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.
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!
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.
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’.
Thankfully, public engagement is one way to increase research impact. The REF 2014 impact database contains 4,871 case studies with ‘public engagement’ as keywords. And a quick search identified 35 case studies submitted by UWE, including one about engaging with a local patient group to improve leukaemia treatment.
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…
- Adams, N. E. (2015) Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive learning objectives. J. Med. Libr. Assoc. 103(3) p152-153
- Wilkinson C. (2017) Evidencing impact: a case study of UK academic perspectives on evidencing research impact. Studies in Higher Education. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2017.1339028
- Broks, P. (2017) Science communication: process, power and politics. JCOM. 16(4), C02
- Kahan, D. M. et al (2017) Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing. Advances in Political Psychology. 38, Suppl 1 p179-199
Undergraduate student engineers at UWE Bristol will get the chance to learn about engineering citizenship from September.
The Science Communication Unit is launching a new module to highlight the importance of professional development, lifelong learning, and the competencies and social responsibilities required to be a professional engineer.
It follows a successful public engagement project led by Laura Fogg-Rogers in in 2014, called Children as Engineers. The new module is being funded by HEFCE to advance innovation in higher education curricula.
The 65 students, who are in the third year of their BEng or MEng degrees, will learn about the engineering recruitment shortfall and the need to widen the appeal of the profession to girls and boys. They will then develop their communication and public engagement skills in order to become STEM Ambassadors for the future.
The module is unique in that it pairs the student engineers with pre-service teachers taking BEd degrees on to be peer mentors to each other. The paired students will work together to deliver an engineering outreach activity in primary schools, as well as respectively mentoring each other in communication skills and STEM knowledge.
The children involved in the project will present their engineering designs back to the student engineers at a conference at UWE in 2018. Previous research shows that it positively changes children’s views about what engineering is and who can be an engineer .
Teacher Asima Qureshi of Meadowbrook Primary school in Bradley Stoke says;
“The Children as Engineers Project was a very successful project in our school. The highlight was the opportunity to showcase their designs at the university and be able to explain the science behind it. It has hopefully inspired children to become future engineers.”
The pilot project was also successful at improving teachers’ STEM subject knowledge confidence and self-efficacy to teach it. This is vitally important, as only 5% of primary school teachers have a higher qualification in STEM, and yet attitudes to science and engineering are formed before age 11.
Professional engineers in the Bristol region are invited to learn from the project and mentor the students as part of the new Curiosity Connections Bristol network . Delegates are welcome to attend the inaugural conference on November 23rd 2017 to share learning with other STEM Ambassadors and professional teachers in the region.
Laura Fogg-Rogers, University of the West of England (UWE) Bristol UK
Every two years, the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) hosts its one-day Science Journalism Summer School. The 2017 event took place on 5 July at the Wellcome Trust in London, and I went along as a budding freelance science writer to learn a few tricks of the trade.
I was joined by 135 other delegates on the airy and light sixth floor of the Trust’s superb glass-fronted Euston Road building on one of the hottest days of the year. With me were undergraduates, PhD students, freelancers of many kinds, and established science journalists working for a range of organisations. Oh – and a colleague (Clare Gee) from my Masters course in Science Communication here at UWE! Billed as a 12-hour working day, I indeed arrived for coffee at 9am, and did not depart until 8.30pm after the superb networking session with commissioning editors from a number of science publications, such as New Scientist.
BBC Science Correspondent Pallab Ghosh opened the proceedings, and the format for the rest of the day followed short talks with panel discussion and audience Q&A. We learned about new media trends, particularly around digital news consumption, in the context of the question ‘Where have all the science correspondents/journalists gone?’. ITV’s Science Correspondent Alok Jha extolled the virtues of critical science journalism in the fake news world, asserting the need to communicate conflicts between scientific researchers and cast more light on the imperfections and uncertainties of the scientific endeavour. That doesn’t sit so easily with being a proponent of science, which most of us are.
A session on pitching skills was most revealing, with commissioning editors suggesting that they aren’t receiving enough news pitches (short 250-word pieces) alongside the veritable flood of feature pitches. They were keen to point out that background was largely irrelevant; if the story was good and the source reliable, they’ll take it. And one particularly good tip to remember is that editors often prefer to receive a ‘phonecall, with e-mail used as the follow-up.
