Posts Tagged ‘science communication’

When the audience doesn’t sit still

In February 2017 on February 23, 2017 at 7:19 pm

Image thanks to military health/flickr via Creative Commons 

Have you ever tried to communicate science to an aggressive 23-year old man who just wants to go home and pretend it’s all not happening?

What about to a 35 year old mother of a baby and a toddler, all three of whom can’t stop crying?

Or a 16 year old exchange student, who is incredibly shy and speaks English as a second language?

Perhaps yelling through a door, to a confused, possibly drugged teenager who is shut in a room to protect the wellbeing of others in her vicinity?

Every night the hospital emergency rooms across Australia fill to the brim with worried, angry, over-stretched, poorly-slept parents and their children.

The children may be vomiting, bleeding, hurting, unconscious or even dying.

The nurses and doctors triage the children according to their needs and the resources currently available.

In just minutes, the professionals make snap assessments on the patients and their parents, and then deliver complex medical information tailored to their needs and demands. It requires the hospital staff to decide:

  • How receptive are these people to being told what to do by an “expert’?
  • What is the level of education  – will they understand if I use terms like “abdomen” or “cardiovascular”?
  • What do they value in this interaction – information? guidance? free drugs? …or just somebody to listen to their problems?
  • Can I make assumptions based on my previous interactions with this family?
  • How should I best communicate with these people – talking? brochures? handwritten diagrams? through an interpreter?
  • What level of detail should I present – am I just trying to prove I’m the one in charge, or will this information be useful and applicable by the parents? Do they even care about the ‘why’?

Knowing and pitching information just right for audience is a continual challenge for those working in science communication. And emergency room personal do it damned well.


World Science Festival Brisbane was not science worship, and it worked

In March 2016 on March 22, 2016 at 10:49 am
WSF Brisbane

Image thanks to @WSFBrisbane 

Sarah: I realised World Science Festival Brisbane was a big deal at 30,000 feet above ground level — the flight attendants were discussing how to catch a few events (science-loving airhostesses equals stereotype-breaking at its best).

Co-founded eight years prior by Tracy Day and Brian Greene, in March 2016 the World Science Festival left New York City for the very first time and set up a second home in Brisbane, Australia. In that city to attend the National Conference of the Australian Science Communicators, I was fortunate enough to hang around, catch the vibe, and attend four World Science Festival events over Friday 11 and Saturday 12 March.

Known affectionately amongst Australians as ‘BrisVegas’, Queensland’s capitol was a fantastic host city. The co-location of numerous cultural buildings – The Queensland Museum, The Queensland Art Gallery, The Queensland Performing Arts Centre and The State Library of Queensland – with open grassy areas along the front of the Brisbane River made the entire experience easy. Families and passersby on the water-front were treated to ‘Smart Science’ – pop-up activities and demonstrations encouraging people to ‘explore the fun of science in a hands-on, action packed program.’ More formal activities with ticketed sales took place in the nearby buildings.


For its emotional punch, I adored Alan Alda’s Dear Albert. Presented by three actors dressed in black and perched on plain wooden chairs, the readings consisted of excerpts from letters between Albert Einstein and his loved ones. It sounds dull but it was most assuredly not so. I was captivated: laughing, gasping and occasionally in tears. Einstein may have been the world’s most remarkable physicist, but his use of language was also breathtaking. His love letters were simple and yet detailed, sweet but occasionally racy (by implication, not directly) and revealing of a passionate and loving man. When his marriage began to fail and professional pressures increased, he did equally well in conveying anger, stress and bitterness. In essence the audience was given a taste of Einstein’s many passions; the selected paragraphs traced ‘an intimate and unfamiliar line across his life and work.’ We also had a glimpse of what expectations were on women in the early-mid 20th century. A young girl pregnant and unmarried certainly had very little choice in how her life played out – the mystery of what happened to Einstein’s first, illegitimate child still remains – and similarly, a divorcee often endured a powerless existence.

