSTEM@uwe.ac.uk
Only 11% of engineers in the UK are women. Is this enough?
No, it’s really not – we have an engineering skills shortage as it is, and the low proportion of women in the workforce means that a whole pool of talent is going untapped. Girls need to be able to see engineering as for them, connect with it as career and have access to positive female role models. And in turn, women need to feel supported to make a difference in the workplace once they get there, so that they not only go into, but stay in engineering roles.
So what can we do about that, and how can we bring people together? Here at the Science Communication Unit at UWE Bristol, we’re launching ‘Women Like Me’; a project which aims to open doors to girls and build resilience for women in engineering. I will be running the project with Laura Fogg Rogers over the next year; we both have lots of experience of delivering outreach and engagement projects and are passionate about making Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths accessible to everyone, at all stages.
Supporting women and girls in engineering
Women Like Me is a peer mentoring and outreach project aimed at boosting female representation in engineering. So what does that actually mean?
The project will pair senior women engineers with junior women engineers to give them mentoring support as they start out in their engineering careers. In turn, junior women will undertake engineering education outreach in schools and at public events in the Bristol and Bath area. Engineering is a creative, socially conscious, and collaborative discipline, and this project aims to support girls and women to make a difference in society.
Who can take part?
Mid-career and early career female engineers working in the Bristol and Bath area can get involved in the project. Senior women engineers are those who are more than five years post-graduation from their first degree. Junior women engineers are those with less than five years of experience since entering the engineering profession, and can include apprentices, trainees, postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers.
Undergraduates aren’t eligible to take part; whilst they are fantastic role models, UWE already provides public engagement training for undergraduate engineering students through the Engineering and Society module.
What will it involve?
We will offer networking opportunities to all participants at the start (October 2018) and end (April 2019) of the project. Senior engineers will receive training in mentoring and meet with their junior engineer mentee at least twice during the project.
Junior engineers will receive mentoring support from senior engineers and training in public engagement. They will then undertake at least three engineering outreach activities in local schools and at local public events. Activities and coordination of events is provided and supported by UWE; participation is voluntary and we’ll cover travel expenses.
Women Like Me is based in the Science Communication Unit at the University of the West of England, Bristol (UWE), supported by the WISE Bristol Hub and STEM Ambassador Hub West England and funded by a Royal Academy of Engineering Ingenious grant. The project is organised by Dr Laura Hobbs and was initiated by Laura Fogg-Rogers. By matching senior and junior female engineers and supporting junior engineers to connect with the children and young people as the engineers of tomorrow, the project will lead to impact both in the workplace today, and for the future of the engineering profession.
UWE Bristol Exhibition and Conference Centre,
Bristol, BS34 8QZ
Take part in science and engineering demonstrations, and see the inspiring designs from the Leaders Awards – the children’s engineering design competition for the South West.
On Saturday 30th June, UWE’s engineers will showcase their latest research and technology in the Exhibition and Conference Centre at UWE. The event is free to all and will be a public open day for families and schools.
The event and Leaders Awards sponsorship have been organised by Laura Fogg-Rogers, a Senior Research Fellow in UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit, as part of her work on the Children as Engineers project. Activities include having a go with drones, taking on the role of a city planner in a cardboard version of Bristol, and experiencing the latest virtual reality data controllers.
Laura Fogg-Rogers, who has coordinated the event said, “Engineers are highly creative people who can help to solve many of society’s problems. It’s a really collaborative profession, where you have to work together in teams to see your visions and designs come to fruition. The range of roles and careers is really diverse, and that’s what we’d like to emphasise to all young people, particularly girls. You can make your own mark in engineering!”
The public event forms part of UWE’s Week of Engineering which has been organised by the SCU, which celebrates the national Year of Engineering alongside International Women in Engineering Day. It will follow a series of activities including the Big Bang Fair at UWE and the Engineering our Future schools event, which will see 240 girls attend UWE to experience being engineers.
Alongside the public activities will be an exhibition displaying the shortlisted and winning designs for the South West Leaders Awards. UWE has teamed up with DE&S (part of the Ministry of Defence) this year to sponsor the South West England Region of the Primary Engineer & Secondary Engineer Leaders Award; a national engineering competition for schools.
School pupils answered the question “If you were an engineer what would you do?” by identifying a problem in society that engineering could solve and devising a solution. UWE students from EngWest Studio will turn one of the winning designs into reality later this year.
The TEAN (Teacher Education Advancement Network) Commendation Award for Effective Practice in Teacher Education was presented at an awards event held in Birmingham in May. Senior Research Fellow Laura Fogg-Rogers and Senior Lecturer Juliet Edmonds collected the award on behalf of UWE. The project team also brings together Dr Fay Lewis from the Department of Education and Childhood and Wendy Fowles-Sweet from the Department of Engineering Design and Mathematics.