The session on investigative reporting left a sense of how good for society the best journalism can be, despite the challenges around funding this type of work in today’s climate. Given the potential risks, freelancers were generally advised to steer clear of investigative reporting!
Perhaps the highlight for me was the final session on “successful freelancing”. There were personal testimonies of the struggle to get going, to find sources of work, to carve out a niche area of specialisation. Max Glaskin, the successful, award-winning author of the magazine Cycling Science, offered a tremendous insight laced with some dark humour along the way. His successful writing career has allowed him to diversify his sources of income through giving talks, chairing panel discussions and undertaking specialist scientific consultancy.
All-in-all, a long but rewarding day, worth every penny. If you want to meet several commissioning editors in one place at one time and establish relationships, then this biennial Summer School is a good investment of your time and money.
You can read my blog, Sykes on Science, at: www.sykesonscience.wordpress.com
Ben Sykes, MSc Science Communication student, UWE
After my PhD viva in 2004, I promised myself I’d never again study for a qualification. Having gone straight from A-levels through a degree to a doctorate, I felt as if I just couldn’t learn anything more. But a decade later, I found myself at a career crossroads trying to figure out what to do at the end of my maternity leave.
Inspired by my elder daughter’s curiosity, I set up a blog, Simple Scimum, to answer questions about science and nature. Slowly, as the blog gathered followers, my confidence grew; and when one of my daughter’s friends asked if I would answer her science questions too, I knew I had to turn science writing into something more than a hobby.
I began searching for jobs that involved writing about science and quickly realised that a qualification in science communication would be an advantage. So, I googled ‘sci comm Bristol’ and found UWE’s MSc in Science Communication, which sounded brilliant but was more than I could manage whilst working part-time and looking after two young children. However, the Postgraduate Certificate in Practical Science Communication was exactly what I was looking for: a one-year, part-time course with intensive teaching blocks, offering hands-on experience and links to industry. I applied for the September 2016 intake and won a bursary towards my tuition fees: I was going back to university!
I felt nervous about returning to study after such a long break but I knew that this was just the first step along a new career path.
The ‘Writing Science’ module was an obvious choice, with the opportunity to create a magazine and develop a portfolio just too good to miss. I learned the essential elements of journalistic practice and wrote a bylined article for UWE’s Science Matters magazine. But the real highlight was a three-hour workshop on ‘how to write a book’ – I’d love to write science storybooks for children, and came away bursting with ideas, enthusiasm and an action-plan to turn my dream into reality. (Roll on NaNoWriMo…!)
But it was through the ‘Science in Public Spaces’ module that I discovered just how strongly I want to inspire young children and engage them with research. I designed ‘Simon’s Box’ to talk about genetic disease and genome editing with GCSE pupils in local schools. And I had the best time in the Explorer Dome learning about science shows for young audiences. Seeing how to encourage children to learn through stories and play was a fantastic experience and a seminal moment in my desire to become a science communicator.
At times I found it hard to juggle study, work and childcare but the intensive teaching blocks made it easier for me to attend lectures and workshops. I paid for my younger daughter to go to nursery for an extra morning each week and used that time for reading and research. Still, I often found myself studying between 8pm and 10pm, when the kids were tucked up in bed, and I was grateful for 24-hour online access to UWE’s library facilities. But now the hard work is over and I’m just waiting for my final results.
Over the past year, I’ve been part of a supportive cohort of students who are committed to science communication. I’ve developed the confidence to pursue a new career path and given up my old job to become a Research Fellow in UWE’s Science Communication Unit. Before the PGCert, I dreamed of working in science communication but now I’m actually doing it.
Writing is easy until you learn how to do it.
I still remember my first weeks as a trainee journalist on a local newspaper in Weston-super-Mare. Filled with confidence, I’d sit there in my tartan trousers (I’d spent that last year studying in Glasgow) thinking I’d got it cracked. After all, I could write – I’d been on a journalism course after all.
The thing is, more often than not, my finely crafted prose came back covered in red pen from a sub editor who didn’t like what I’d written and wanted A LOT of changes. A little hurt, I would make the changes. Surely it was them who was wrong?
It took a while, but slowly I realised what they were doing. With their changes, my stories were livelier, clearer and more succinct. And just generally, well, better.
So, in that few months, I learned what was to become my most important lesson as a writer – to learn from others. As I got better I found that, paradoxically, writing had got more challenging – there was much more to think about if I was going to do it well. My stories were still edited and reworked by others as I learned. And it still hurt.