Still on physics, but much drier, was Breakfast with the Brians. Science superstars Brian Greene and Brian Schmidt chatted with host Robyn Williams about string theory, dark matter, the processes of science, science communication and magic. The celebrity geek factor was very high – and the audience lapped it up. But for me, again it was the insights into personalities that were the most interesting part of this event. For example, we learned that Brian Greene grew up in a family of vaudeville entertainers—maybe this is why he’s so adept at holding an audience captive? Interestingly, I later learnt that Alan Alda grew up surrounded by his family’s vaudeville/burlesque business as well – this podcast has more on that.


Similarly, I loved Greene’s insights into how science makes you feel. “Emotion is critical,” he said. “When you’re doing science the ideas tickle the brain, but the real moments come when you feel like you’re staring at eternity, at something that on-one else has seen before.”

And on the subject of releasing a new paper or a novel theory, he admitted it can be terrifying. “There is a great deal of fear, of going out into the world and having egg on your face,” said Brian Greene. Even the big guys have imposter syndrome at times, I guess.

Panel events can be somewhat risky: either they crash and burn into an hour of tedious agreements and confirmation of stuff we already know, or they ignite fantastic conversations and inoculate the audience with lingering ideas. Which way it goes usually depends on the moderator. Luckily the two World Science Festival panel events I attended had excellent hosts – each knew the participants well, was aware of the audience and was motivated to get the conversations kicking.


Radio National’s Natasha Mitchell chaired a session Where Worlds Collide: Science Values and Ethics. Natasha involved her audience from the get-go – she ran a quick poll, challenging us to make decisions on a series of ethical dilemmas – and then asked her panel to consider the same scenarios. The best thing about the session was that Rob Sparrow, Margaret Somerville, Rob Lamberts, Wayne Hall and Dimity Dornan didn’t speak of science like something that was to be revered, respected and kept apart from the rest of society. Quite the opposite. The overriding message was that science is a living, breathing cultural construct that must sit within a broad human context. And as you might expect in a discussion about values, we witnessed some strong disagreement – check out my tweets if you want a bit more detail.

Natasha Mitchell is a very experienced radio journalist, and it showed. The same is true for John Hockenberry, who chaired the final session I attended – Science and Story: Getting it Write. John lead his panel – James Bradley, Simon Groth, Ashley Hay, George Musser and Niamh Shaw – in rare discussion that explored how writing (or more specifically, narrative) and science work together to help people understand their world. John told us that Earth in 2016 is an uncertain place, perhaps the most uncertain it’s been since World War II. This he attributed mostly to the existence of climate change and rapid technological advances. “Interest in science is a sign people see that the world is in a kind of motion,” said John. “Our understanding of the world is in transition right now.”


Panelist Ashley Hay agreed, describing writing about science as ‘a means to understand what our future might be,’ and suggesting that ‘we need to be literate about what is unknown.’ (See a few more tweets on this here).

Having worked with futurist Dr Kristin Alford, the need to formally consider and prepare ourselves for diverse future scenarios is something I’m reasonably familiar with. However crazily enough it’s not a subject that comes up often in public discussions about science. This panel was a rare exception.

Science is a funny old thing. All of us who work in science think we have a grip on what it means, how it’s important and why the general public should actually care. Sometimes we put science on a pedestal, and expect others to gather around and worship from afar. But science does not exist in isolation. It cannot function on its own. Science is a human activity that is shaped by human desires and needs, and it is interpreted in a broader cultural context. It’s rare that public science events manage to capture all of these complexities. I’d like to congratulate World Science Festival Brisbane on their achievements in putting together a broad program of events that reflected the many different layers and components of science. I hope future events can push audiences of scientists and non-scientists into new ways of thinking even further.

This post was first published at Real Scientists

Psst! Pay attention. I’m communicating

In March 2016 on March 17, 2016 at 9:29 pm


Sarah: Hey! You. Yes, you. Yup, I’m talking to you.

Come over here….I want to tell you some science. And you will listen. And you will learn. And you will walk away wiser. And the world will be a better place.

