All posts by Elin Roberts

Science Capital

A good number of years ago I came across a piece of American research that concluded that the closest indicator to whether a child studied science at a higher level was, aged ten responding positively to ‘being a scientist would make my parents proud’.

Let’s look at that again, shall we? Not ‘I like science’ or ‘I’m good at science’ nor even ‘This really cool scientist is an amazing role model’.

‘Being a scientist would make my parents proud’.

I remember being  struck deeply by this. Firstly: ten is young. Many interventions target teens. Secondly: the nuance involved. The child is already prioritising their parent’s hopes over their own interests, and that decision remains true through all their choices. Yikes.

This left me with a profound conclusion. We’ve been targeting the wrong people, folks!

Longitudinal studies are expensive and difficult, but one study isn’t enough to rewrite whole philosophies over,  which is why I’ve been following the Aspires project coming out of Kings College, London.

The final report last December tells us ‘Most students like science, but do not aspire to science careers’

Coming strongly out of that research is the concept that family ‘science capital’ is key. This attempts to measure how much science contact families have in daily life – interest, understanding, qualifications, knowing someone with a science career – these all count towards science capital.

Catching kids by themselves may not be enough, working with families and parents might well be more effective, which is why I was delighted to read Alom’s article last week giving some background to the Royal Institution’s new summer project ExpeRimental.

There is no silver bullet, no simple, single answer, but it’s a delight to see projects like this one coming from a recognised national institution based on current research.

It reminds me, I need to dig out more research like this, it helps to mould my thinking. I only wish I knew where to find that original paper. If it rings a bell with anyone, please leave a comment.

The dotted line

Occasionally I’m drawn in to youtube via links and twists so convoluted that I can no longer remember where I began. That’s how I came across this delightful video of M.I.T.’s Walter Lewin this week:

It’s interesting to see discussions around Lewin and pseudoteaching, but that doesn’t deny his high production values here. Every lecture was, he claims, rehearsed at least three times in full before his first audience was brought in. Clearly, when he decides to do something, he is interested in mastering the art.  Even if that art, at first glance, appears mundane.

There are many things that we do that could be tweaked and improved. All we need to do is look at ourselves from the outside occasionally and see what else we can give. If we do something many times during the day, in front of an audience, we may as well learn to do it with finesse. If we’re on a stage, we should deserve it.

Seeing that drawing a dotted line can help make us engaging, memorable and inspirational, perhaps like me, you too want to draw dotted lines like Walter Lewin. You’re in luck.

Or perhaps you’d just like to rock your syncopated head to his dubstep. You can do that too.

Of course you can. The internet is like that.

Stage fright

Over the years I have spent a lot of time training science presenters. I’ve seen the best part of a full spectrum: Those calm cucumbers who get up on stage without a second thought, and those who are virtually paralysed with fear. Every time.

I have learned that you can’t always tell the latter from the former with any real degree of accuracy until there are just the two of you in rehearsal before an audience walks in the door. Sometimes the cool ones crumble.

Today, I spent some time in our theatre with a new recruit who will soon start treading the boards for herself. When I started describing the different techniques to keep the jitters in check, perhaps even turn them into a positive force, she told me about this recently uploaded TED talk.

That’s one, mighty clever way to put a positive spin on stage fright.

The black holes have arrived!

A ball bearing illustrating the Schwartzchild radius of the Earth.
A ball bearing illustrating the Schwartzchild radius of the Earth.

I’ve ordered a handful of 18mm steel ball bearings for a demo that isn’t a demo, it’s merely a handling object, but handling objects can also have power and impact.

Hold out your hand and feel the weight of this ball on your palm. It’s pretty heavy. The metal is dense. Now imagine the impossible.

Imagine that all of this room is squashed and squeezed into the ball. It’s pretty tightly packed and much more dense. Now imagine the whole building is inside this ball. Hardly conceivable, but we’re not there yet. The stuff we’re made of contains lots of gaps – tiny gaps we can’t see, but gaps nonetheless. If all those gaps were filled in with more stuff we could squeeze even more mass into the ball. The whole city. The country. The entire world.

If the whole Earth, everything in it and everyone on it, were so densely packed that it could fit inside this steel ball, it would be a black hole. So dense that nothing could escape the pull of gravity.

It’s incredible how powerful something can be when brought down to an intimate, handle-able size.

The Earth has a Schwartzchild radius of 9mm. If the Earth was a black hole it would comfortably fit inside my wedding ring. That’s amazing.

Footnote: Please make sure you read Dave Ansell’s comment below. We’re not aware that any black holes the mass of the Earth exist. Black holes with larger mass would not need to be so dense.

