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, 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 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 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.
My name is Hannah Little. I’m a new lecturer at the Science Communication Unit. I will be teaching Science Communication at foundation, undergraduate and postgraduate levels, specially focussing on areas in digital communication.
Previously, I have worked professionally in science communication, primarily coordinating the STEM Ambassador and Nuffield Research Placement programmes in the North East of England. I have come to the Science Communication Unit after completing a PhD at the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the VUB in Belgium, and a PostDoc at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. My work throughout both my PhD and PostDoc was primarily on the evolution of linguistic structure. One method I have used in my research is cultural transmission experiments in the lab.
These experiments investigate how language (or any behaviour) is changed as a result of being passed from one mind to another in a process similar to the game “Telephone”. One person’s output becomes the input for a new person, whose output is fed to a new person and so on! This method is being used more and more to look at processes of cultural evolution, and I am interested in using these methods to investigate processes in science communication.
I see existing work in cultural evolution fitting into science communication in 3 main areas:
Using experiments to investigate how stories and information are culturally transmitted isn’t new. As far back as 1932, Bartlett’s book “Remembering” describes experiments that looked at how transmission of a memory from one person to another can affect what information persists, and what is forgotten through a failure in the transmission process. More recently, Mesoudi et al. (2006) used similar experiments to systematically investigate whether information is transmitted more faithfully when it is embedded in a narrative around social interactions compared to equivalent non-social information. I am keen to explore these findings in practical contexts in science communication, for instance looking at how well information persists from scientific article to press release to media story as a result of different types of content in a press release.
The internet is the home of the “meme” a culturally transmitted idea (this could be any idea, picture, video, gif or hashtag). New methods from big data analysis are being used by scholars interested in cultural evolution to explore the proliferation of memes, and this is even starting to happen in science communication too. Veltri & Atanasova (2015) used a database of over 60,000 tweets to investigate the main sources of information about climate change that were proliferated on twitter and the content of tweets that were most likely to be retweeted. They found that tweets and text with emotional content was shared more often. These findings fit with the findings from Mesoudi et al. (2006) above, demonstrating that multiple sources and methods can be used to accumulate evidence on what it is that allows scientific information to be a) transmitted in the first place, and b) transmitted faithfully.
Hands-on science activities
Another hot topic in cultural transmission is the role of innovation and creativity in the transmission of information resulting in an accumulation of information. Caldwell and Millen (2008) investigated this process using an experiment whereby participants were asked to build the tallest tower possible using just dried spaghetti and blue tack, or the paper aeroplane that flew the furthest. Participants were able to see the attempts of people who had gone before, giving them the option to copy a design that had already been tried, or innovate a new design. The study found that participants got better at building successful towers and aeroplanes later in transmission chains than earlier, indicating that successful engineering skills were being acquired just from the process of cultural transmission. This, of course, is a brilliant finding in its own right, but there is a huge amount of scope for using this paradigm to investigate what affects cumulative cultural evolution in the context of issues relevant to science communication. For example, does explicit learning or simple imitation affect rates of innovation and success? This question has previously been explored using cooking skills in Bietti et al. (2017) and paper aeroplanes in Caldwell & Millen (2009). You can also use these methods to investigate questions about whether the characteristics of the person transmitting the information plays a role in faithful transmission or innovation (e.g. their gender, age, perceived authority, etc.).
Together, I think these case studies of existing literature outline the scope of methods and insight available from the field of cultural evolution to questions in science communication, and I look forward to working with the unit at UWE to generate some new research in these areas!
Bietti, L.M., Bangerter, A., & Mayor, E. (2017). The interactive shaping of social learning in transmission chains. In G. Gunzelmann, A. Howes, T. Tenbrink & E.Davelaar (Eds.), Proceedings of the 39th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 1641-1646) Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.
In July, I travelled to the Centre for Life in Newcastle upon Tyne for the BIG Event – an annual science communication conference organised by the British Interactive Group. The schedule was jam-packed with workshops on a range of topics, from maths and magic to mapping and makery, and I came away buzzing with inspiration and ideas. Here, I reflect on three sessions and consider how these themes influence my science communication practice:
Thinking, doing, talking science
I have young children, so I was interested to learn about ‘Thinking, Doing, Talking Science’ (TDTS) – a programme that aims to make primary school science lessons more practical, creative and challenging and encourage higher-order thinking. Rather than teaching facts, teachers ask ‘big questions’ and the children use their knowledge creatively. Teachers using the approach have found that Year 5 pupils make three additional months’ progress in science, compared with standard teaching practice 1.
