Scientists don’t need to wear a white lab coat to talk about science
I had a scientist request a bunch of lab gear to take into a classroom just this week (that they don’t normally use in their job). It can be fun playing dress-up, certainly, but it’s interesting to think about the repercussions of having such an authoritative uniform on public perception
A researcher at my institution has written a blog for the Wellcome Trust about the public engagement event we ran from February-May 2014: Magnificent Microbes.
Hints on best practice include:
- Ask questions! Children can get distracted quite easily so the best way to keep their attention is to ask them what they know. This will also prevent you from telling them things that they know already.
- Make your activities as hands-on as possible – really enable your audience to get involved.
- Think about your target audience; can you present the exhibit to both young children and adults? How will you tailor what you say to suit them?
- Make your exhibit relevant. There is no better way to engage your audience, particularly children, than to make them realise how your research affects them personally. For instance, we use the formation of plaque on your teeth as an example of how biofilms are medically important. This allows us to engage with children by asking them how often they brush their teeth and why they think it’s necessary.
- Calculate the quantities of consumables you will need. It doesn’t do any harm to overestimate slightly, but be prepared to be flexible with what you have. In our case we ended up having to ask families to share particular props, as we ran short towards the end of the event.
- Don’t over simplify the exhibit to accommodate children. I was really pleasantly surprised at just how much the kids took away from what we told them.
I saw the Amazing Spiderman 2 over the weekend, and besides the great chemistry of the leads and thrilling soundtrack there was one thing I particularly liked and that was the home-grown science, which I thought was a great representation of engagement with science as a useful skill.
Peter Parker is a smart kid, there’s no doubt about that. He makes his costume and web-shooters in his basement, in secret, and it’s those as much as his spidey sense that make him a great crimefighter. When he goes up against a new supercharged villain named Electro he soon finds out that his web-shooters aren’t up to handling the massive electric charges: they fizzle and pop and become pretty useless – a problem when you really need to get anywhere in NYC faster than a speeding cab.
So, what does he do? Goes home and pulls up a popular science video “Batteries, the Pluses and Minuses” by Dr Jallings, Science Investigator. Armed with this newfound knowledge, a scuba mask, and varying sizes of batteries he tries his best to adapt his shooters to handle larger and larger currents, with predictably explosive results. He doesn’t actually solve the problem until his sharp-minded girlfiend Gwen Stacy (who presumably stayed awake in that particular science lecture) reminds him that he needs to magnetise them, which they do with the help of a cop and some jumper cables, and from then on Electro doesn’t stand a chance.
So what do I love so much about this? It’s not the science itself – I’m no electrical engineer and wouldn’t have been able to solve the problem if my life depended on it. No, what I love is the fact that they have consistently taken time to show on-screen Peter’s curiosity and exploration and the benefits it brings him. What better hero to look up to than one who plays with things in his own basement, looking up science videos and flipping through books? Batman may have Morgan Freeman to provide him with whatever fancy tech he needs, but when it comes to superheroes give me a teenage geek every time.
Over at Compound Interest they’ve put together a handy Rough Guide to critically reading science reporting.
Might have to invest in a poster for the wall of my office!
The British Science Association (BSA) has posted two ‘spring experiments’ for young people to try at home or in school on their website. One, involving eggs, has a small explanation about why the observed results are occurring but the other, about measuring the speed of light using chocolate, has no explanation and several seemingly random maths figures included on the sidebar.
I originally clicked on the link because I was interested in seeing how they would explain the relationship between microwaves, light, and the way it can be measured using household materials. (Also I remembered Jessamyn’s excellent post on the polymorphism of chocolate and had a craving for more!) The experiment guide walks you through the steps for producing the right measurement with the necessary safety precautions but nowhere in the guide does it actually tell you what is happening! This raises far more questions than it answers, including:
- What does the melting have to do with light?
- What are microwaves and why are we using one to explore light?
- What if I don’t get the ‘expected’ results?
Certainly there are more ways to learn than just instructively – indeed, for many people it’s doing that nurtures true understanding. In order to truly grasp the workings of what you’re doing, however, it is important to provide the necessary background knowledge so that your results can be interpreted correctly. Merely plugging some measurements into an equation does nothing to lead people towards understanding and does everything to enforce the idea of science as a dry, incomprehensible topic – even with chocolate.
While creative exploration of science topics is to be commended, we need to make sure we always ground our exploration in good information and good procedure. I would be keen to see the BSA publish additional guidance for the experiment to tie in the relevant material so that young scientists can develop their knowledge as well as their chocolate melting skills.
Now if you excuse me, I’m off to fulfil a craving…
Instead of merely telling your audience information, think about turning it into a two-way street. It allows your audience to become more involved in the process of learning new information and automatically makes it interactive. There are many different types of questions that you could use depending on what type of information you wish to get back from them.
The two most commonly used ‘types’ of questions are open and closed. I’ll talk a bit more about them now.
Closed questions require a short, simple answer in response, such as yes/no, true/false, or an uncontroversial fact such as “what is your name?” They are good for gauging knowledge levels and confirming understanding – “do you know what a cell is?” “Do all cells have a nucleus?”
Open questions can give longer answers and can involve the answerer’s knowledge, feelings or opinions. They can help you find out more information about the audience’s understanding of a topic, e.g. “what sorts of things do you know about cells?” Open questions often start with ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘how’.
It is, of course, crucially important to listen to the answers to the questions you ask; just because you assume an answer is obvious or easy does not ensure your audience will know it.
If you get a wrong answer do not be discouraging – you can always reward their effort even if the information is incorrect. You could say “that’s a good guess”, “I can see why you might think that”, or “not quite, but you’re on the right track” before following up with another question to help guide them to the right answer.