Science Online New York (SoNYC) encourages audience participation in the discussion of how science is carried out and communicated online. To tie in with June’s event which looks at how scientists reach out of the ivory tower, communicating science to the public, we’re hosting a series of guest posts on Soapbox Science. We will hear from a range of contributors: scientists, writers, enthusiasts, communicators, events organizers, policy makers and teachers, each sharing details about how they engage and reach out to the public.
Shaaron Leverment (FRAS) and Ben Brown established Explorer Dome (www.explorerdome.co.uk) in 1998 with an aim to make science exciting for all ages and abilities. It is currently one of the best known and most respected science outreach companies in the UK, visiting 60 000 school children every year.
Shaaron is the past president of the British Association of Planetaria (www.planetaria.org.uk) and is the current international chair of a professional services committee which strives for quality and excellence in science education in planetaria across the world.
Science communication has been our business for the past 15 years – predominantly working with planetarium domes, from the larger static domes that seat hundreds, to smaller mobile domes for audiences of 30 at a time.
Why a planetarium? For us it’s a unique space, inside this little bubble you can be transported away from the every-day world and it provides a truly immersive and flexible environment which focuses thought. Plus projecting the stars attempts to mirrors the natural wonder of the night sky – and it is perhaps for this very reason, that the unveiling of the stars in a planetarium never fails to get a ‘wow’… it’s interesting that very few ‘special effects’ consistently reach so many people in this way. And that’s what you’re looking for – the key to good science communication and education is to reach towards someone, just where they are, and seed that inspiration.
Although we cover many science topics with Explorer Dome, space is a brilliant hook and inspires most people. Space sciences are beautifully cross curricular with many fingers embedded in many pies – mathematics, chemistry, biology, geology, humanities – the list goes on… and, let’s be honest, it’s not just a hook for children. Space is, quite simply, really cool for all ages.
So the motivation for setting up a science outreach business didn’t just come from a fascination in the subject matter we cover, but more from a firm belief in the value of science education for all ages. Although an individual may choose a path in life that doesn’t lead out of poverty, at least with education that person is given a choice.
Reaching out to people where they are is a very important part of what we do.
Explorer Dome is a mobile, inflatable planetarium. As science outreach we travel to school halls and village halls, scout huts, museums and marquees around the country. In this way we can reach different and new audiences, many of whom may not choose to go to visit a larger planetarium.
Science outreach therefore helps to side-step the self selection that may occur in larger science centres. And with Explorer Dome we also believe that not just where but the way in which we communicate is important. We try to include with hands-on activities to truly engage all those involved – especially the kinaesthetic learners –
“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” (Confucius)
For this reason, although science related TV programmes like ‘Wonders’ are fantastic, it’s important to have people on the coal face – good communicators keen to talk face to face – allowing for more debate and dialogue, questions and random asides – to really empower the ‘non scientific’ community to discover more for themselves.
So science communication at my heart involves instilling an active understanding – a sense of awe and wonder that you can’t switch off from after an hour’s evening viewing.
Why is science communication important?
There really is a persisting view that scientists are an isolated group – working in secret, in lofty white towers in floaty white coats, experimenting on animals and building nuclear weapons for the good of the government and against the wishes of the common person.
The mistrust of the work that scientists do comes from a lack of understanding. Perhaps people don’t really want to understand, perhaps they feel it’s ‘them and us’ or perhaps they haven’t been given the opportunity to understand. Most people hear about the work of scientists through the press. But they are well known for hype and not respecting the science behind a story. If there is an increased awareness of the scientific method, the damage caused by scares (the classic example being the 1998 MMR vaccine paper by Andrew Wakefield et al) can be avoided. This was a national scare, but we forget that people can be scared individually by flippant remarks – probabilities that earth will be hit by a meteorite, likelihood that CERN will create a black hole – these things can have a real impact on someone’s life.
In addition, a better understanding of science as a whole could kick start action in a sluggish community unwilling to accept the real problems facing our world – population growth, limited resources, climate change. Science communication has never been more important if we are going to implement real change.
There is a notable decline in uptake of physical/chemical science & engineering as degrees and as subjects for a career. Boosting a general scientific culture can only be a good thing and we find, every day, that children are natural born scientists – keen to experiment, explore and ask questions. This can be encouraged or squashed very early on, depending on the answers and confidence of parents, carers and teachers.
Moreover, children learn and adapt quickly to new information – adults take a long time to change behaviour. Science education and communication for the younger generation is crucial – not just for the future but for promoting change now. If a child tells their parent not to smoke, to buy FSC certified products or that they want to recycle – this has a far more personal impact than an expensive national campaign.
Better relationships between scientists and communicators:
Of course, for public funded research, there is a responsibility to communicate that science, and people do have a right to know where their money is spent. And the more science is communicated to the public, the greater the public interest in that science, which can only be good news for the researcher.
But a professional scientist is not necessarily a professional communicator. It’s important to know where skills lie and not force those unwilling or unable to engage an audience into an uncomfortable situation. Science communication is now a professional career, so when developing a project which requires an element of communication, it’s worth bearing in mind that there is a growing number of professional individuals and organisations with tried and tested skills, experience and contacts to achieve the required outcome. There should be more collaboration – science communicators and educators should work alongside research scientists and vice versa.
Many research scientists are in a privileged position to be able to do something they are interested in – even something that they love – and this passion should be passed on and can make a real difference to others.