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.
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!
Our Science Communication Masterclass has been running very successfully for quite a few years now and like my colleagues, I’ve had happy times running workshops, and met some really interesting participants. But we were never able to squeeze everyone in who wanted to come, while others were unable to travel to the UK.
We decided to meet this challenge by creating an online professional development course – Science communication: people, projects, events – targeted at people who wanted to develop their skills and knowledge of science communication. Participants have joined us from far and near: across the UK, from Uganda, Switzerland, Portugal, Australia, Brazil, Canada and more.
They’ve been a real mix: recent science graduates, museum professionals, communications people, people working in institutions, large corporations, small businesses and start-ups. Some have experience of public engagement but for some, the course opens a new horizon:
… in my heart I believe I found a new passion – science communication!
We ran the first course in 2015. Naturally, as good public engagement practitioners, we ask the participants to reflect on and evaluate the course each time it is presented and we have used their feedback to refine and develop the course.
In the first year, participants felt that the time demands were a little onerous for people working full-time, so in 2016 and 2017, we built in two study breaks to allow participants to draw breath and catch up on content they might have missed. Unfamiliar tools caused some puzzlement, so we created micro-videos to show participants how to use forums, wikis and other learning tools. We also created a special LinkedIn group for course ‘graduates’ because participants really wanted to maintain the relationships that develop:
It would be great to be able to keep in touch with fellow participants and tutors.
The course now runs in eight units over ten weeks, with one or two members of the SCU tutoring each unit. In 2016 and 2017, I led the course from my current base in Perth, Western Australia. One of the virtues of working online: on the Internet, no one knows you’re on the beach!
We present the course materials using a mixture of guided self-directed learning activities, reading, narrated presentations, forums, wikis, vlogs and online seminars. Other than the seminars, participants are able to fit their engagement around their work and other commitments. Participants like the variety of methods:
forums: an ‘excellent way to discuss ideas despite not meeting other coursemates in person’
webinars: an ‘opportunity to put voices to names’ and ‘a great experience’
wikis: ‘pushed [me] to develop an idea for a project’ and get ‘lots of feedback and input from other participants and the tutors’
The online environment offers us so many opportunities to reach out to scientists, science communicators and public engagement people around the world and welcome them to the SCU family. In 2016, we created a companion online course focussing on Online and Media Writing, which is currently in its second presentation.
Feedback from this year’s participants is still being reviewed but I’m sure it will give us food for thought and ways to improve. We hope we’ll be welcoming lots more participants in 2018!
Please visit our website for further details of our online courses.
This year, I have been lucky enough to receive a FET Award to promote STEM at a local primary school in south Bristol. Our key aims have been to use the expertise of UWE staff and students to deliver events which not only encourage children to pursue STEM careers, but also support teachers with some of the harder to achieve National Curriculum objectives.
Our first activity involved all students in Key Stage 2 – 120 in total. Inspired by the LED cards on Sparkfun, and ably assisted by fellow FARSCOPE students Hatem and Katie, we ran a lesson in which students used copper tape, LEDs and coin cell batteries to create a light-up Christmas tree or fire-side scene. Our aim was not only to show the students that electronics is fun and accessible, but to re-reinforce the KS2 National Curriculum objectives relating to electricity and conductivity.
Although a little hectic, the students really enjoyed the task and the teachers felt that the challenge of interacting with such basic components (as opposed to more “kid friendly” kits), really helped to drive home our lesson objectives.
To re-reinforce the Christmas card activity, we also ran a LED Creativity contest over the Christmas break. Students were given a pack containing some batteries, LEDs and copper tape and tasked with creating something cool.
Entries ranged from cameras with working flash to scale replicas of the school. The full range of entries and winners can be found here. Overall, we were blown away by the number and quality of the entries.
Our second focus was introducing students to programming. To this end, we have been running a regular code club every Monday, this time supported by volunteers from UWE alongside FARSCOPE student Jasper. In code club, we use a mix of materials to introduce students to the programming language scratch. We currently have 16 students attending each week and recently were lucky enough to receive a number of BBC Micro bits.
Alongside Code club, we also ran a workshop with the Year 5 class, to directly support the national curriculum objectives related to programming. Students were given Tortoise robots (Built by FARSCOPE PhD students, in honour of some of the very first autonomous robots, built in Bristol by Grey Walter). Children had to program and debug an algorithm capable of navigating a maze.
As the outreach award comes to an end, we are planning a final grand event. Each year the students at Luckwell School get to spend a week learning about real-life money matters in “Luckwell Town”. During this week, students do not attend lessons – instead, they can choose to work at a number of jobs to earn Luckwell Pounds. This year, we will be supporting Luckwell Town by helping to run a Games Development studio. Students will use Scratch to design and program simple games for other students to play in the Luckwell Arcade.
As with our prior events, the success will depend on volunteers from UWE donating their time and expertise to support us.
