Emma Weitkamp & Erik Stengler
September saw the lecturing staff at the Science Communication Unit welcoming our new MSc Science Communication and PgCert Practical Science Communication students to UWE and Bristol. It also sees the start of our refreshed programme offering, which includes significant changes and updates to two of our optional modules: Science in Public Spaces and Science on Air and On Screen.
The first three-day block of Science in Public Spaces (SiPS) marks the start of a diverse syllabus that seeks to draw together themes around face-to-face communication, whether that takes place in a what we might think of as traditional science communication spaces: museums, science centres and festivals or less conventional spaces, such as science comedy, theatre or guided trails. Teaching is pretty intense, so from Thursday, 29th September to Saturday, 1st October, students got stuck into topics ranging from the role of experiments and gadgets to inclusion and diversity.
Practical science fair
Thursday, 29th September saw the 13 SiPS students matched with researchers from the Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences. Students were introduced to cutting edge research and have been challenged to think about how this could be communicated to the public in a science fair setting. Each student will work with their researcher to create a hands-on activity which they will have the opportunity to deliver to the public at a science fair to be held during a University Open Day in the spring.
Towards the end of the three days a session on creativity generated intense discussion about how we might judge what creativity is through to practical techniques and tips we might use to stimulate creative thinking. The session included a word diamond (McFadzean, 2000), where groups considered how you might foster engagement and enjoyment amongst blind visitors to the Grand Canyon, how blind visitors could be involved in creating a sensory trail (for sighted people) at an arboretum or how to enable a local community to be involved in decision making around land use that involved ecosystem services trade-offs. Challenging topics that draw on learning from earlier in the week.
After a final session on connecting with audiences, students (and staff) were looking a little tired; three days of lectures, seminars and workshops is exhausting. We hope students left feeling challenged, excited and ready to start exploring this new world of science communication and public engagement and that they find ways to connect their studies with events and activities they enjoy in their leisure time – though that might not apply to the seminar reading!
Science in Public Spaces got off to an excellent start, thanks to the students for their engaged and thoughtful contributions in class. Up next is the Writing Science module, where Andy Ridgway, Emma Weitkamp and a host of visiting specialists will be introducing students to a wide range of journalistic techniques and theories. Then it will be the turn of the new Science on Air and on Screen where Malcolm Love will introduce students to techniques for broadcasting science whether on radio, TV or through the range of digital platforms now open to science communicators. Looks to be an exciting year!
McFadzean, E. (2000) Techniques to enhance creativity. Team Performance Management: An International Journal, 6 (3/4) pp. 62 – 72
How we make choices as consumers, patients, parents and members of the public has, of course, long been of interest to science communicators, and topics like immunisation can continue to raise differences in perspectives, as well as media interest. A few years ago we started to think about the sometimes challenging process of weaning a baby. Ruth had recently had two young children herself, whilst completing her MSc Science Communication with us, and I’d been doing some research with parents and caregivers in community groups, so we knew weaning was a topic that was being discussed. But what about the parents who might not be out there in these social spaces, what was happening online? We asked the question ‘how do people on Mumsnet frame media coverage of weaning?’
As our starting point we considered a review of scientific evidence published in the British Medical Journal in 2011. This work, by Fewtrell and colleagues, suggested the period of exclusive breastfeeding recommended by the World Health Organisation be reduced from six months to four. Unsurprisingly the study attracted media attention, particularly in ‘quality’ newspapers like The Times, The Guardian, and especially, The Telegraph, and was frequently reported on by specialist health and science correspondents. They tended to talk about ‘risk’ but rarely contextualised that with further information on the study itself.
On Mumsnet it was clear that a vibrant community was keen to discuss the issue of weaning, and we located 112 comments that directly referred to the Fewtrell example and its media coverage. What were people most wanting to talk about? The inaccuracy of media coverage really stood out in their comments, as well as frustration that it was returning to the breast vs. bottle aspects of the debate. And the forum discussions often presented more context, nuances around the question of ‘risk’ and the details of the study itself. Of course, they had more room to do so, but it was interesting to see these types of details being discussed.
