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21/04/2014

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In praise of science communication

Peter Hatfield, UK Young Scientist of the Year 2009

When I won the award, and while I was working on my project, I was studying for my A-Levels at Simon Langton Boys School in Canterbury. My research for the National Science Competition was mainly in space science and particle physics. My project was an experiment some fellow students and I had designed to detect cosmic rays. It’s being launched into orbit on an SSTL satellite next year.

Public engagement was a big part of my time during my award year.

Busy schedule

The opportunity to explain my ideas to a wide audience has been one of the best and most enjoyable parts of the award. I’ve been on radio 10 times over the year, which has been great practice in terms of explaining my ideas. I also had the chance to exhibit my research for a week with fellow students from the Langton at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition. I’ve been involved in the British Science Festival, Kent Festival of Science and the UK Space Conference.

The most exciting outreach that I have been involved with was when I was invited to take part in the annual Commonwealth Day celebrations, this year themed around Science and Technology. I explained a scientific experiment performed live in Westminster Abbey to 2500 people, including the Queen.

I’ve gone into several schools in my area and taught students how to observe astronomical objects with the Faulkes telescopes, 2-meter wide reflecting telescopes based in Hawaii and Australia that are available for schools in the UK to use.

Importance of communication

I think back (a year or two!) on scientists who took the time to talk to me, and how big a difference they made to my future career. My brother Alex (13) always says he can tell whether a scientist is explaining something new, some research that they are doing just now, or something old that’s been known for ages. Guess which he finds more interesting!  A key way to get young people more interested in science, I’ve found, is to give a taste of someone actually doing new things, rather than curriculum-based science that’s been known for decades or centuries.

I think it’s essential today not to separate science and public engagement. As a researcher, it is vital that you can communicate your ideas to other scientists. Often forcing yourself to think about how you would explain your research to a member of the public leads to a greater depth of understanding of your ideas. I only felt that I really understood my spectroscopy work when I felt I could explain what I had studied to a 10 year old.

In the context of current funding issues, it’s very important that we make sure the public know what is being worked on and why it is significant. A lot of the public often just don’t see why ‘blue skies’ research is important. We should encourage the public to see why a broader understanding of a topic is beneficial, and why even though we cannot see the immediate significance of current research, it may well have unimaginably fantastic consequences.

Advice for successors

This year’s Young Scientist and Young Engineer, Shawn Brown and Tom Hearing, have already proved that they are great scientists and great science communicators, and I hope they have as a fantastic year as I have had. My advice to them? - go to schools, show the pupils your research, encourage them to enter the competition for next year and get them to think about doing a STEM subject at university. Seeing someone the same age as you doing science can be incredibly important for young people planning their futures.

For more on the National Science and Engineering Competition, see www.nationalsciencecompetition.org/

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Peter Hatfield
Peter Hatfield is now studying mathematics at Pembroke College, Cambridge.
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