Category Archives: science communication

Showtime! Fun Palaces – bringing science and the arts to the community

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.

Fun palaces logo

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.

QueationSo 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.

Most of you will probably be shouting at your screens “Get to the Fun Palace already”. I hear you. Read the rest of this entry

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MSc projects: science communication research in the real world

Clare Wilkinson

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

Anastasia Voronkova

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 and participants

Lindsey with some of her participants

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

Ben Sykes on site at Steart Marshes

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.

Welcoming Hannah Little, new lecturer in the Science Communication Unit

My name is Hannah Little. I’m a new lecturer at the Science Communication Unit. I will be teaching Science Communication at foundation, undergraduate and postgraduate levels, specially focussing on areas in digital communication.

Previously, I have worked professionally in science communication, primarily coordinating the STEM Ambassador and Nuffield Research Placement programmes in the North East of England. I have come to the Science Communication Unit after completing a PhD at the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the VUB in Belgium, and a PostDoc at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. My work throughout both my PhD and PostDoc was primarily on the evolution of linguistic structure. One method I have used in my research is cultural transmission experiments in the lab.

These experiments investigate how language (or any behaviour) is changed as a result of being passed from one mind to another in a process similar to the game “Telephone”. One person’s output becomes the input for a new person, whose output is fed to a new person and so on! This method is being used more and more to look at processes of cultural evolution, and I am interested in using these methods to investigate processes in science communication.

Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), “The Gossips,” 1948. Painting for “The Saturday Evening Post” cover, March 6, 1948.

 

I see existing work in cultural evolution fitting into science communication in 3 main areas:

Science Writing

Using experiments to investigate how stories and information are culturally transmitted isn’t new. As far back as 1932, Bartlett’s book “Remembering” describes experiments that looked at how transmission of a memory from one person to another can affect what information persists, and what is forgotten through a failure in the transmission process. More recently, Mesoudi et al. (2006) used similar experiments to systematically investigate whether information is transmitted more faithfully when it is embedded in a narrative around social interactions compared to equivalent non-social information. I am keen to explore these findings in practical contexts in science communication, for instance looking at how well information persists from scientific article to press release to media story as a result of different types of content in a press release.

Digital Communication

The internet is the home of the “meme” a culturally transmitted idea (this could be any idea, picture, video, gif or hashtag). New methods from big data analysis are being used by scholars interested in cultural evolution to explore the proliferation of memes, and this is even starting to happen in science communication too. Veltri & Atanasova (2015) used a database of over 60,000 tweets to investigate the main sources of information about climate change that were proliferated on twitter and the content of tweets that were most likely to be retweeted. They found that tweets and text with emotional content was shared more often. These findings fit with the findings from Mesoudi et al. (2006) above, demonstrating that multiple sources and methods can be used to accumulate evidence on what it is that allows scientific information to be a) transmitted in the first place, and b) transmitted faithfully.

Hands-on science activities

Another hot topic in cultural transmission is the role of innovation and creativity in the transmission of information resulting in an accumulation of information. Caldwell and Millen (2008) investigated this process using an experiment whereby participants were asked to build the tallest tower possible using just dried spaghetti and blue tack, or the paper aeroplane that flew the furthest. Participants were able to see the attempts of people who had gone before, giving them the option to copy a design that had already been tried, or innovate a new design. The study found that participants got better at building successful towers and aeroplanes later in transmission chains than earlier, indicating that successful engineering skills were being acquired just from the process of cultural transmission. This, of course, is a brilliant finding in its own right, but there is a huge amount of scope for using this paradigm to investigate what affects cumulative cultural evolution in the context of issues relevant to science communication. For example, does explicit learning or simple imitation affect rates of innovation and success? This question has previously been explored using cooking skills in Bietti et al. (2017) and paper aeroplanes in Caldwell & Millen (2009). You can also use these methods to investigate questions about whether the characteristics of the person transmitting the information plays a role in faithful transmission or innovation (e.g. their gender, age, perceived authority, etc.).

Together, I think these case studies of existing literature outline the scope of methods and insight available from the field of cultural evolution to questions in science communication, and I look forward to working with the unit at UWE to generate some new research in these areas!

Hannah Little

References

Bartlett, F. C. (1932). Remembering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bietti, L.M., Bangerter, A., & Mayor, E. (2017). The interactive shaping of social learning in transmission chains. In G. Gunzelmann, A. Howes, T. Tenbrink & E.Davelaar (Eds.), Proceedings of the 39th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 1641-1646) Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.

Caldwell, C. A., & Millen, A. E. (2008). Experimental models for testing hypotheses about cumulative cultural evolution. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29(3), 165-171.

Caldwell CA & Millen A (2009) Social learning mechanisms and cumulative cultural evolution: is imitation necessary?, Psychological Science, 20 (12), pp. 1478-1483.

Mesoudi, A., Whiten, A. & Dunbar, R. (2006) A bias for social information in human cultural transmission. British Journal of Psychology 97(3), 405-423.

Veltri, G. A., & Atanasova, D. (2015). Climate change on Twitter: Content, media ecology and information sharing behaviour. Public Understanding of Science, 0963662515613702.

The BIG Picture

Blooms taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy

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!

Impact

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.

Post-truth

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…

Kate Turton

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References

  1. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Campaigns/Evaluation_Reports/EEF_Project_Report_Thinking__Doing__Talking_Science.pdf
  2. Adams, N. E. (2015) Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive learning objectives. J. Med. Libr. Assoc. 103(3) p152-153
  3. 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
  4. Broks, P. (2017) Science communication: process, power and politics. JCOM. 16(4), C02
  5. Kahan, D. M. et al (2017) Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing. Advances in Political Psychology. 38, Suppl 1 p179-199