One for our US readers: the American Chemical Society is launching a “Chemistry Champions” search for chemists who excel at performance and communication.
I’ve a bunch of concerns about the competition (judging by number of YouTube views? Really?). Also, their suggested two minutes to talk about your research is an extremely awkward duration – 2:30 is a great length, but 2:00 is on a difficult cusp. My advice to anyone entering would be: write something stellar that’s 90 seconds long. Two minutes will encourage you to try for too many ideas which you won’t, in the end, be able to cram in, so do one thing well, even if it’s shorter.
Anyway, this launch video is terrific. Endearingly low production values show that a great performance shines through regardless, which is exactly the message of the competition. It’s very well judged.
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.
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.
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.
Like many science communicators who present demonstrations, I admit to getting a thrill from being able to provoke and orchestrate extreme emotional reactions from my audiences about my subject. The problem is, however, that like any addict, I am driven to want a larger and larger fix. The buzz is intoxicating.
This drive can unconsciously fool us into only valuing the most visible and audible emotional responses from the audience.
Take chemistry shows, for example. Chemistry demos are the shock jocks of the science demonstration airwaves. They viscerally grab attention with their flashes and bangs, but most don’t lead to any meaningful insight into the underlying concepts. Chemistry demos are bewitching to a reaction junkie.
The irony is that I genuinely believe that some of the most powerful audience reactions to live science demonstrations can be the least obvious – e.g. curiosity, wonder, and an intellectual joy of understanding. I’ve spent years of my life researching just this conviction. Yet the overt reaction drug still pulls. That is its danger.
They say admitting it is the first step to overcoming the addiction.
I love this demo, but it’s one of those oddly bimodal ones – you can interact with it in two different ways:
You throw marbles at it yourself, and stare at them. This is delightful, though rarely very informative.
You’re led through a structured exploration by a demonstrator, as here. This is informative, but less delightful.
The challenge for the demonstrator is to balance their audience’s natural inclination to roll the marbles themselves with their inclination to retain control and direct attention. That is: play vs. lecture, or perhaps more appropriately here, interactive exhibit vs. demonstration.
We explore this a little in the forthcoming Demo film, which starts with a candle flame. We all love staring at the flames of an open fire, but we don’t necessarily learn very much about combustion by doing so. How we use a demonstration is perhaps more important than the demonstration itself. That’s certainly the case for teaching, and I suspect also true for storytelling.
Former FameLabber Feargus McAuliffe speaks at TEDxDublin about how he to learned to share science by telling stories about it.
It’s an interesting watch, but I’d go much further than Feargus: I think the peculiarity is the formalised ‘present your evidence’ model of science, and that in the general case, all communication is storytelling. Indeed, it’s mostly scientists who baulk at that idea – for people in the media and comms worlds, their surprise is that this is even a discussion.
One of the reasons I believe demonstrations are valuable is that they present ideas from science in a (usually very simplified) narrative structure. You begin with an arrangement of apparatus; something happens; the state of the apparatus has changed.
Not science. Not a demonstration. But look at the range of ways Wilde says ‘Shut up!’. Impressive.
ScienceDemo blogger Elin Roberts has an exercise/game (once memorably, if incongruously, played in the library of the Royal Institution) called ‘Sandeels.’ The construction is that all participants are puffins, and that puffins have very limited vocabulary and topics of conversation. Specifically, the only thing they ever discuss – and the only word they know – is ‘sandeels.’ Players take a card which specifies an emotion or mood, and have to perform that emotion using only the word ‘sandeels.’ Ian Simmons’ ‘cantankerous’ puffin is a sight to behold.
These sorts of exercises are useful for exploring our range as performers, and they help us think about the details of how we deliver demonstrations.
Science demonstrations are often criticised for their passive nature, their gratuitous exploitation and their limited ability to develop scientific knowledge and understanding. In some of today’s active-learning-obsessed classrooms, demonstrations are getting a bad reputation compared to their hands-on equivalents.
I’m passionate about the power of science demos in, and out, of the classroom. For me, demonstrations can be emotionally engaging science theatre. Their unique power lies, like theatre, in their impact on the communal emotional engagement and focus of the audience. Demonstrations have enormous potential to:
create and sustain interest
communicate and share emotions
reveal phenomena by showing, not just telling
develop scientific thinking skills, and
provoke further interaction, thought and discussion.
I’ve tried to capture a rationale for the benefits of science demonstrations in this paper written for science teachers, but much of this applies to the demos performed by science communicators too.
So why are science demonstrations important to you?
What kind of example is set by the organisers of the largest STEM engagement event in the UK when they book Brainiac Live – Science Abuse as a headline show? What possessed STEMNET and the ASE to think that collaborating in a ticket promotion of Brainiac Live’s recent West End debut was a good idea?
Faked demonstrations. Mistakes in basic science. A disregard for copycat risks. A counter-productive desperation to ‘make science fun’. A profound lack of passion for science. Are these really qualities with which these organisations want to associate themselves?
Faking your results is the very antithesis of science demonstration shows and, in fact, science. Also, if you fake demos, the damaging subtext is that science isn’t interesting enough in itself, so it has to be enhanced by trickery. The rocket-powered spinning chair routine is symptomatic of most of what is wrong with Brainiac Live and its choice as a headline act for the Big Bang Fair:
Incredibly, it is claimed that the stage pyro “rockets” create the additional thrust rather than the fact that the performer is firing the extinguisher almost continuously on the second occasion! This could have been a high-impact demo with strong theatrical production values and good audience interaction. However, it is completely compromised by a shameful disregard for the science and a preference to trick the audience with a stage firework. It’s so frustrating – a single line at the end of the routine, humorously acknowledging the real role of the “rockets”, could have saved it entirely. This has been pointed out to them. But they don’t seem to care.
The biggest irony of Brainiac Live being booked or promoted by STEM engagement organisations is that it is self-evidently written and performed by people who refuse to believe that science is interesting. This is a capital crime in science communication.
I despair at seeing the wonderful art and science behind science demonstrations being exploited by a theatre production company who do not seem to care about either. There are many passionate, knowledgeable, professional science demonstrators in the UK for whom this caricature of science communication is ludicrous.
I’ve written an open letter of concern explaining my criticisms in more detail. If you share any of these concerns, I urge you to express them to the STEM engagement organisations which book or promote this show.