Science Communication in Theory and Practice

The Edinburgh International Science Festival (Gage)

The Anatomy of a Science Circus and the Development of a Graduate Program in Science Communication (Bryant)

Learning by Building (Destroying and Tinkering, too): A Powerful Science Communication Tool (Altmann, Tamez, Bartels)

Learning Science Communication on the Job (Doherty)

By: Cameron A. Straughan

August 26, 2002

This week’s readings bring to a close both my explorations of Science Communication in Theory and Practice and my Individual Directed Study in environmental / science communications. Some of the readings proved to be a fitting closure for my studies. They also tended to emphasize the importance of education, which I think should be the final step in communication. After all, you may communicate something clearly, the audience may very well understand it, but the real measure of success is if they learnt something from it and applied it to their own lives in some manner. The readings I covered this week suggest that it is possible for science communication to reach this important goal.

Gage’s paper The Edinburgh International Science Festival was a personal account of the creation of the festival and the operational aspects. Essentially, it is a useful how-to guide for any one wishing to set up any type of festival.

The science festival Gage describes is a major cultural happening in Edinburgh – called the “festival city”. The festival is ranked alongside other arts/cultural festivals, and it is interesting that it got its start because it was seen as a good source of tourist revenues. I think this legitimizes science as a “public attraction”. Yes, people will become actively interested in science, and they are willing to travel to experience it! The stats Gage provides are encouraging. The attendance strikes me as excellent, and the festival generates substantial revenues as well. Of course, the festival would also generate
off-shoot revenues normally associated with the tourism industry.

Based on Gage’s description, the festival is highly participatory in nature and allows visitors to learn by experience. Activities are designed for each type of audience member. This type of experiential learning, at the community level, is similar to some aspects of Action Learning. I also agree with his emphasis on adding humour and creativity to make the science more palatable. For example, instead of having a scientist lecture on the functions of the respiratory system, kids can climb into a giant model of the lungs!

Gage mentions that a similar festival was being planned in Sudbury (2001). Yet, I wonder why I do not hear of these festivals? I recall that, when I was in public school, every year a science fair came to my town. I wonder if that is still occurring? It wouldn’t surprise me it wasn’t, since Canada seems to be behind in the science communication arena. In addition, I believe that provincial cuts have adversely affected these programs. In fact, just the other day there was a TV news report that a major Toronto area nature learning centre just got hit with a major cut. They may have to start charging visiting students admission to avoid closing.

Gage points out that federal support for science communication in the UK is about
1 / 30 the support that arts, sports, and heritage sectors receive. However, Edinburgh City Council became a major contributor to the festival, thus keeping it afloat. I think a similar situation could (must!) occur in Canada. With a greater gulf between the provincial, federal, and municipal governments (i.e., the lack of tax dollars coming back down to the municipalities), it’s the municipalities who are calling for more power and autonomy. Thus, it may be solely up to the municipalities to ensure that science communication occurs at the local level.

I was also somewhat troubled when Gage mentioned that science films are geared solely towards the older teenagers and adults. I feel that films with a scientific slant, particularly the animated variety, would probably have more educational impact with younger children. In this regard, by not promoting youth-oriented science films, I think that the festival is missing out on a great opportunity.

My only other quibbles are that the article focused more on the inner workings of the festival than science communication. I found descriptions of the organizational structure a bit dry, but I guess they are necessary for persons wanting to start up a similar festival. Also, I didn’t like how Gage quickly dismissed the “fringe element”.

It’s disappointing, but a fact of life, that once a cultural event becomes large and “established” it becomes exclusive – much like the Toronto International Film Festival!

My concern is that I don’t know what type of science people are learning about and from whom. Are there a lot of industries flaunting their wares? Is it merely a big PR event for some? If “fringe elements” are left out, do people get a balanced view of the issues? I guess I’d have to attend the festival to find out!

Bryant’s paper The Anatomy of a Science Circus and the Development of a Graduate Program in Science Communication is a description of the Australian National University’s (ANU) Shell Questacon Science Circus, which is an integral part of the ANU’s graduate program in science communication.

The paper immediately begged the question that if the traveling circus can be a “success” in the harsh, remote, sparsely populated outback of Australia, then why can’t a similar graduate-level program be operated in a more densely populated area like Ontario? I imagine it would be more cost effective here. An example of this type of program in Ontario – albeit not at such an advanced level – would be Mad Science, which caters to elementary school children. They travel around to various schools performing the same types of “science tricks”.

Bryant’s article has some positive aspects. His description of the course work and work placements are very similar to what I’m doing with my Plan of Study – in fact, I think that my plan is more rigorous. The stats were also very encouraging. Apparently, 59% of the total enrollments in the ANU program got jobs in the science communications industry. However, I was troubled by Bryant’s tone throughout the article, and I began to question the value of the program.

