Category Archives: Discuss

The Hero’s Journey

(To frustrated readers wondering why on earth I’m blogging about this on, bear with me. There is a point. I hope.)

Read about the theory of stories and you’ll soon stumble across one model, called the Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell famously depicted his “monomyth” story-structure as:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

The essential idea is that many narratives share this common structure in their major character types and plots. Story enthusiasts love playing Hero’s Journey I-spy. Points are awarded for the most surprising movies and stories in which you can spot the pattern. Even if some of them do require you to balance precariously on your right leg and squint with your left eye.

Read a bit more and you’ll encounter the controversy that this model has produced. Does any such structure depend on a naive “chimera of universality“? Can astrologers learn from the masterful ambiguity of Campbell’s prose? Is this narrative model a useful pattern or a creativity-killing formula?

For me, the key question is always the practical imperative – how can we, as educators, use models and discussions from related fields to stimulate how we think about engaging and communicating? Like finicky magpies we need to scavenge widely, but selectively take only the practical ideas and insights that resonate with us.

To that end, the above video (by Glove and Boots) uses puppets and movies to introduce the basic structure of the Hero’s Journey model.

  • How can the model inform the way we use narrative in our communication?
  • How can we learn from the engagement techniques used in the video?
  • How can the wider debate around the validity of this model, help us to frame the many learning models we encounter in our work?

Treatment, demonstrations, and complexity

Vikki Burns was one of this year’s FameLab UK finalists. In this film, she describes her experience of drying on stage during the final, and what happened next. It’s a terrific, brave, positive film, and I’m hugely impressed with Vikki for saying what she does here. If you’re an academic thinking about entering FameLab, or of taking part in Bright Club or Science Showoff or the like, watching this film might reassure you that audiences are lovely.

It’s worth watching right through, though, because in some ways the second half of the film is even more useful. It’s Vikki’s final piece from FameLab. Get past the inevitably-artificial feel of watching a performance crafted for a stage being delivered to the unblinking gaze of a video camera, and I think the piece is instructive.

Continue reading Treatment, demonstrations, and complexity

25 years of science communication progress

At last week’s Science Communication Conference, I joined a plenary panel to discuss what’s changed in the 12 years the conference has been running. I’ve been kicking around in the sector for more like 25 years so I played a bit fast and loose with the timescale, but my little spot in the limelight went more-or-less as follows:

Continue reading 25 years of science communication progress

What’s a ‘geek,’ anyway?

The STEM engagement world is terribly naïve when it talks about audiences. Still. After all this time. Here’s an example:

Felicia Day is an actor who runs a very successful YouTube channel, Geek and Sundry. Which is pretty cool, actually: one of their top shows is a tabletop gaming chat show hosted by Wil Wheaton, what’s not to love about that?

Here, Day riffs on their audience, and the nature of ‘geek.’ She notes of ‘geek’:

Continue reading What’s a ‘geek,’ anyway?

Explanation anxiety

Do you suffer from explanation anxiety?

Do you purposefully shy away from offering a full explanation of your demonstrations, concerned that you might mislead, miss out, or misplace? Are you tempted to leave the explanation until after the demonstration not because you think that would represent good pedagogy, but because you hope your audience will be so thrilled by the effect they’ll overlook any descriptive inadequacy on your part?

Don’t be ashamed! The first step in dealing with explanation anxiety is recognising that you have a problem. You’re amongst friends here. No braying students will laugh at your stumbles, no academic will pick holes in your mostly-right-but-a-bit-rusty-if-you-really-think-it-through models, no science communicator will roll their eyes and tell you they saw this done better at the Exploratorium.

Just honest, constructive peer criticism. Together, we can conquer your explanation anxiety, and help you become the demonstrator you always wanted to be!

— I’ve sat on this post for months, and have rewritten it several times. Ironically, I don’t think I’m explaining myself very well. Time to heed my own advice and publish first, think through completely second. All I know for sure is that when I’m writing, I feel a degree of tension building as I approach ‘the explanation.’

