Memory, advertising, and business models

This is probably a sign that I need to dust off one of my personal blogs, but to be fair I do spend a chunk of time trying to work out how science communication (and particularly online engagement) can be sustainable. Which in practice means: trying to work out what the business model is for STEM engagement.

Which in turn means: advertising.

OK, that’s a bit cynical, and there are plenty of circumstances where, it turns out, people will actually pay for public engagement (I know, radical thought, right?). However, for at least some web-based projects one could do, advertising would end up being key. And that’s awkward, because:

  1. Online advertising is more-or-less loathed by everyone, and
  2. It doesn’t work anyway, partly because of (1).

Ask me about children’s science TV if you want to know my opinions on advertising-backed business models. Been there, done that, still in therapy over it.

Meanwhile, this wonderful recent conference presentation/essay by Maciej Ceglowski spans memory, privacy, and the broken startup ecosystem. Likening venture capital pitches to selling advertising futures is, I think, a brilliant and insightful criticism.

Quora’s declared competitor is Wikipedia, a free site that not only doesn’t make revenue, but loses so much money they have to ask for donations just to be broke.

Recently, Quora raised $80 million in new funding at a $900 million valuation. Their stated reason for taking the money was to postpone having to think about revenue.

There are times when I find it frustrating that our only real models for scicomms are enlightened self-interest (ie. forget the business model and do it anyway) and grant funding (ie. enlightened self-interest by someone with more money than you). Then I remember that the whole point is: people pay for things they value. We only assume those things are goods and services – they can also be something less tangible, like ‘the public good.’

I often think we should be less apologetic about that.

Ceglowski’s presentation is long, but worth your time.

Scripts, detail, and obsessively-detailed scripts

This film has been doing the rounds of late, and while there’s plenty of discussion out there about whether it paints too narrow a depiction of ‘comedy’, I, for one, think it’s a good point well made. Of course there are counter-arguments – comedy wouldn’t be interesting if it could be done in 8 minutes.

The lesson for scicomms is, I think, that detail matters. We obsess about our explanations, but we’re rarely as careful with our transitions (which to my mind are both more difficult and more dangerous), let alone the visual aspects of our performances. Since I cut my teeth in children’s TV this has always baffled me, and Wright’s visual flourishes feel like an extended version of what we too-often failed to do in CITV.

Whatever your medium, the performance your audience perceives is the total of what you say, how you say it, and what happens. Comedy is merely one form of emotional prompt you can deliver: to me, none of this is really about humour or film-making, it’s about the rôle of visual cues in conveying information.

Final two hours for Mirobot!

Yes, yes, I know I’m a stuck record about this, but: you only have a couple of hours left to back Mirobot. The Kickstarter hit its last stretch goal last night, so the full package now includes the line-drawing robot, obstacle detection, line following and a speaker.

I’m delighted for Mirobot’s creator Ben Pirt, and looking forward to the production run later in the year.

How to Clone a Cauliflower

Cloning is one of those things your students might associate with science fiction or futuristic technologies, not something they do in a biology practical, because, well, it doesn’t usually work…until now.

Unlike previous methods used for school practicals, the technique shown in the above video provides a reliable way to carry out the practical that virtually guarantees to produce clones of a cauliflower. It was developed at The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to allow scientists to clone plants without needing to be in a sterile lab and it’s already been used to save endangered species.

The key to the success of this technique is the sterile agar growth medium and we’ve made a separate video for technicians showing how to prepare this:

You can get further support materials for carrying out this practical at the Science and Plants for Schools website

Helping teachers do what they do best

While this blog continues to explore the boundaries and overlaps between teaching, learning, communication and performance, some of you have more specific needs. While we wring our hands about structuring demonstrations, you want proper training.

Firstly – do get in touch. The people you’re reading here do lots of training and directing of performers, bits of writing and consultancy, and workshops with teachers. People ask us back and everything.

For more formal CPD do find out what’s on offer from the Science Learning Centres. It’s what they’re there for, as this blog post from Yvonne Baker describes. In that post, she outlines some of the CPD available from the National Science Learning Centre. It may be cheaper than you expect, too.

Coming full-circle and in reference to the wider issues Yvonne mentions, if you’re following the A-level practical exam thing you may be interested in Alom’s take on the matter here.

Identity and the structure of argument

Maria Konnikova has a terrific article in the New Yorker which should be required reading for anyone involved in science communication. It’s a quick overview of recent research into what sorts of messages ‘land’ with an audience and actually impact their thinking.

“The goal was to test whether facts, science, emotions, or stories could make people change their minds.

The result was dramatic: a whole lot of nothing. None of the interventions worked.”

Continue reading Identity and the structure of argument

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?

Ghost Peloton

For reasons which I suspect have more to do with wrangling Provinces than anything else, the Tour de France traditionally starts in another country entirely. This year: Yorkshire (which is a country, yes. Obviously).

To kick off the celebrations marking the event, this weekend saw a mad spectacle of an arts performance, Ghost Peloton. 36 illuminated riders choreographed to a backdrop of music and a film featuring more cyclists and dancers. It was glorious. You missed it, sorry.

Continue reading Ghost Peloton

A classic Biology practical, done better.

If you’ve studied biology in school, there’s a good chance you’ve tried to count the bubbles of gas emerging from a piece of pondweed called Elodea placed in a beaker of water. This has been a standard practical used in biology teaching for decades and is still widely used. This video shows how it can be be done better using a different plant, Cabomba, and how using different approaches allows students to learn about different aspects of photosynthesis.

Get support materials and see the other films in this series from Science and Plants for Schools.

Theatre, props and explanations, oh my!