The idea of moving away from factual recall comes from educational psychology. It was developed by Dr Benjamin Bloom to promote analytical and evaluation skills and the pyramid of higher-order thinking (see diagram) is known as Bloom’s taxonomy 2.
TDTS shows that children become more confident in science when they are encouraged to ask questions and given the opportunity to think. And there are some easy ways to do this, like the Odd One Out game: choose three random objects and say which is the odd one out and why. Of course, there is no right answer but it’s a great way to practise lateral thinking.
My daughters inspire my blog, which celebrates their curiosity. I don’t have answers to all their questions but Simple Scimum gives us a platform for discussion. Do you know how do mermaids go to the loo? Me neither. But with some higher-order thinking, we think we’ve worked it out!
Over the past decade, ‘impact’ has emerged as a buzzword (see RCUK and HEFCE definitions) to describe the positive effects that academic research can have on the world. And, whilst the concept is becoming normalised in academic practice and research assessment 3 – for example, those who seek Research Council funding must consider Pathways to Impact (i.e. who could benefit from their research and how?) – the potential breadth of impact is vast. By attempting to pin it down, we confer on researchers a responsibility to evaluate and collect evidence of impact. They therefore face a challenge in balancing their scholarly role as teachers, mentors and researchers with their societal role as public intellectuals and ‘impact-makers’.
Thankfully, public engagement is one way to increase research impact. The REF 2014 impact database contains 4,871 case studies with ‘public engagement’ as keywords. And a quick search identified 35 case studies submitted by UWE, including one about engaging with a local patient group to improve leukaemia treatment.
This is great news for me because my role as a Research Fellow is to work with researchers to co-develop projects that engage public audiences with research at UWE, Bristol and to evaluate and analyse the effectiveness of these engagement activities. So far this year, I’ve developed a genetics activity for BoxED and looked at the impact of continuing professional development on science communications practice. I’m also investigating attitudes towards festivals and the effects these events can have on communities, co-designing an approach to create music from bioluminescent bacteria, and visualise what it is like to live with chronic pain.
Not everyone chooses to visit a museum or attend a lecture, so I try to use the everyday ways that people communicate to engage audiences with information about research and make science part of our cultural narrative. For my collaborators, I hope the impact will be in raising the profile of their research, thinking about how it can be informed by the experiences of those outside academia, and celebrating the outcomes and benefits with a public audience.
It is suggested that we live in a ‘post-truth’ era in which objective facts have a lesser influence on public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs. And if believing is more important than fact-checking, ‘alternative facts’ that undermine established theories can gain currency. But attempting to redress this by flooding people with evidence is not the answer – indeed, it can make things worse as people become more closely anchored to their core beliefs and align themselves with those with similar views 4.
But what if science curiosity could counteract biased information processing 5 ? Perhaps our role as science communicators is to make science part of public culture and cultivate curiosity, rather than to educate public audiences about scientific issues? And if we can do this by making emotional connections with our audiences and drawing on lived experiences, so much the better.
Maybe we should learn from the TDTS programme and develop innovative and creative communications that promote higher-order thinking across all audiences? And what if this encourages critical thinking and normalises scientific literacy in everyday life. Just think what impact that could have…
- Adams, N. E. (2015) Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive learning objectives. J. Med. Libr. Assoc. 103(3) p152-153
- Wilkinson C. (2017) Evidencing impact: a case study of UK academic perspectives on evidencing research impact. Studies in Higher Education. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2017.1339028
- Broks, P. (2017) Science communication: process, power and politics. JCOM. 16(4), C02
- Kahan, D. M. et al (2017) Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing. Advances in Political Psychology. 38, Suppl 1 p179-199
Undergraduate student engineers at UWE Bristol will get the chance to learn about engineering citizenship from September.
The Science Communication Unit is launching a new module to highlight the importance of professional development, lifelong learning, and the competencies and social responsibilities required to be a professional engineer.
It follows a successful public engagement project led by Laura Fogg-Rogers in in 2014, called Children as Engineers. The new module is being funded by HEFCE to advance innovation in higher education curricula.
The 65 students, who are in the third year of their BEng or MEng degrees, will learn about the engineering recruitment shortfall and the need to widen the appeal of the profession to girls and boys. They will then develop their communication and public engagement skills in order to become STEM Ambassadors for the future.