Is there such a thing as “Explanation anxiety”? Do you suffer from it? Comments below, please…

UK Science is not going to be killed by the changes to practical work in schools

It’s understandable that many in the science community are alarmed about the changes to the assessment of practical work in A-level science subjects, but as a Physics teacher working under the current system, I don’t think it is a “totally, unequivocally shit idea”. And I’m not the only teacher to think that.

Proclaiming that Ofqual have sounded the “death knell for UK science education” betrays a lack of understanding and knowledge of the realities of school science lessons and of how broken and corrupt the current situation is. As my friend and fellow Physics teacher Alby Reid puts it, “The removal of coursework from A Level science is only “a death knell for UK science” if “UK science” depends on your ability to plagiarise”.

The decision by Ofqual to remove the contribution of practical work to A-level science grades may be a cop-out in terms of dealing with the problems of the current methods for assessment, but it is undeniable that the current forms of assessing practical work are deeply flawed. In my opinion, they’re actually detrimental to the quality of practical work that gets done in schools.

It’s possible, then, that the changes may ultimately lead to an improvement in the quality of practical work that is done in schools. I would suggest that it is the responsibility of the learned societies and others making a fuss about this to take practical steps towards ensuring that happens. By, for example, providing high quality resources to help science teachers integrate good, pedagogically sound, practical work into their schemes of work. Like this, perhaps?

I’d encourage those who care about science education to develop an appreciation of the complexities and realities of how practical work in schools is currently carried out, and of how much work is needed to ensure that practical work is genuinely doing all those things we’d like it to do for children’s science education.

The power of *****

Tricky thing, language.

Imagine that there was a communication tool that had an almost magical hold over learners of all ages and cultures.

Imagine how useful such a technique would be.

Imagine how frustrating it would be when working with science teachers, researchers and communicators not to be able to properly discuss this silver bullet. All because of the associations evoked whenever you simply mention its name.


There. I said it. What does it make you think of?

On the face of it stories can seem the antithesis of science. In my training courses I hear recurring objections. Stories are works of fiction. I can’t tell stories. Stories are childish. Stories over-simplify. Stories manipulate. I used to share much of this baggage about stories too.

Yet whether you’re trying to interest, explain, convince, or create memories, stories are unreasonably effective to the human brain. Yes, it isn’t fair.

When engaging non-specialists stories win. Always.

Get over it. Use it.

So what do I mean by “story”? Most formal definitions of story come down to:

“A sequence of events in which characters you care about face obstacles in trying to reach their goals.”

If you unpack this bland definition the secrets of narrative spill out.

Characters. Empathy. Curiosity. Conflict. Escalation. Resolution.

These are the irresistible ingredients we all crave when we try to make sense of our world. The deceptively simple power of stories lies in the many different ways that you can cook these elements together within the potency of the story framework.

Fundamentally, story is about structure, not about content.

  • How can you craft your demo into an edge-of-the-seat conflict between you and your telegraphed outcome?
  • Does your lesson or show flow as a gripping narrative journey, or are you just telling ’em what you’re going tell ’em, telling ’em, and then telling ’em what you’ve told them?
  • How can you share the roller-coaster of pain and joy scientists felt in making this discovery?
  • What’s the human story behind your fascination in this topic?
  • How can you reveal the awe-inspiring meta-stories of science – the overarching concepts that unify seemingly diverse contexts, the deep process ideas which underpin science as a way of searching for patterns?

I’m not arguing for everything to be communicated through story, but rather that stories are the most powerful known structure through which to communicate ideas.

What I’m asking is to give stories a chance.

Understanding the chain fountain

Our chum Steve Mould has had a bit of a hit over the last few years with his chain fountain demo:

There have been arm-waving explanations (some more convincing than others), but recently John Biggins and Mark Warner in Cambridge have published a much more complete description of what’s going on.