Luckwell Town will take place every morning of the week commencing June 12th. We are looking for volunteers to support us, so please respond to the Doodle poll if you are interested.
Martin Garrad, PhD student in robotics
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
What IS storytelling? What IS NOT storytelling? These two questions opened the 9th conference on “Storytelling: Global Reflections on Narrative” I attended from the 10th to the 12th of July in Oxford (UK). As participants, we were asked to reply, and we gave completely different answers, depending on our academic field and personal experience.
We defined storytelling as an engaging and dynamic form of communication, which must not be boring at all. Moreover, we emphasised the fact that storytelling does not include only what is told, but also what is kept silent, what is not remembered, and what is changed, and that it encompasses many points of view, many different stories, and many different ways of telling the same story.
During the conference, each speaker contextualised storytelling in a different field: literature, history, sociology, communication, education, sciences, and even medicine; and we discussed the topic taking into account professional and personal experiences as well, thus getting a broad and inclusive overview of storytelling.
Storytelling is not only influenced by the discipline in which it’s studied or applied, but also by many other factors, such as background, culture, education, ethnicity, nationality, social class, gender, and age of storytellers and of the audiences.
Novels, advertisements, TV shows, etc. communicate a story using language, semiotic signs, stereotypes, metaphors, and rhetoric figures that are tailored for specific target publics. Moreover, stories usually reflect the social values and characteristics of the audiences. For example, in Japanese anime the homogeneity of the Japanese society is represented by the possibility each character has to become the protagonist of the story, whereas individualistic feature of the Western societies is depicted by the presence of only one main character in Western comics.
Medium may change the way we tell or listen to a story. We read novels in a sequential way, page after page from the beginning to the end, whereas we can read a story on social media in a relational way (as in mind mapping), jumping from one point to any other as we please. Moreover, in digital interactive documentaries and videogames, we (as audience) can even change the story.
Storytelling also differs in its applications: we can use it for conveying information or entertaining, but we can also use it for advocacy campaigns, education, and research. Indeed, storytelling can be a suitable technique for advocacy, due to its capability of engaging audiences emotionally and personally, and it is effective in involving students in school lessons as well, and in stimulating their critical thinking, communication and writing skills, creativity etc.
The use of storytelling in the research field is particularly interesting. By analysing either ancient books or new TV fictions, we can investigate the individual characteristics of authors as well as well the social beliefs, values, and imaginary of a specific historical period, and we can study how they changed over time. We can acquire similar data by collecting witnesses’ stories of a specific event, as well as asking the research subjects to write a narrative on a specific issue. For example, patients’ stories on how they perceive their disease and how it is affecting their quality of life can provide further information to improve our comprehension of the disease from a clinical point of view, understand patient-physician communication, or improve the health care system. Even collecting stories on digital media and videogames we can yield insights on individuals and social groups’ characteristics.
What is storytelling? What is not storytelling? Though it may be very difficult to give a concise and inclusive answer to these questions, we can say that storytelling provides many different opportunities and challenges in science and health communication as well as in research.
Find out more about the conference ‘Storytelling: Global Reflections on Narrative‘
Elena Milani – PhD student, Science Communication Unit.
How do you get your first job in science communication? That’s not a straightforward question to answer – when it comes to science journalism at least. My experience of working in the industry showed me that having some kind of experience – either in the form of a placement or a few articles published – can be invaluable. Just as important as any qualification, in fact. And if you’ve won some form of recognition for your writing – perhaps through a competition – that can have a big impact on your job prospects too. It’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that there are as many routes into science writing as there are science writers.
It’s out of this experience that the UWE SCU Science Writing Competition was born. Targeted specifically at those who haven’t had popular science writing published before, it is now in its second year.
Given its target audience of new writers, this year we (the SCU that is) decided to provide writing advice in the form of blogs from the judges and other respected science writers, including one of last year’s winners – Emily Coyte .
There were another couple of important additions too, including a partnership with the Royal Institution – an organisation with a track record for nurturing new talent – and a survey of the competition participants aimed at gaining a fuller picture of the opportunities and barriers they face in breaking in to the science writing industry. The survey makes for interesting reading.
For starters, all of the 49 people who took part in the survey (out of roughly 90 competition entries) said they were interested in a career in science writing in some form – some as full time writers or editors and others envisaged writing as a sideline to a career in research science. Many participants were students and most (almost 90%) had not had any form of science writing training. Of those who hadn’t had training, a fairly high proportion (45%) said they were not aware of any training courses.
However, it’s where the responses to this survey – from those who want to be science writers – are compared with the responses from another survey we conducted – from those who are already science writers – that things get really interesting. But this isn’t the place to go into any detail on that – there will be more on that later. So watch this space…
As for this year’s science writing competition, the shortlist has now been drawn up and the judges will meet in August to decide the winners, who will be announced on 1 September 2016.