Does this sound familiar? Does this approach work? How do we best transfer or teach scientific information to an audience? It’s a question I’ve been mulling over since I attended the Australian Science Communicators 2016 National Meeting held in Brisbane last week.

Whilst the full program consisted of many interesting presentations, the final session of the day came from Christine O’Connell, Associate Director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. When she began, it was past 5pm. You can imagine the crowd that sat in front of her. We were all tired. We were all thinking about the drinks coming up. We didn’t really want to see more Powerpoint slides. Fortunately, she had us up and out of our chairs straight away. I’ll tell you about two exercises that were incredibly valuable.


How Christine O’Connell got us thinking about audience

First, Christine set us up in pairs, and we labeled ourselves Person A and Person B.

Activity 1
Person A was asked to imagine that Person B had travelled from 300 years ago in a time travel machine. Person A was asked to grab her mobile phone, place it in her hand and explain what it was without making to Person B think she was a witch. It was really hard! Explanations went like this:

This is technology —> WITCH!
You can receive messages from other people —-> WITCH!
You can speak to people who are a long way away —-> WITCH
You can read daily newspapers on it —-> WITCH!

How would you explain what a mobile phone is? The best answers came from people who thought about what knowledge base a person from 300 years ago might have. The effective communicators mentioned smoke signals, carrier pigeons….familiar ways that information might be transferred from one person to another. To communicate you must work within the audience’s existing world.

Activity 2
This was a mirroring activity. Standing upright, Person A was asked to ad lib a series of movements that Person B was expected to copy, or mirror. For example, left arm up, down, up, down followed by right arm in, out, out, in. It was fun! It was hilarious doing fast movements, and watching Person B try to keep up.

But then Charlotte told us that Person B was the audience. It’s not ideal to try and trick him. You’re supposed to create a series of slow, repetitive, familiar movements that allow him to follow along, not get frustrated, not get left behind. As Person A you must work with Person B to ensure you’re on the same page. Think about his needs. Think about what he’s expecting. Think about what came before. Think about whether he’s tired, or confused, or angry. This is communication – working together to transfer knowledge.


Although I always like to imagine myself as being pretty good at thinking about audience needs, these activities really blew my mind. In essence, Christine was asking us to stop thinking of ourselves as smart-arse experts. To stop assuming the audience can keep up. To stop creating a distance between ourselves and the audience (for professional or whatever other reasons).

Instead, we should meet the science-interested audience on their home turf and play ball together. That’s communication.

[image thanks to]


Drones and overpopulation of a reintroduced species

In November 2015 on November 25, 2015 at 8:23 pm

Drone shot

*Matthew: Conservation and restoration efforts may attempt to right the wrongs of past generations, but can this result in too much of a good thing?

The creation of fenced feral-free reserves has successfully seen the reintroduction of several locally extinct and endangered animals. Yet, we poorly understand the consequences of faunal repatriation for enclosed ecosystems. Current ground-based surveys are expensive, time consuming and labour intensive.

Arid Recovery Reserve is located within the vast arid lands of northern South Australia. There are concerns surrounding overpopulation of the reintroduced burrowing bettong (Bettongia lesueur) and sustainability of this enclosed ecosystem. Affordable, practical, and repeatable monitoring methods therefore need to be developed.

My honours project aimed to assess the ability of unmanned aircraft (drones) to monitor both the vegetation and population of B. lesueur within Arid Recovery Reserve.

Quantitative assessment of vegetation assemblages and warrens (burrows) through both ground and drone based surveys were used to assess differences among two feral-free enclosures and one area outside the reserve. This information is beginning to provide reasoning behind observed differences in the vegetation within and among the three sites. Providing an initial assessment of drone use for monitoring vegetation and B. lesueur populations, this research has applications both within and beyond Arid Recovery Reserve.

With implications for how we sample and survey ecosystems, initial results may open the doors to a seemingly endless room of future research.