What does this tell us about science, the media and how it’s discussed online? Well it suggests that at least amongst this very small sample of Mumsnet users there is some awareness of the weaknesses that can be present in science and health reporting, but also that people often use scientific and personal information in transitionary means, embellishing some of the deficiencies of media coverage in interesting and new ways. As people become more and more reliant on social media sources for information, further work is needed on how this is supplementing and challenging our relationships with scientific and medical expertise but also how we use our social networks to support decision making. You can find out more about this work in a recent Journalism article or at:
Clare Wilkinson and Ruth Knowles
What do robots have to do with ethics? And how do you end up with the job of “roboethicist”? Prof. Alan Winfield, Director of the Science Communication Unit at UWE Bristol, explains his recent professional journey.
It was November 2009 that I was invited, together with Noel Sharkey, to present to the EPSRC Societal Impact Panel on robot ethics. That was I think my first serious foray into robot ethics. An outcome of that meeting was being asked to co-organise a joint AHRC/EPSRC workshop on robot ethics – which culminated in the publication of the Principles of Robotics in 2011: on the EPSRC website, and with a writeup in New Scientist.
Shortly after that I was invited to join a UK robot ethics working group which then became part of the British Standards Institute technical committee working toward a Standard on Robot Ethics. That standard was published earlier this month, as BS 8611:2016 Guide to the ethical design and application of robots and robotic systems. Sadly the standard itself is behind a paywall, but the BSI press release gives a nice writeup. I think this is probably the world’s first standard for robot ethics and I’m very happy to have contributed to it.
Somehow during all of this I got described as a roboethicist; a job description I’m very happy with.
In parallel with this work and advocacy on robot ethics, I started to work on ethical robots; the other side of the roboethics coin. But, as I wrote in PC-PRO last year it took a little persuasion from a long term collaborator, Michael Fisher, that ethical robots were even possible. But since then we have experimentally demonstrated a minimally ethical robot; work that was covered in New Scientist, the BBC R4 Today programme and last year a Nature news article. I was especially pleased to be invited to present this work at the World Economic Forum, Davos, in January. Below is the YouTube video of my 5 minute IdeasLab talk, and a writeup.
To bring the story right up to date, the IEEE initiated an international initiative on Ethical Considerations in the Design of Autonomous Systems, and I am honoured to be co-chairing the General Principles committee, as well as sitting on the How to Imbue Ethics into AI committee. The significance of this is that the IEEE effort will be covering all intelligent technologies including robots and AI. I’ve become very concerned that AI is moving ahead very fast – much faster than robotics – and the need for ethical standards and ultimately regulation is even more urgent than in robotics.
It’s very good also to see that the UK government is taking these developments seriously. I was invited to a Government Office of Science round table in January on AI, and just last week submitted text to the parliamentary Science and Technology committee inquiry on Robotics and AI.
You can find out more about Alan’s research and engagement on his own blog.
Science fiction and fantasy films like Star Wars, The Hunger Games and Interstellar are hugely popular, with a reach for which many science communicators can only dream; particularly as these films typically reach beyond our usual audiences. But what if we think about these films as science communication examples in their own right?
It seems that science communication researchers are beginning to do just that. I attended two conferences in 2015 that explored this theme: Stories about Science: exploring science communication in entertainment media at Manchester University, UK in June and International Science in Popular Culture at Alpen Adria Universität, Klagenfurt, in Austria, in September. I was struck by the wide range of examples put forward of films with high quality science content – from Soylent Green to the Theory of Everything. Speaking in Manchester, Kevin Grazier, a planetary scientist, explained that Hollywood increasingly employed scientists as consultants on these (hopefully) blockbuster films. He did point out that while a consultant can influence how science is presented, they do have to be prepared to compromise.
David Kirby of Manchester University (organiser of the Stories about Science Conference and a speaker at the International Science in Popular Culture Conference) argues that scientists and some science funding agencies see popular culture as both an opportunity to stimulate popular interest and knowledge about science, and a threat to public understanding (e.g. if the science is incorrect). Given the interest and concerns raised by David Kirby, what do we know about the impact of science fiction films? The answer seems to be ‘not a lot’.
