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.
One reason for this site’s very existence is to try to connect the worlds of teaching and science communication. They have different needs and objectives, and they’ll use demos in different ways, but they’ll be the same demos.
So, teachers – here’s something from the world beyond the school lab, Maker Faire UK:
Maker Faire is very much its own brand of lunacy, but it captures something that for a specific type of geek is spectacularly good for the soul. And it turns out that type of geek is everywhere, in every field. The range of disciplines and the way they weave together (sometimes literally) is staggering. This year’s was the biggest UK Faire yet, with 10,000 visitors over the weekend.
I’m a huge fan of Maker Faire, and the softly-spoken, quietly-enthusiastic Dale Dougherty is a wonderful host.
I think chemists have it tough when it comes to demos. Tougher than physicists, but in an odd way tougher than biologists too. Sure, there are precious few well-known biology demos (a subject for future posts, I’m sure), but chemistry is… hmm.
Look, I did a year of degree-level chemistry. I loved IR spectrometers. The only proper research paper to which I contributed was in computational chemistry. But I never really “got” chemistry. I never found that the practical work I did gave me confidence in the models I’d been taught, in part because of the bizarre ‘atomic model of the week’ strategy of late-80s A-levels. You know, the one where you’d just got comfortable with one particular version of How The World Works, only to have it pulled out from under your feet and replaced with something even more implausible. I found my eventual introduction to quantum mechanics a blessed relief, but then I’m weird.
My point is: I love chemistry demonstrations as theatre, but I’m squarely in the camp of not being able to remember any of the chemistry involved. What I think of as a ‘good’ physics demo reinforces or challenges my understanding of the principle behind it, but I rarely find the same sense of satisfaction in chemistry demos.
Is that because I’m a physicist; because chemistry demos are often used inappropriately; or because chemistry is somehow different?
Answers on the back of a £50 note to the usual address. Oh, and do check out the post at iBiology.
Alom and I made this film for the Nuffield Foundation’s new Practical Work for Learning website, which they’ve recently launched and are building up into a sizeable resource. The film tries to point up some of the pitfalls of practical work in the classroom context, and suggest approaches for improvement.
My problem with the film – and I write this as its director – is that I think it’s dull. Which I believe reduces its effectiveness, ironically. So it’s something of a relief to read comments like this:
Watching this video has definitely made me think and reflect on my own practice and I am looking forward to exploring the readings and resources on the Nuffield Foundation website
Alom and I come at practical work from opposite directions, almost at opposite ends of the ‘exciting’/’educational’ spectrum. One of the things we hope to hash out on ScienceDemo.org is why we agree on so much – including, for example, how ludicrous it is to present ‘exciting’ and ‘educational’ as somehow mutually exclusive.
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.
I want ScienceDemo.org to be about demos, yes, but also about issues surrounding demos – how and why we do them, to whom, and to what end. So here we go. Make have an interview with a guy who’s exhibiting pole-dancing, CCTV-headed robots at Maker Faire UK this weekend. Worth a read:
One of the things we discuss rather a lot in science communication circles is how to shift science and engineering further into mainstream culture. While the likes of Festival of the Spoken Nerd are taking great strides, it’s still notable that, for example, the ‘Cultural Olympiad’ surrounding last year’s London Olympics laughed all over the idea that STEM could be ‘cultural.’
This is one of the reasons I think Maker Faire is important. I’ve said before that while many STEM engagement projects are about STEM as career choice, Maker Faire comes from a completely different community and set of sensibilities. If it’s about STEM at all, it’s about STEM as lifestyle choice.
Maker Faire is chaotic, noisy, messy, and more than a little bewildering. It’s also joyous, inspiring, friendly, and pleasantly challenging. In my opinion it should be required reading on scicomms MSc courses, precisely because of that anarchic joy – it’s what happens when you take similar ideas to public engagement but develop them with a completely different group of people coming from a completely different viewpoint. In many ways, I prefer their interpretation of how things could be.
There’s a danger, I think, of the Cheltenham Science Festival and its ilk coming to represent ‘authorised’ science communication, and anything else being regarded with an air of suspicion (sometimes, when I’m hanging out with the London scicomms set, I wonder if this has already happened). There’s an orthodoxy to the sector which risks becoming bland. Maker Faire is doing a different job for a different audience, but the approach is so radical I think everyone should see it. Yet the usual scicomms community is notable largely for its absence. What should be worrying for them, I think, is how little they’re missed.