*Today’s guest post is from Matthew J. Bowie (aka Bowie). Here’s a bit more about him:

Why am I interested in science communication? I think I have always been the type of person that simply enjoys talking to other people about what they do, and this extends to their science. I somewhat stumbled across the field of SciComms this year, and after randomly emailing a now fellow communicator the question “what is science communications?…I think I might be interested in it”, I was hooked. I am now finalising my honours degree in Environmental Science at the University of Adelaide, helping out on the South Australian branch of Australian Science Communicators, and will soon start writing for RiAus. The year ahead for me is uncertain, but I am looking forward to a career with strong SciComm components.

How Life Works

In September 2015 on September 17, 2015 at 12:28 pm


Sarah: If you studied biochemistry at university, chances are you used ‘The Biochem Bible’ by authors William and Daphne Elliott. Often it was referred to quite simply as “Elliott and Elliott’.

Elliott and Elliott were quite a team, both as authors, scientists and life partners. Here is the brief precis of their achievements, as summarised by CSIRO Publishing:

William (Bill) Elliott was a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Sciences and Head of Biochemistry at The University of Adelaide for 23 years. In 1982 his department was awarded the Australian Government’s first Centre of Excellence, for research devoted to gene technology. In 2001, he was awarded the Centenary Medal for service to Australian society and science in molecular biosciences. At The University of Adelaide, his legacy and achievements are celebrated annually by the W.H. Elliott lecture and a research fellowship in his name.

Daphne Elliott is an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences at Flinders University. She was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal in 1994 for her contribution to the education of women in Science and Mathematics and served as Federal President of the Australian Federation of University Women. In 2002, she was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for service to the promotion of women’s education and as an advocate for improving the status and human rights of women.

Bill passed away in 2012. Never one to be idle, he spent his final months and days preparing the first complete draft of a new book aimed not at the science student, but at the general public.

Thanks to the commitment of Daphne — along with her daughter, granddaughter and other family members — that work is now published. I am so very delighted to have worked with the Elliotts to craft some of the figures and tables for this book.

How Life Works: The Inside Word From a Biochemist is available via CSIRO Publishing.

In Bill’s own words:

“This book aims at explaining the fundamentals of life to readers who have no scientific training.”

“It will possibly enable non-scientific decision-makers and the general members of the public to better understand some of the important biological and medical issues that face society.”

I’d say there’s a market for that, wouldn’t you?

[image thanks to Ben Grey]

Science and social media: don’t be shy, just start!

In July 2015 on July 16, 2015 at 4:02 pm

Sarah: Today I was delighted to talk to science students as part of The University of Adelaide’s Winter Courses in Science Communication (undergrad and postgrad).

I summarised how I’ve used social media to market my blog, to build my brand as a science writer and to connect with fantastic people across the world.

Number one tip for new users of social media? Don’t be shy, just start!

Specialist science teachers in primary schools? No thanks!

In September 2014 on September 3, 2014 at 8:48 am

Charlotte 72550972_f48d1ea723_z

Charlotte is friend of mine, and a teacher of teachers.

In this post taken from her blog, she discusses an article from the Sydney Morning Herald from September 2 2014: ‘Science teacher in every primary school’.

I think it’s a great post, particularly her objection that ‘We continue to perpetuate the myth that science isn’t for everyone; that it’s for “special”, “smarter”, or “nerdy” people, instead of the diverse group that primary school teachers are.’

Enjoy the post, and provide feedback to Charlotte directly if you feel inspired!

[image thanks to Bart Everson on flickr

I want to unearth known unknowns

In May 2014 on May 7, 2014 at 1:26 pm

kirsti colourful petri dishes

Kirsti: Over the past 100 years, science and technology have changed our lives almost beyond measure.

In that same time period, tertiary education has become accessible by almost anyone with an internet connection. Courses are offered via a range of universities and other providers, including those with established integrity but also featuring those with little credibility at all. Whatever you choose to call it — whether it be off-campus, external, online or distance education — enrolments are UP and costs are DOWN.