Searching the literature, I found studies of the impacts of science fiction films on children in schools (e.g. Lin et al, 2013; Arroio, 2010) suggesting that there is some interest in the potential of science fiction film and TV as a teaching tool, but few studies of ‘films in the wild’ or with adult audiences (i.e. studies of cinemagoers). Instead, much of the research on science fiction films seems to focus on content. This approach mirrors many studies of media communication which explore how science is portrayed in the newspapers and how accurate the content is, rather than its impact on readers.
Amongst the rare studies of science fiction films ‘in the wild’ are Lowe et al.’s (2006) study of The Day After Tomorrow. This study asked why cinema goers went to see this film, and found that only 5% were motivated by the environmental content. Actually, I find it surprising that as many as 5% state this, perhaps raising questions about how you ask audiences about their motivations. Nevertheless, Lowe et al.’s study provides some interesting insights into the potential of science fiction films as science communication. They conclude that films reach new audiences, not otherwise primarily motivated to engage with climate change, that films can raise awareness of issues and also that the audience is sophisticated – they recognise this type of film as fiction but also connect content with pre-existing knowledge.
Lowe et al.’s study, and the conferences, open many questions about the potential role of science fiction films as science communication. The wide reach of films and the mixed audiences they attract suggest they could have far reaching impacts on audiences, though Lowe et al.’s study highlights that these audiences read such films in sophisticated ways. Simple content analysis can only tell us what and how the science is presented; more sophisticated research is needed to understand the impacts on the public.
Dr Emma Weitkamp is Associate Professor in Science Communication at the University of the West of England.
Arroio, A. (2010). Context Based Learning: a Role of Cinema in Science Education. Science Education International, 21(3) 131-143.
Lin, K-L., Tsai, F-H., Chien, H-M., & Chang, L-T. (2013). Effects of a Science Fiction Film on the Technological Creativity of Middle School Students. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education, 9(2), 191-200.
Lowe, T., Brown, K., Dessai, S., de França Doria, M., Haynes, K. and Vincent, K. (2006). ‘Does tomorrow ever come? Disaster narrative and public perceptions of climate change’. Public Understanding of Science 15, pp. 435–457.
You can read more about the International Science in Popular Culture conference at: http://jcom.sissa.it/sites/default/files/documents/JCOM_1403_2015_E.pdf
I am writing on the flight that takes me to a conference in Warsaw, which will nicely draw to a close a research cycle that started shortly after I joined the SCU. As part of my job interview at UWE Bristol almost exactly 4 years ago, I said that one of the things I hoped to share was concerns about the role of “fun” in science communication, and specifically in science centres. These concerns had developed during the decade or so I had spent working in science centres and with the media and I felt they needed to be addressed through academic research alongside practitioners.
I am unable to tell exactly when and where I developed an interest in investigating this currently ubiquitous trend of “fun,” but I found I was not alone in this endeavour. I liaised and collaborated with Guillermo Fernández, an engineer and exhibit designer I knew from the times when he would offer his services to the science centre I worked at. We were later joined by Pere Viladot, a very experienced museum educator and since recently PhD in science education. I was also able to draw into the investigation various undergraduate students in their final year at UWE, through their third year project. I must say, as well as ticking the boxes of integrating research into teaching and providing a unique student experience (in that the students did real original research, as opposed to repeat experiments of well-known phenomena), this has been the part that I enjoyed most. It was simply awesome to see these undergraduates doing research work that was often of better quality than what we see in MSc dissertations, and to share their excitement at seeing their work being accepted and presented at international conferences.
Scientists see their work as fascinating, intriguing, exciting, interesting or important, but not “fun.”
So, quite early on, student Megan Lyons explored the perception of the “fun” in science by people at different stages of their scientific career, showing that with time and experience “fun” becomes less and less of an adjective used to describe their work, and that there are many other words that are preferred in its stead, such as “fascinating, intriguing, exciting, interesting, or important”, to name but a few. We presented this at a conference in Lodz (Poland), where people involved in Childrens’ Universities met to discuss their practice. It was quite an eye opener to encounter such a lack of understanding of what I was saying, and in the lively Q&A session I kept having to repeat again and again what we were warning against (conveying the message that science is fun) and what we weren’t (making science teaching and communication as fun as possible).