Now, the video at the head of this post makes me wince a little, partly because I’m a snobby film-maker but also because the section from about 3:10 (about centripetal force) could, I think, be clearer. It’s not explicit, for example, that in the steady state the chain velocity must be the same all along the chain: that’s why the ‘ball being thrown straight upwards’ analogy works. It’s not that the ball is stationary at the top (if the ball’s path is arced like the chain’s, the ball isn’t stationary), it’s that the ball’s speed changes during its flight. The chain can’t do that.

There are several similar conceptual jumps which make sense only once you’ve understood the process, not whilst you’re in the process of understanding – a common mistake in academic scicomms, if I’m being snarky. You can see the result of these skipped steps in the comments thread at YouTube, which pretty much mirrors what I’d expect. That is: people tripping over precisely the parts the film covers poorly.

However, the torque argument for a force component from the beaker is lovely. The macaroni-on-a-string demo isn’t properly convincing as shown, but it does offer the beginnings of something terrific.

So, critical me thinks there’s better scicomms still to be done around this, but what delights me about the whole episode is that ‘proper’ physics is being done from a scicomms curiosity. It’s also a remainder that often science communicators stop just before the science gets properly interesting: we chicken out at the arm-waving stage rather than aiming for the greater satisfaction that comes from deeper understanding.

Bravo, Steve et al. There are precious few stories like this.

The Rutherford School Physics Partnership has a PDF of more chain problems, if you want to roll your sleeves up and get stuck in.

DEMO: The Movie – User’s manual

It’s all well and good that we made a film, but what are you supposed to do with it?

Take a look at the discussion notes compiled by Alom and Mary Whitehouse at the University of York (PDF link). That document also includes a bunch of references (the film isn’t just us making stuff up you know, there’s research and everything!) along with Alom’s practical tips for performing demos.

DEMO is really intended to be watched in your own time, as a pick-me-up when the day-to-day grind has dulled your enthusiasm, or to reinforce and help clarify how you think about demonstrations. It’s a bit long, perhaps, to watch in a staff meeting or training course, though we’re already hearing reports of it being used that way.

With Alom’s previous film Why is Science Important? one thing that proved useful was having the film chunked up into individual scenes. DEMO has so many forward- and back-references we’re not sure that would be appropriate, however if you’d really like a specific scene pulled out, drop us a note in the comments here and we’ll see what we can do.

Alternatively, you can dissect the film yourself on YouTube. If you’re signed in, below the film you’ll see a button labelled ‘Remix this video!’. By the magic of Creative Commons licenses, pressing that button will pull the film into YouTube’s editor, allowing you to chop it up to your heart’s content. All we’d ask is that you include a link back to in your film and its description, so people can find the full story.

Freezing Garlic

It’s the end of half-term and I haven’t really had a break. Jonathan and I spent the first three days of this week in Cambridge, working on a set of films for the lovely people at SAPS. I’ve spent the rest of the week doing some much needed re-decorating of my bedroom and, of course, marking stuff ready for the return to school.

The picture above is of garlic, which I peeled and chopped (in a blender thingy) earlier today, before freezing in an ice cube tray. It took me about 30 minutes to do this (while faffing about on Twitter and listening to music) and I’m glad I had the time to do it because that garlic is going to make my life just that little bit easier over the next couple of weeks.

I love cooking and I use a lot of garlic when I do – everything from a whole bulb in my dal to a few cloves fried with chilli in oil to make the simplest but most delicious of pasta sauces. But I hate peeling and chopping garlic and having it pre-peeled and chopped in this way removes the one part of many recipes I don’t like doing. (I know you can buy it like this in jars but, I swear, none of the stuff from the shops is as good as this, nor as cheap).

This little act of preparation, of being organised and ready for cooking in the future, really does make a huge difference to my enjoyment of cooking.

I think it’s the same with teaching – I always enjoy it more when I am prepared and organised to teach.