Now, 20 years into my writing career, up pops a book that crystallises what has been a lot of hard-won knowledge about writing, Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style . Had Pinker written it 20 years ago, it might have saved me a lot of painful lessons. I can’t claim to have found it myself – I was introduced to it by Lisa Melton, Senior News Editor at Nature Biotechnology , who teaches on our MSc in Science Communication at UWE.
So, in the spirit of saving a few painful lessons, I have distilled a few – but by no means all – of some of the key points Pinker makes that are likely to help science writers.
- “Good writing is understood with the mind’s eye” is Pinker’s way of saying that when we write we need to create mental pictures in the minds of our readers. And to me, this not only applies to when we’re actively describing something or someone we’ve seen; it’s also when we get down to the nuts and bolts of science writing – explaining processes and mechanisms and systems. When someone can visualise a mechanism inside a cell organelle or how one subatomic particle interacts with another, they’re more likely to get it.
- Pinker says good writers “use concrete imagery over familiar verbiage and abstract summary”. In other words, describe what you’re describing vividly, with specific new, fresh words rather than abstractions.
- Cut out the “metadiscourse” – the use of descriptions of what you are going to describe; words such as subsection, review and discussion. Pinker puts it far better than I could. “Inexperienced writers often think they’re doing the reader a favour by guiding her through the rest of the text with a detailed preview. In reality, previews that read up link a scrunched-up table of contents are there to help the writer, not the reader.”
Pinker also describes what he calls the “Curse of Knowledge” – the inability for someone to understand what it’s like for someone else to not know what they know. I’ve found as a science writer, it’s not just scientists who can fall victim to this curse (and not all of them do). But writers can too. If you’ve spent days or weeks researching a topic, you become a ‘mini expert’ and may struggle to explain things in a way non-experts would understand. Pinker does come up with some useful tips – such as avoid jargon and technical language. Nothing earth shattering there. And adding brief explanations for technical terms. Again, not rocket science. The big challenge is recognising when to do it.
Watching scientists pitching their research projects felt like being in an episode of Dragons’ Den. I sat among a group of fledgling science communicators, tasked with choosing a project to develop into a school science activity. My first assignment as a new student, freshly enrolled on the UWE PGCert in Science Communication, was to create an activity suitable for UWE’s BoxED scheme!
I was paired with Gabrielle Wheway, who studies DNA to understand how mutations in genes alter their function and was awarded a prize for her research on retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited form of blindness. We met over coffee to discuss how I could design a hands-on activity that would communicate an aspect of Gabrielle’s research1 to a secondary school audience within a 45-60 minute session in a classroom environment.
Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is caused by mutations in the genes that control vision. Most people with RP are born sighted but experience gradual, progressive deterioration of vision as they grow older. Symptoms can begin at any age and there is no way to predict how quickly the condition will progress. Early signs include difficulty seeing at night and tunnel vision, followed by loss of colour and central vision. Gabrielle mentioned the charity RP Fighting Blindness and I contacted their local support group to learn more about the disease and what it is like for people living with RP.
Over the next few weeks, I started to formulate an idea: my Box would draw on lived experiences of RP and build on four themes in the National Curriculum for Biology at Key Stage 4 (i.e. non-communicable diseases; gene inheritance; impact of genomics on medicine; and uses of modern biotechnology and associated ethical considerations). It would be targeted towards students in Year 10, who could bring in broader perspectives from other GCSE subjects, such as ethics, religious studies or philosophy.
The people from RP Fighting Blindness had shown me some glasses that simulate a type of visual deterioration common in RP. I decided that my activity would involve experiencing what it feels like to have an altered field of vision. I also wanted to establish a personal connection, and found a short film about being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. Finally, I thought about genes as units of inheritance and how they are passed from one generation to the next. Under the working title “Simon’s Box”, my activity looks at genetics and inherited disease using RP as a case study.
Designing a BoxED activity has been an enjoyable experience. I’ve learnt about the National Curriculum for science, researched good practice in designing exhibitions at Science Museums, and delved into learning styles and education theory. I’ve rediscovered a personal interest in genetics and human biology, and developed something of an affection for RP. And I’m delighted that we are now getting ready to roll it out to local schools and festivals. So, if you’re planning to attend the Festival of Nature or Cheltenham Science Festival in June, come along to the UWE BoxED stand and try out some of our hands-on science activities!