The Children as Engineers project developed an undergraduate degree module called ‘Engineering and Society’ which pairs engineering students with teachers to bring hands-on science programmes into primary schools. It aims to address science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills gaps in primary schools – for teachers and children.
The project sits against a backdrop of an urgent need for enough trained engineers to meet the country’s future needs. Estimates suggest the UK will need 100,000 new engineers in the next 20-30 years to solve problems affecting society, grow the economy, and design products for manufacture. In particular, more girls and women are encouraged to take up engineering as a career.
Pilot research indicates that student teachers specialising in science at primary school improved their subject knowledge and confidence to teach STEM in the future. Meanwhile, the engineering students taking the ‘Engineering and Society’ module benefit by developing their communication and presentation skills and creating a broad-based understanding of the relevance of their subject.
Pupils benefit from hands-on sessions delivered by the students, where they engage in activities such as building mini-vacuum cleaners, testing floating platforms and exploring flight. Children aged between eight and 11 learn about the skills, challenges and excitement of engineering.
Laura said: ”We were delighted that our team’s hard work over several years has been recognised at a national level by teacher educators. We plan to continue expanding this project to bring real benefits to teachers, engineers, and pupils, to inspire creative STEM teaching and practice for the future.”
The project is believed to be the first in the country to pair university students in these two disciplines to enhance the learning of both groups as well as delivering real benefits to school teachers and pupils.
This time last year during our MSc Science Communication at UWE Bristol, we were buried under a mountain of coursework deadlines, research proposals and that creeping question of ‘what next’? We never thought that so soon after that joyous dissertation hand-in day we would be off on a sci-comm adventure to Hong Kong, to make a documentary and inspire 10,000 local school children to study science!
We teamed up with Anturus Education – a Welsh organisation that uses expedition, media and adventure to inspire kids to learn about the natural world. Our mission was to use film and public speaking to demonstrate that Hong Kong is far more than just an urban hotspot – it is in fact, a thriving wildlife hotspot with many nature-filled surprises!
Science communication is all about getting the public involved in scientific concepts and research findings — engaging them to take notice of the things that matter and spark curiosity.
Whilst we were there, we quickly became aware of the value of being creative in how we communicate science. Here are our thoughts on how filmmaking and different styles of presenting can reap meaningful rewards among your target audience.
Science Communication through filmmaking – Tay Aziz
As well as delivering 30 school shows across Hong Kong, the Anturus team also filmed and produced a fifteen-minute documentary and a few shorter one-minute clips for YouTube. These videos were disseminated to schools and the public through the Anturus website and provided useful resources that teachers could access after the team had left, helping the team achieve a legacy once the project was complete.
As a science communicator, film and video is an incredibly useful tool – it can provide a sense of escapism, a new way to visualise information with animations, or an immersive experience in interactive 3D. Film can provide a platform for scientists to share their work and promote themselves as experts in a field, and it also has the potential to reach vast audiences and can impact an audience’s emotions as well as their knowledge on a topic. I first became interested in using film to communicate science whilst taking part in the Science on Air and on Screen module, as part of the MSc in Science Communication; since then I’ve created documentaries on plastic pollution, drought research and most recently, filmed presenter-pieces in Hong Kong.
Storytelling is an integral part of film and science communication films are no different. How we perceive the world is heavily influenced by forms of entertainment media, such as sci-fi novels, fictional films and documentaries. These depictions of science encompass more than just facts, but they include other elements of science such as its methods and allow non-scientists to ‘see’ where science happens, who does it, and how it works. When choosing a problem or focus for a film, it makes sense to consider the issues and themes and anchor those ideas in contextual evidence to create emotional appeal and build interesting discourse. World-class natural history documentaries, such as Blue Planet II, have gathered popularity as they follow key principles to engage interest in their audience.
‘If something is unusual it will be interesting. Where it comes to be dangerous is when you introduce an element of it being strange without relating it to the central idea of the topic you are talking about without a solid theoretical structure present.’
Sir David Attenborough
Choosing a subject which an audience can relate to (living creatures), they showcase surprising beauty and hidden stories in the real world, and they have substance to reinforce that initial generic interest.
Top Tips from Tay for getting into Science Communication filmmaking:
Don’t underestimate the value of your academic qualifications. Science production companies are always looking for people who are highly qualified in an academic area and are good writers.
You don’t need to go to film school. A qualification like the MSc can teach you most of the basics, and there are millions of excellent (and free) tutorials on YouTube. Try searching ‘documentary filmmaking’.
Practice makes perfect. Make your own stuff, even if it’s a small project about something down the road from where you live.
All the gear…no idea. Don’t spend tonnes of money on expensive equipment that you don’t need. Learn with what you have first – Sophie created a 22-part vlog series using just her iPhone!
Keep it simple. Make sure you don’t cram huge amounts of information into a film – there should be a main idea or two, with a sequence of ideas to hold the viewer’s attention and lead them to the end.
