Understanding your audience is one of the most important things in effective science communication.
Contributor Emily Porter
What do you get if you add foam yoga blocks, Hungry Hippos, scientists and kids together? A mixture of mayhem, learning and wonder.
Over the past few months I’ve been getting involved in the Bristol Festival of Nature, an event that celebrates all things science and nature. Despite initially volunteering to help out more generally, I soon found myself agreeing to design and run an activity with a couple of PhD students, Luke Lazarou and Barney Wharam. We spent many hours discussing the best way to make virus epitopes and white blood cell receptors using foam bricks and genetic codes, and how we could modify Hungry Hippo games to become Hungry Macrophages games.
We were developing our activity for the Bristol University tent, which showcases the university’s research to a broad audience over three days, including one day when the Festival is open only to visiting schools. IIt was my first experience of developing an activity, and I wanted to share what I learned so that others looking to do some festival work can learn too.
Audience. It is crucial that you consider your audience. Visitors to the festival ranged from pre-primary school age children to grandparents, including science teachers and university staff, so our activity used varying difficulties of genetic sequences, from assembling simple colour sequences to interpreting amino acid tables, to cater for everyone. Never underestimate the amount of knowledge that can be picked up from everyday life; when children were asked if they knew what a virus was, answers varied from ‘like in a computer?’ to ‘a verruca’, and the term ’DNA’ was recognised from the TV series.
Simplicity. KEEP IT SIMPLE. It is surprising how accustomed we get to dealing with complex science every day and how challenging it is to get one simple key message across. Have an idea of what you want to say and practice it with your team using basic language that is easy for a non-expert to follow. This comes much more naturally to some people than others; I often have to make a conscious effort to consider what words I use, but practice makes perfect!
Experience. Try out your activity before inflicting it on others. We re-evaluated many minor aspects, such as which way round the blocks should go. So for anyone who is creatively-challenged, like me, make sure you enlist the help of your public engagement team or someone else with previous experience, as they will have a much better idea of what will and won’t work and how to turn your ideas into reality.
Teamwork. For the stall to be successful, everyone must be on the same page as to how the activities work, the science behind them and what the take home message is. Although it sounds obvious, make sure that people have regular breaks, so that they can grab a coffee and re-charge before the next influx of visitors. So, armed with giant microbes, face paints and masks, we briefed our undergraduate helpers.
I don’t think any of us were prepared for how tired we would be by the end of the weekend. It was both physically and mentally exhausting. Be prepared to explain the same thing over and over again in different ways, to referee children when games become too competitive and to become an expert at fixing anything with velcro and duct tape. However, despite the aching feet, it was a really rewarding experience that I would recommend to anyone, especially those who doubt the public interest in science. Ultimately, I hope that we gave people an insight into the research that is done at an academic institute and showed them that absolutely anyone can do science.