I am very surprised to have been selected to participate in this year’s “I’m a scientist, get me out of here!” competition.
It’s a public engagement exercise in which 100 scientists are available to answer questions from school students and teachers around the country; 400 classes in total, comprised of 8,000 students!
We’re divided into zones – I’m in the Silicon zone, which is one of the general science ones. There are also some specialist zones; you can find these on the site, which will be active from the beginning of June.
Questions are submitted to us through the website for us to answer and we also do live webchats with students, then they vote for their favourite scientists!
There will be a series of evictions from June 22nd-24th and the winner announced on June 25th. I’m actually off to Russia (for my first proper holiday ever!!) on the 23rd but should have access to the net and will be telling everyone about that.
#IAS2010 (for Twitter people) is a fairly daunting prospect for me, having always maintained I could never be a teacher! However, I have recently become more interested in science communication, finding more and more situations where I’d consider it important and potentially able to do a lot of good.
One aspect that gives me some of confidence is my history of online conversation. This is one thing I am good at!! I type too fast for my brain to keep up sometimes and have enjoyed being able to talk to a huge range of people through the internet for about 12 years now. I like to share experiences, learn, educate and sometimes have a bit of an argument. Interweb ftw.
Bridging the Gap
There has long been a gulf between the general layperson and the science community. The problem with science as a subject is that it’s perceived to be (and is, in many ways) rather inaccessible. To understand the fine detail, you generally need to put in many years of work to build up to it.
Science has its own language and the nature of it – a philosophy we use to understand everything we can see, measure and even predict without having experienced yet – means that “science” covers a lot of stuff!
The famous line from Isaac Newton:
If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants
I always found this particularly relevant when thinking about scientific facts, theories and methods.
People have to specialise in science to work in it because we’ve gained a lot of information, us people, since we started drawing, talking and writing. Once people had the idea of leaving records for others to use in later lifetimes, knowledge could accumulate at a greater rate. Once you have the basics figured out, teaching it becomes faster and people can learn new things from a more advanced starting point.
To get super-nerdy for a minute, I think of Star Trek. We see Starfleet Academy students learning advanced maths, particle physics and so on from a very young age. Is it so ridiculous though? Not really. Young children are made aware of things like genes, electricity, gravity and other concepts now, think what 9 year-olds will be learning about in 200 years’ time!
So, this is both a blessing and the bane of science. The vast information base we’ve built up over hundreds (thousands!) of years means we’re moving forwards. But that also means things have become complicated, and if you don’t have the inclination to study it (it’d be boring and useless if everyone learned the same stuff), understanding is very difficult. Some people seem determined not to understand and translate this frustration and their anger at the world into attacks on science.
Communication, if it’s done well, can help demystify science and reassure people that science is worth doing and being excited about.
Check out fellow participant Stephen Curry‘s first musings on the competition and here are Tom Hartley‘s thoughts; he’s in the same zone as Stephen. Also this from Sophia Collins’ boss (she’s the event producer).
Edit: will update with more contestant blogs as I find them below.
Oregon State University has this to say on the subject of effective communication.
I’m attending the BSA Science Communication Conference next Monday and Tuesday, which I’m looking forward to. More on that later!
Watch this space!