Science Communication through Presenting – Sophie Pavelle
Science can be communicated in many different ways, but I have enjoyed communicating my adventures in the natural world using contemporary media and online platforms. Since my rather quirky trek around Cornwall for my MSc project, I’ve been surprised with how much I have enjoyed presenting as a route into science communication – especially as I’m not the most confident of people! By talking through a topic out loud – I find that I not only offer information to others, but I have learnt so much through the process of film production and presentation. The research that goes into a script, the hours spent modifying it before delivery, help you to think about an environment, a process, a species of wildlife, much more creatively. Your ultimate goal is to leave the audience with more knowledge of a subject or an enlightened view on an issue than before – and so by dissecting information and identifying the key points to present, in a way that is interesting and understandable, well, you end up learning a huge amount!
Pieces to camera
Our presenting experience during Hong Kong was two-fold: pieces to camera and live presentation across 30 schools – both completely different methods of communication and new experiences for me! The documentary sought to uncover the wilder parts of the city and reveal the complex relationship the locals have with its wildlife. My job was to research what wildlife was in store for us during our visit. Learning about the natural history of Chinese white dolphins, black kites, Rhesus and Long-tailed macaques, was a refreshing change from the garden birds and local kittiwake colony back home! Being part of a small, inter-dependent production crew was also a valuable opportunity; making a welcome change from being a one-woman filming team as I am for my online content. Learning from our trip leader Huw James about shot composition, different presenting angles and even things such as stance, breathing techniques, voice cadences and body language; offered invaluable on-location hints and tips as to how to boost your chances of gaining and maintaining the attention of your audience. If there’s one thing I remember from the MSc Science Communication, it’s that knowing your audience is EVERYTHING.
Live Science Shows
Following the first few days of filming in some impressive national parks such as Sai KunGreatand secondary schools. Here was our chance to now personally interact with our audience, to initiate that all-important dialogue that is integral to effective science communication. Our tour formed part of the Hong Kong Science Festival, coinciding with Science Week back in the UK. Organised by the Croucher Foundation which aims to promote science communication and teaching over Hong Kong, we had quite the schedule! 10 days. 30 different schools. 30 shows. Travelling in-between. I arrived having never done a live science show before – it was safe to say my last stage performance may well have been Villager Number 5 in the school nativity!! Many of the schools required translation into Cantonese – adding an extra hurdle to the learning curve.
Being a team of three co-presenters worked well; while two presenters steered the show, the other became the stage hand. It also meant that I could spend the first few shows nursing a lost voice and learning from Huw and Tay, both of whom are far more experienced with delivering science content on stage. The shows were largely based around ‘Our Wild World’, covering everything from deep-sea adaptations of the blobfish, how to be more ‘plastic-smart’, to exploring how volcanoes and glaciers interact. The Hong Kong students were a dream to present to – polite, attentive and practically bursting with enthusiasm to volunteer for on-stage activities and ask questions; it was an opportunity I relished as someone so fresh from education myself, to interact with such eager students and try and inspire them to further their curiosity in science and the natural world.
It was wonderful to see the children’s reactions to seeing photos and film of awesome nature – my favourite being their reaction to seeing clips from our documentary of the azure waters of the Geopark and its dramatic coastline, as many of them were not aware of its proximity to their home. We soon realised the apparent disconnect Hong Kong has with its natural land, particularly during one bizarre moment with a teacher, who was asking us for recommendations on which national park to visit!
Top Tips from Sophie for getting going with Presenting
Just go for it. Nothing is harder but more important than just getting over those first few hurdles of getting your content out there. Experiment with different styles – but just practise, practise, practise. Take every opportunity you can to speak publicly, grow in confidence and learn your style.
Do your research. As a science communicator its so important to do your research and be sure you’re conveying the correct facts to your audience. Keep your facts accurate – but keep them snappy and interesting.
Be creative. This industry is competitive. Try to think of stories or angles to present that are different and innovative – give your audience something remember and your cameraman/woman something fun to film.
Network. The MSc Science Communication has been amazing for meeting likeminded individuals who are passionate about the same ultimate goal. If you want to try out presenting, see if you can find someone who wants to practise their filming and plan some fun filming trips together.
Overall, as newbies into the science communication world, Hong Kong offered a vibrant, challenging and fascinating experience to develop technique and learn an invaluable amount about the various elements that form a documentary and a science show.
Tay Aziz is a passionate science communicator, physiologist and filmmaker. She is currently working as a researcher for the BBC’s Natural History Unit and is the curator of STEMinist, an online community to empower women and girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.
Sophie is an adventurous zoologist with a passion for using expedition to learn about the natural world. Sophie regularly explores the UK and overseas, sharing fun stories about wildlife and conservation through social media, writing, public speaking and workshops.
Sophie’s next project will involve working alongside The Wildlife Trust’s, making some online content for their 30 Days Wild Campaign in June. She’ll also be running digital content workshops for the City Nature Challenge in Bristol and speaking at the Festival of Nature.