A BIG event

The annual conference of the British Interactive Group, the BIG Event, is just around the corner. This fixture on the science communication practitioner’s calendar is usually a flurry of interesting sessions, entertaining sideshows and moderately serious events such as the AGM. Over the years BIG has been growing up. I remember the heady days when you could camp behind the observatories at Herstmonceaux, and whole sessions were improvised on the fly. Things are far more organised, these days. Meanwhile, I’ve gone from being the wide eyed, wet nosed young graduate to someone approaching ‘old guard’ status at what I can only describe as an unreasonably rapid rate.

The event reflects how much the sector has grown. More delegates come along from a wider range of sectors. It is still different, both fresh and refreshing, and harbours far more ‘silly’ than you’d expect from a conference, but I can’t help thinking it is all a lot more, you know, serious. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If the sector is to be valued and have much needed injections of hard cash then being all proper and professional will surely help, but I accept wholeheartedly my professional responsibility to be lighthearted at the same time.

A highlight of any BIG event is the Best Demo Competition. I love watching Best Demo but it has been, inexplicably, several years since I last entered. Having stumbled across a nice, new and simple demo within the last year I decided to sign up when the round robin email calling for entrants came knocking. To my surprise, I find that this year there is a limited capacity, that not everyone who wants to take part gets themselves a slot. I made the cut, secured my slot, and suddenly I’ve begun to feel an awful amount of pressure. That decision of mine to do something simple and whimsical no longer feels like the right thing to do. There’s a high risk of total demo failure leaving me looking and feeling a fool.

Last year many of the demos were incredibly well thought out, rehearsed and one had months of training behind it. I’m feeling inadequately prepared. You see, when I last took part, I threw something together, picking up props as I left the office and hacking around ideas about what I might do on the train on the way. I’d hate for someone better prepared to have not made the slot whilst I might turn up on the day with something roughly strewn together. So on a sunny Sunday afternoon with a couple of weeks to go, I find myself feeling the urge to start working on my set.

What I ended up doing of course, is writing this blogpost to let you know I should be thinking about it instead.

I’ll let you know what I eventually decide to do, but not just yet. I’d hate to steal my own thunder and I hope at least some of you might be there.

Self-siphoning beads

I really like this demo. It is simple and surprising, yet deceptively subtle and complex.

It also draws my attention to explanations. The first time I saw Steve present this he didn’t explain it, but I was transfixed. Effective demonstrations don’t always come with explanations. Sometimes less is more.

I’m no physicist, but I’m not fully satisfied by the explanation of what’s going on here. In that sense, despite the beautiful slo-mo, I preferred the first version I saw. I find this demo intensely pleasing despite it leaving me hanging.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that we all go around deliberately producing unsatisfying explanations or consistently refusing to give any at all, but what works for me is that I’m left wanting to get my hands on a set of these to test it out, to explore and investigate the phenomenon to try to understand it better. Surely that’s one of the indicators of a great demo?

How not to present science

A few weeks ago I was part of a crack team of science presenters (James Piercy, Debbie Syrop  and Matt Pritchard) presenting a session at the Science Communication Conference, How not to present science. It consisted of our favourite pet hates, brought to life, and a number of people have asked for notes on the session. I thought I’d provide my ‘script’ on one section, titled The World Cringing Championships.

The premise had my co-presenters on a sofa with ‘buzzers’ commenting on my cringeworthy performance, whilst I attempted to break every ‘rule’ in the science communicators’ handbook. This was very peculiar to put together, as I was deliberately trying to insert comments and foibles that I’ve spent over a decade deliberately minimising, or intentionally inserting comments that don’t come naturally. It was joyfully liberating, however, to know that whatever went wrong on stage I could assert was my intention all along.

Continue reading How not to present science

Are demos in decline?

As hands-on science communicators, we live and breathe our demos. We hone, improvise and improve them over years, even decades. Few things please us more than an evening in good company discussing and dissecting the demos that work and why. In our world, science communicators usually have a favourite demo or five.

I work with a lot of new science communicators. Many of them are top class new graduates with a science background, and I love to ask them ‘What’s your favourite demo?’. It’s fascinating to this jaded old sock. Gone, alas, are the days where every week brought an exciting new concept for me to play with. I can share this excitement vicariously, of course. I get to delight other people afresh, but I love the extra insight I get quizzing someone who’s new to this world. With bright eyes and keen minds what are they looking for in a good old-fashioned demonstration?

What I find interesting is that in the last few years not as many of our new recruits seem confident in their answers. I find myself giving hints as to what I mean by ‘demonstration’ – not an experiment, a practical nor a trick: a science demonstration.

Are they simply unfamiliar with this jargon or is something more sinister afoot?

Is the delight of the demonstration becoming a dark art, practiced more by a growing band of science communicators but less by teachers and lecturers? Perhaps demonstrations are seen as entertaining quirks in a social context, shared via Facebook and YouTube, and not as teaching tools in an academic world.

I may be reading too much into this, of course. My sample is small and could represent a gentle blip within the boundaries of standard deviation with no rhyme, reason nor correlation. I’d be interested to hear if others have noticed a trend.