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
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.
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