The module is unique in that it pairs the student engineers with pre-service teachers taking BEd degrees on to be peer mentors to each other. The paired students will work together to deliver an engineering outreach activity in primary schools, as well as respectively mentoring each other in communication skills and STEM knowledge.
The children involved in the project will present their engineering designs back to the student engineers at a conference at UWE in 2018. Previous research shows that it positively changes children’s views about what engineering is and who can be an engineer .
Teacher Asima Qureshi of Meadowbrook Primary school in Bradley Stoke says;
“The Children as Engineers Project was a very successful project in our school. The highlight was the opportunity to showcase their designs at the university and be able to explain the science behind it. It has hopefully inspired children to become future engineers.”
The pilot project was also successful at improving teachers’ STEM subject knowledge confidence and self-efficacy to teach it. This is vitally important, as only 5% of primary school teachers have a higher qualification in STEM, and yet attitudes to science and engineering are formed before age 11.
Professional engineers in the Bristol region are invited to learn from the project and mentor the students as part of the new Curiosity Connections Bristol network . Delegates are welcome to attend the inaugural conference on November 23rd 2017 to share learning with other STEM Ambassadors and professional teachers in the region.
Laura Fogg-Rogers, University of the West of England (UWE) Bristol UK
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.
In a recent book review for JCOM, I outlined a few of the ethical, social and legal issues that make synthetic biology a potentially fascinating topic from a public engagement perspective. ‘Synthetic Biology Analysed’ (Englehard, 2016) draws together contributions from experts in ethics, law, risk analysis and sociology. In doing so, it provides a fairly accessible discussion of the nature of synthetic biology – what the field encompasses and how we might think about different types of synthetic biology (from those that are essentially developments of genetic engineering to approaches that incorporate non-naturally occurring nucleotides (components of DNA)). These raise different challenges when it comes to assessing risk, for example to the environment, posed by these developments.
Shortly after reading Englehard’s (2016) book, I had the opportunity to explore synthetic biology further, through a participatory theatre project – Invincible – initiated by the University of Bristol’s SynBio group and produced by Kilter theatre company. Both Englehard’s book and ‘Invincible’ the theatre production point to a need for public engagement in this area.
Speaking to the members of the Invincible production team, I learned much about the process of developing this work and the learning curve that had to be climbed in order to understand the research. Kilter were also keen to address other STEM issues, such as presenting women as scientists to counter gender stereotypes.
One aspect of the performance I found particularly refreshing was the way that actual researchers were included. They may not have had ‘acting’ roles, but they were present throughout and engaged in discussion with the audience at the end of the performance (when their presence was revealed). Their inclusion, and the setting of the performances in a flat both worked to highlight the pervasiveness of science in our lives.
In a chapter focusing specifically on public engagement in Synthetic Biology Analysed, Pardo and Hagen point out the low salience of synthetic biology with the public. While this is not uncommon, with many scientific topics taking place silently and behind closed doors, the potential impacts (social and environmental) of synthetic biology highlighted in Englehard’s book suggest it is time for a public discussion. It is nice to see that University of Bristol’s SynBio group are beginning to hold this conversation.
ENGELHARD, M. ED. (2016). SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY ANALYSED: TOOLS FOR DISCUSSION AND EVALUATION. SPRINGER INTERNATIONAL.
Since May 2016, the Science Communication Unit has been involved with a four year, Europe-wide research project ClairCity. Laura Fogg Rogers, Margarida Sardo and Corra Boushel are all staff members on the project, leading the communication, dissemination and evaluation. Working on large-scale international projects requires a slightly different set of sci-comm skills to local or national projects. ClairCity is specifically about air pollution in cities, so communication is also affected by the fact that the team are working on issues that affect the public and their health every day.
ClairCity is an innovative air quality project involving citizens and local authorities in six countries around Europe. There are sixteen partner organisations involved in the project, which is funded by the EU Horizon 2020 fund. The project activities are geographically focused in six areas – two regions and four cities. These are: Amsterdam in the Netherlands; Bristol in the UK; Ljubljana in Slovenia; Sosnowiec in Poland; the Aveiro region in Portugal and the Liguria region around Genoa in Italy. The project aims to model citizens’ behaviour and activities to enrich public engagement with city, national and EU policy making about air quality and health. The resulting policy scenarios will allow cities to work towards improved air quality, reduced carbon emissions, improved public health outcomes and greater citizen awareness.