We’re not going to take STEM into mainstream culture unless we take the cultural sector seriously, and come to understand it on its own terms. Maker Faire UK is by far the best place to see the collision and interaction of the ‘two cultures.’ It’s a huge hit regionally, but I wish more of the opinion-makers and leaders made the arduous journey north to see it for themselves, and have their assumptions challenged.
Maker Faire UK runs April 27/28th at the Centre for Life, Newcastle. Details.
A brief post so you don’t think we’ve expired after the excitement of Pendulum Week, which was pretty much launch round here.
This is always likely to be a niche blog for a small audience, where by ‘small’ we mean, potentially, ‘millions of teachers and informal educators worldwide’. So I’m pretty darn delighted we’ve drawn well over a thousand page views so far. As sites go that’s pretty crap, but for what’s currently a spare-time/hobby project by a couple of obscure specialists it’s a decent start.
We’ll continue bringing you joyous demo links and musings on the art and craft. We’ve several more theme weeks planned (not yet sure of the schedule for those, though), and a few guest and contributing posters lined up to save you from our particular blether.
One thing I do want to do is find a more appropriate theme than this, specifically one which does a better job of surfacing comments. There’s ‘minimalist’ and there’s plain invisible. So if the site looks completely different on your next visit, that’ll be me trying out some alternatives.
Meanwhile – do drop us a line with your favourite demos, or your thoughts. There’s a contact form at the foot of the page.
As Pendulum Week continues here you’ll have noticed a pattern building up: that pendulums crop up in all sorts of demonstrations, but it’s often rather tricky to pin down satisfying explanations for their behaviour. Pendulums appear simple and straightforward to grasp, which is usually a good sign for demonstration tools as we want audiences to engage with ideas or behaviour and not be distracted by unfamiliar apparatus. However, I wonder if it’s possible that pendulums are too simple, in that their apparent simplicity seems to lull us into forgetting their subtleties.
Heck, unless you’re in that sin θ ≈ θ small-amplitude space you haven’t even, technically, got simple harmonic motion. Most of the time, pendulums don’t even swing like, well, pendulums. Ouch.
It feels like it ought to be possible to link pendulum demonstrations together in a neat story. A mass on the end of a string is about as simple as physics apparatus gets, surely there’s a delightful sequence of demos which can build successively, one on the other, to arrive at something complex and surprising and revealing about the world? That’s got to be possible, right?
Perhaps it is, but the origin of this series of posts lay in my noticing that pendulum demos aren’t alike, and the distinctions seem to me to be of the subtle-and-confusing kind rather than the subtle-but-illuminating kind.
Probably the best attempt I’ve seen to navigate the resulting swamp was by my colleague Marty Jopson, who made this film for the first series of Science Shack (skip to 2:40 for the start of the show):
Marty and I were co-producers on the series, and if I remember correctly he won awards for this show. I wasn’t, I should say, much involved with this episode (harrumph), but it’s still worth a watch. It gets into some of the subtleties about resonance and synchronisation that we’ve seen in this series of posts.
It’s not one of my favourites, partly because I think it needs careful performance to appear as amazing as is usually claimed, but also because the subtlety of explanation required hardly seems worth the effort. This film, for example, doesn’t tell us very much. The explanation bit goes:
“There are little forces as [the connecting string] goes out of line that pull from one to the other, transferring energy from [the first pendulum] … over to that one, and then back again.”
Hmm. All that’s doing is describing what we see and replacing the word ‘swing’ with ‘energy,’ and I’m not a big fan of using ‘energy’ as an arm-wave explanation. Robert Winston’s book, snarkily linked above, explains pendulum movement in terms of gravity and momentum, then adds:
“If two pendulums are attached to the same piece of string, they pass their motion back and forth between each other. One pendulum swings, pulling the string it’s hanging from to and fro. This transfers energy to the second pendulum, which starts swinging itself.”
…which, again, is a reasonable description. Is it an explanation, though? I’m unconvinced.
Neither of these ‘explanations’ has begun to cover why it matters that the pendulums are the same length, let alone pesky details like: the demo still works if the connecting string is perfectly taut, when the driving force is delivered by torsion at the suspension point rather than lateral displacement.
But when you try to write a more satisfying explanation you end up in a bit of a mess. I know I did when I wrote this demo into a children’s TV series back in about 1998. A satisfactory explanation has to include (or at least skirt around) energy exchange, mechanical impedance, and resonant frequency – the sheer amount of physics required is, to my mind, beyond what the demo itself will support.
Better, I think, is this variation:
…which is much more clearly about resonance. The inverted spring pendulums also break the visual connection with the phase demonstration in the previous post in this series, which I think would reduce the risk of confusion were one to attempt linking several of these demos together.