In the context of science centres, undergraduate student Hannah Owen had already explored whether science centres are actually addressing and providing opportunities for “dialogue” between science and society. Her analysis of At-Bristol and Techniquest that concluded that indeed they are not, and that the only attempts to do so are through activities and events, not through the exhibitions. This was presented at the 2013 edition of the Science in Public Conference in Nottingham and recently selected for publication in the Pantaneto Forum.
Science centres have tried and failed to understand their own role… and it sends out the wrong message about science.
This provided another example in which to understand how science centres have tried and failed to find a way to understand their own role, focusing on “fun” being just one more of these attempts. Reflecting on this we have been able to identify various “wrong messages” that are conveyed in this way: it sends out the wrong message about science communication (deterring scientists from engaging in it), about science (as being a scientist is definitely not about having fun), about science education (as it seems one has to go out of the classroom to have fun, the conclusion being that class is boring), about science centres (as they become a venue of entertainment only, displacing from them valuable approaches such as inquiry based learning, for which they are an ideal venue), and about children (as it condescendingly assumes they would only engage in things that are fun).
We presented these reflections at the EASST 2014 conference in Torun (Poland) and to Physics teachers at the TPI-2015 (Teaching Physics Innovatively) conference in Budapest, where undergraduate student Jessica Tee complemented the research with the outcomes of her final year project. She confirmed that science centres are indeed a valuable educational resource, thus reinforcing the message that this is not something they should lose at the expense of concentrating on providing “fun”.
Science centres need to return to the long forgotten principles of museology, which is the language they speak and master.
Now in Poland I will present all this to the science centre community, which were the only players of the field to which we had not yet had the occasion to communicate our proposal. We think that instead of “fun,” science centres should focus on what they do best and constitutes their core business, namely exhibitions. To do so, they need to return to the long forgotten principles of museology, which is the language they speak and master, just as movies use the cinematographic language. This means that museologists need to be engaged, something that does not currently happen. In the educational front, science centres could use such well-designed and conceived exhibitions as the “field” for data collection in inquiry based learning. Again, to do so they need a shift in their hiring: this needs highly qualified educators instead of – or at least in addition to – museum explainers that are volunteers, interns or other temporary staff. The alterative is science centres trying to compete with other venues or options in what these others do best (fun, entertainment, multimedia & audiovisual communication etc…), hardly a promising prospect in the long run.
Just two days ago we submitted an article about this to Ecsite’s SPOKES magazine, and another one in more detail is about to appear in the Spanish Journal of Museology. Together with the presentation in Warsaw they constitute a satisfactory culmination of this collaboration. As the plane prepares to land (and I am asked to switch of this tablet), I can’t help enjoying a sense of achievement and starting to look forward to the next research cycle on which I will report in due course…
Erik Stengler is a Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at UWE.
Research shows that audiences at a health science festival prefer lectures.
We all know the debates about deficit versus dialogue, but what do audiences prefer? This was the central research question in my recent study looking at a health science festival in New Zealand.
Science festivals offer an interesting environment to explore preferences for format design, as they usually feature a huge variety of different event styles. The science festival in question was held in Auckland, New Zealand, and focussed on health science research around the brain and psychology. Held as part of international Brain Awareness Week, ‘Brain Day’ attracts over 3000 people to this free one-day annual event- not an insignificant number in a country of just 4.5 million people!
The festival formats under question were lectures, discussions, a community expo, laboratory experiments and a general good day out. Festival entrants were handed a questionnaire to fill in, and could return it anonymously to a drop-box at the exits, with a prize draw incentive. The experiment was repeated over three years, and in total we reached a sample of 661 people.
So which format did they prefer? Overwhelmingly, this sample significantly preferred lectures; with 76% ranking them the main attraction, 89% attending them, and 84% stating lectures were the most useful. This was irrespective of age, gender, education, or the year the festival was run. In open response questions participants described their reasons – stating that ‘knowledge is power’. Participants were attending the festival to learn something new, and lectures presented a good way to hear about research and expert opinion.
But wait – don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! We conclude that all formats have a part to play in the science communication landscape. Over two-thirds of the sample visited more than one format, and indeed, laboratory experiments were the second choice for family visitors. Yet however you look at it, the much derided format of lectures is still clearly popular with audiences.
Laura Fogg-Rogers is a Research Fellow in the SCU at UWE.