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 recently got a request to recommend some popular science books that don’t assume any scientific knowledge on the part of the reader. I was surprised at how hard it was to think of books, because to be honest, most pop science books do seem to assume that you have some fluency in science ideas or jargon, if at a lesser level than a scientist would. I’ve read some very popular books about biological topics that I found dry or hard to get through, because even though I’m a scientist I don’t know very much biology. But I came up with the following ten books, which explore different aspects of science in strongly accessible ways:
- Feynman, Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick: A graphic novel about an amazing and weird physicist, which collects a lot of the best things he wrote while telling his life’s story.
- A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson: Essays rambling through any and every scientific topic, lots of wonder, very accessible and easy to read.
- Connections, James Burke: The role of technology and chance in history, and thus the practical importance of science in shaping our world.
- The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean: Stories about chemistry and the scientists who discovered some of the elements, bite size!
- Cosmos, Carl Sagan: The history of the universe and our civilization, plus a lot about the place of science in society. A classic, especially relevant given the current reboot of the Cosmos tv show!
- Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality, Manjit Kumar: An account of what quantum physics actually is, along with the stories of the people who figured it out and the controversies surrounding it.
- Welcome To Your Brain: The Science of Jet Lag, Love and Other Curiosities of Life, Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang: Up-to-date neuroscience, very readable and engaging. I wouldn’t recommend reading their other engaging neuroscience book, Welcome To Your Child’s Brain, unless you want everyone to think you’re having a baby.
- Big Bang: The Most Important Scientific Discovery of All Time and Why You Need to Know About It, Simon Singh: What the Big Bang Theory is, plus stories of its scientists, all expertly woven together.
- The Norm Chronicles: Stories and Numbers About Danger, Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter: A graphic novel that gets into risk, statistics, and psychology. It’s math but in a very applied way!
- Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software, Charles Petzold: Combining tech, math, and communication to spell out how computers communicate.
- Asimov’s New Guide to Science: It’s probable that this book is dated by now, but Asimov really was the best at explaining things, and his gigantic popular science book is amazing.
These books will give a nice overview of some of the great stuff that’s out there in popular science reading. (Note: the links above are affiliate links, just something we’re trying out!) Of course, I’m always interested in other people’s recommendations too, so have at it in comments if you like!
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.
A bit of jargon in itself, signposting means to tell your audience what to expect from your activity at the beginning (though you can also signpost throughout, as a reminder). Signposting allows your audience to feel more confident and comfortable with what is going on, since they know what’s coming, and it can be quite important to reassure them, for example, that you’re not going to talk at them forever and that there will be some fun, interactive bits coming up soon! It also can help flag up the most important bits of your activity so that people can make sure to take them away from the experience.
Phrases you might include:
- My topic today is…
- First of all, I’ll…
- …and then I’ll go on to…
- Then/ Next…
- Finally/ Lastly…
- You can ask questions at any point…
- This is important because…
- If you only remember one thing…
- To summarise…
The important thing to remember is that your job is to engage with people when doing science communication and the best way to do that is to make it a two-way street or dialogue. Don’t drag them with you and expect them to follow along blindly; instead, let them know what’s coming so they can prepare and anticipate. Doing so will make it much easier for them to relax and enjoy what you’re sharing with them, and it may help them remember things from your interaction far better in the future.