Each city or region is hosting a series of events and special activities to engage citizens in the ClairCity process and with the issues of air pollution and public health. The range of activities is designed to attract a range of different audiences into the project. There are large, online surveys, face-to-face encounters, workshops for citizens and local organisations, an online game, a free app, a schools’ competition, film-making with older people, city events and celebrations of cleaner air and better health. Promoting each of these requires planning for different audiences, meaning different media of communication, messaging, timescales and targets.
Our public activities in Bristol will start in May 2017, with our Bristol game release scheduled for April 2018.
Top tips for large, international projects:
- Get to know your partners. They are the gatekeepers to your local audiences and they will know the issues, processes and politics.
- Translation is an art, not a science. Google translate can do marvels to understand incoming emails or tweets, but of course if you are communicating with a public outside of the writer’s native language, find a translator that you trust. This might even need to be a science writer.
- Art can be international. Strong graphics can help to give your project a shared identity across multiple languages, in a way that infographics, diagrams and text will struggle. ClairCity had a graphic notetaker at the first project meeting and the output has been invaluable to giving an identity to the project.
- Don’t forget time differences when organising skype calls!
Dr. Corra Boushel
2017 marks the ten-year anniversary since I started working on the Talking Robots project with my former SCU colleagues Karen Bultitude and Emily Dawson. A lot has been happening in robotics since then (you can read a quick summary of some key developments from the last ten years in Robotics Trends) but at the time we were interested in two key questions; What were people’s attitudes towards robotic technologies, and how were publics being engaged around these developments?
Ten years on it’s interesting to consider how many findings from this project are still relevant to public engagement. In one journal article based on this project we took the chance to explore the perspectives of the engagers and researchers involved in a series of different types of public engagement events regarding robotics in a bit more detail. The article ‘Oh yes, robots! People like Robots; the Robot people should do something’, is full of information on some of the benefits and constraints engagers identified in their work. Expectations, organisational aspects and practical issues could have a considerable impact on engagement events, but there were also signs that, a decade ago, engagers were feeling more supported and prepared to engage, and conscious of a desire amongst people to ask questions, not only to learn. We also found that definitions of public engagement, which some have more recently described as a ‘buzzword’, were by no means fixed:
‘Scientists do not operate with one definition of public engagement (Davies, 2008), instead moving between flexible, diverse and disjointed notions suggesting that ‘engagers’, ‘organisers’ and ‘audiences’ alike will change their engagement agendas if and when controversies arise.’ (Wilkinson, Bultitude and Dawson, 2010).
Alongside those seeking to engage, we were also interested in finding out a bit more about the people who participate in public engagement activities focused on robotics. In our article ‘Younger people have like more of an imagination, no offence’ we wanted to know more about why people, publics, you and me, were engaging, where they came from and what they wanted to achieve. This is something researchers are still interested in today. The recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report ‘Communicating Science Effectively’ highlights that people’s ‘needs and opinions’ can change and thus, over time, effective communication must also be ‘iterative and adaptable’, perhaps no more so than in 2017.
Looking back to 2007 we found that there were lots of reasons why people were attending their local science centre, visiting a science café or participating in a school workshop. Some were attracted by the subject matter, others because it was part of their usual routines. And whilst they often empathised with the researchers they interacted with, they also had clear expectations of them and individual hopes as to what they would gain from an experience. But there were challenges:
‘Participants often struggled to identify how members of the public might participate and contribute their view in engagement settings, though often there was an underlying perception that engagement was considered ‘citizenly’. They identified that certain subjects had a greater relevance to public participation than others, in particular those with societal relevance… The challenge for those engaging publics is thus to effectively communicate the aims of such activities and appreciate the differing notions of role and participation that may exist amongst their participants.’ (Wilkinson, Dawson and Bultitude, 2012).
Some, more recent studies, continue to explore these themes, such as Gehrke’s (2014) interest in ‘existing publics’, and of course, there is now the added edge of the role of public engagement in ‘post truth politics’.
So ten years on are these issues still relevant? In my view, it’s a yes, and yes. We can still learn more about how researchers consider, engage and communicate around their work, particularly as research agendas shift and change, and the culture of engagement matures. And there’s always more to understand about people, how and why they participate, as well as why they don’t. As for robotics itself, there will also of course, be ever emerging developments, some of which will pose philosophical, ethical and social questions in the future. Are we still interested in ‘Talking Robots’, I think so.
Both Talking Robot articles are openly available via the UWE Research Repository:
Talking Robots was funded by the ESRC (RES-000-22-2180).