So in an age when the ethical and accurate communication of science is so important, and you can virtually study anything from anywhere, I decided to search Australia. I looked for options in external postgraduate studies in science communication, and for a Masters or graduate Diploma course with flexible options. Why? So I could use my existing work, research and communication activities to learn……well, learn to do it better, learn more stuff, learn new strategies and unearth my ‘known unknowns’.

Is that too much to ask?!


The search was more complicated than I anticipated! Finally, I did manage to establish that you CAN do an external Masters of Science Communication through the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at ANU. It’s a convoluted path to enrolment, and the webpage doesn’t explicitly state you can do it…..but you can.

Event if I was willing to move, my choices for science communication postgraduate studies would actually still be limited. Although there are Masters of Communication and Masters of Journalism available at universities across the country, many of them include aspects of communication not suited to me at the moment, like advertising and traditional journalism.

Distinct to what I’m looking for, there are numerous fabulous single units available that cover issues in science communication and practice at an undergraduate and postgraduate level. Among many examples, the University of Melbourne offers science communication at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and this unit is a diverse exploration of effective engagement strategies in science communication. The University of Newcastle’s 2nd year science communication unit includes a project and portfolio submission, and Monash University students all take the core science unit ‘Scientific Practice & Communication’ as part of any BSc. or BSc. double degree.

And if you’re serious about postgraduate study in science communication, it is dominated by three Australian universities:

  1. The Australian National University (the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science)
  2. University of Western Australia
  3. University of Queensland

My advice?  Just call the coordinator or graduate convenor.  After a healthy chat, many things are possible.

But have I missed anything? Are there any other or even better options? I’d love to hear about your experience with science communication study at a tertiary level.

[image thanks to Anne Flaherty on Flickr]


Day 311. Getting mythical

In June 2013 on June 19, 2013 at 12:02 pm


Driving home around an hour ago, I heard Ian Henschke on ABC Radio 891 state the following:

In a moment, kooky science with Dr Karl.

I got grumpy.

Why is there a perception that science needs to be kooky, crazy, whacky in order to be of interest?

Excuse me for boasting, but I think this blog is a good example that it doesn’t have to be this way.  Occasionally I’m a little nuts, but it’s not my over-riding tone. Brain Pickings, The Scicurious Brain, All in the Mind, RadioLab all come to mind as other examples.

And while we’re at it, what other mythical beliefs are out there about science communication?

I addressed another one this past week: ‘scientists don’t want to talk to people about their work‘.

How about ‘oh, why do we bother, people aren’t really that interested in science’.

Or ‘if we could just make them see the facts, they’d love it too’.

Consider ‘scientists should just be left alone to do research, not waste their time communicating about what they do and find‘.

And a final example: ‘scientists who are interested in communicating their work aren’t really proper, hardcore scientists‘.

Are there other myths out there? I’d love you to add your own thoughts below, it’s an interesting topic.

Myths about science communication will be discussed in the #onsci hosted twitter chat Thursday 20th June 2013 at 9pm AEST. See @onsci and hashtag #onsci to follow or join in. 

[image thanks to Okko Pyykko on flickr]

Day 305. Integration

In June 2013 on June 13, 2013 at 4:07 pm


Recently I’ve been talking about the social, behaviouralindividual and collective perspectives relating to science communication.

Possibly you’re wondering where on earth this new drive came from?

It’s called the integral approach, and it’s a tool futurists use a lot. (Futurists like Kristin Alford, who tickled me in the right direction).

Put simply,

The integral approach suggests that every sentinel being has, at minimum, four fundamental, simultaneous perspectives that must be taken into account for a deeper and more integral understanding.

Those four perspectives are also referred to as quadrants.

Now I’m not a futurist. But you don’t need to be fully versed in futures studies to obtain value from the integral approach.

I used it very simply as a framework to guide my analysis of a problem which I’ve been thinking about for years, and needed some new perspectives on: how can we best communicate science, and what does it look like when it works?

Have a try at the integral approach yourself: you’ll find lots of great information and some guidelines here.

[image thanks to Andrew Cavell on flickr]