Oddly, by describing the benefits of the science communication program, Bryant perpetuated the very stereotypes that communication would seek to alleviate. He claims that candidates who come to the program are “extroverted” and “lack nerdish qualities”. So – more quiet, reserved scientists have no interest in learning science communications? I’d argue that they need it more than anyone! Also, it is often the more “introverted” – myself included – that come up with a unique variety of methods to communicate – not just doing tricks for an audience at a science circus! Also, who is Bryant to judge what is “nerdish”? Do they base that on appearances? While I’m not saying that the school’s enrollment procedures would filter out the “introverted nerds”, I am troubled by Bryant’s tone.

I became even more troubled when Bryant emphasized that “attractive young women” take up science communication and perform in the science circus. Now – what exactly are the crowds coming to watch here? Are we still talking about science? I thought it was interesting when Bryant mentioned that 70% of enrolled students were women, but now I’m beginning to wonder why that is!

I also found Bryant’s description of the program very biased and defensive. When he does provide some negative feedback (regarding the course) from former students, he is careful to qualify it. Meanwhile, glowing reviews make up the bulk of the paper.

Basically, from reading this paper, I think the Shell Questacon Science Circus is a sham. I don’t think it is presenting the public with realistic portrayals of scientists or appropriate role models for children. Also, I question the value of tricks – essentially magic tricks with some science mixed in, by the sounds of it. Once again, I suppose I must attend the circus to see what is really going on!

Altmann, Tamez, and Bartel’s Learning by Building (Destroying and Tinkering, too): A Powerful Science Communication Tool is an interesting outline of a science workshop geared towards disadvantaged, handicapped, special needs, and newly immigrated students. It contains some encouraging observations, conclusions, and advice.

I enjoyed the article because I too have a strong appreciation for experiential learning. Learning by doing helps cross many cultural, language, and economic borders within the classroom, which is what this workshop does. In fact, I can’t help but think that my early experiences with Lego, Mechano, and model airplanes helped get me interested in science. After all, I think curiosity is the main driving force behind science – it was for me, anyway. It may sound reductionist, but I have a predilection to take things apart, see how they work, then put them back together again.

Throughout my life, this predilection has manifested itself in many different ways. The workshop described in the article is sensitive to the different ways that people manifest “scientific inquiry”. Constructivist in nature, the workshop allows students who are flunking science to develop a new, individualized appreciation of science, based on their own needs and experiences. As a result, the workshop has turned struggling students into “A” students.

Overall, I thought the article was strong, but I wondered why the emphasis was on certain children who were “disadvantaged” for one reason or another. Might not everyone benefit from this type of workshop? I think so. In fact, it’s the perfect atmosphere for a mix of different cultures and backgrounds. In such an atmosphere, children not only learn about science – they learn tolerance.

Doherty’s Learning Science Communication on the Job proved to be a fitting end to my science communication readings. Doherty, a Nobel Prize winner, gives a brief personnel account of his experiences in the realm of science communication. I thought that his tips and advice were excellent, and they concurred with my readings to date. In fact, it’s good to see a scientist of his stature expounding on the merits of what I’ve read and what I’d like to do for a career.

In particular, I admired how he called for scientists to be more creative and flamboyant, in order to avoid boring their audiences. Can you imagine what scientists would think if this advice came from someone outside of the scientific community? Yet, even with Doherty’s stature, I still wonder what his colleagues think of his advice. “Science” and “flamboyance” have rarely appeared in the same sentence!

Having been interviewed by countless newspaper journalists, Doherty gives good advice on how to deal with them effectively. In particular, he emphasizes avoiding the negative, because journalists jump on the negative – sensing controversy – and the public likes the negative because it may knock the specialists off their pedestals.

I thought it was interesting that Doherty preferred communicating via talk radio and community (weekly) papers. His reasoning was that the people who read dailies already know something about science, whereas the audience for weeklies is in need of more information. I suppose that radio would be a good venue, since when people are driving to work they are essentially a captive audience. Also, as outlined in my previous report on Presenting a Radio Science Program: Engaging the Public Interest, radio does have its advantages.

In short, Doherty’s article is a fair, well-rounded account of how one scientist dealt with science communication. He effectively points out the need for good science communication while calling for “colourful young scientists”, with a healthy sense of the absurd, to take the helm – and I hope to join their ranks!

In conclusion, my readings to date have helped me develop a strong critical lens, even though I have no previous formal background in communications. Thus, I found some fault with the articles on science fairs and circuses. However, what I view as a fault may not have a negative effect on lay people. In fact, the communication and education methodology may be perfectly sound for them – again, I’d have to attend to find out for sure. At any rate, I believe that education should be the ultimate goal of science communication. That’s why there is such a strong educational component in my Plan of Study. Along these lines, this Fall I’ll be taking Environmental Education and Critical Education for Social Change. While I did not agree 100% with the content of all the articles I’ve read up to this point, I can safely say that each one of them has contributed something to my understanding of science communication.

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