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20/12/2014

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National Science and Engineering Week: a platform for public dialogue?

Nathalie Hall, Barbie Drillsma and Lucy Wallace look at the upsides and the downsides

The Dean Heritage Centre won an award

But we can still improve, says Nathalie Hall

In 2011 the Dean Heritage Centre won the Award for Best Science Event thanks to nine days of interactive activities, as part of National Science and Engineering Week. 

Tying in with the theme of Communication, the Centre entitled their events programme, Your Forest, Have Your Say, to tie in with the national Hands Off Our Forest campaign which was prevalent in the media at the time and instigated activities to engage the local community and garner visitor feedback on their own community.

But we can still improve, says Nathalie Hall

In 2011 the Dean Heritage Centre won the Award for Best Science Event thanks to nine days of interactive activities, as part of National Science and Engineering Week. 

Tying in with the theme of Communication, the Centre entitled their events programme, Your Forest, Have Your Say, to tie in with the national Hands Off Our Forest campaign which was prevalent in the media at the time and instigated activities to engage the local community and garner visitor feedback on their own community.

Visitors were invited to take part in activities such as guided walks; photography and art competitions; workshops and a communication’s themed handling collection. We also asked them to record their thoughts and feelings, via photos; completing speech bubbles on an interactive message board or uploading video messages (sat on a Big Brother style chair) to the website via Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.

After last year’s event, the Centre is hoping to improve the way visitors engage with this year’s theme, Our World and Its Surroundings: the movement of our planet’s surface, weather and its position in space and time, by providing more opportunities to comment and providing clearer guidance on how to leave feedback.

Whilst there were plenty of options to provide feedback in 2011, certain options had reduced take up and management felt this was due to lack of confidence or time to do it.

This year, more detailed explanation and guidance will be given on the ways to offer feedback. For example, we plan to provide the facility to upload photos or videos taken onsite, whilst still onsite, rather than waiting for visitors to do it when they get home, thus making sure results and outcomes can be improved.

Via visitor feedback, interaction and engagement, allowing visitors to be involved in events, physically interacting with them rather than just observing them, we hope to build on the success of last year to provide a greater and more enjoyable visitor experience for National Science and Engineering Week 2012.

Linking with journalists

Barbie Drillsma finds that press coverage varies

National Science and Engineering Week places great emphasis on improving knowledge of science and engineering, particularly on how they relate to our everyday lives.  Television and radio programmes reflect this by a growth of science-related programmes.  Media stars are being created. The image of scientists as mad boffins in smoke-filled laboratories has been replaced by super cool presenter Brian Cox; the girl next-door, Kate Humble or cuddly grandfather, David Attenborough.

Barbie Drillsma finds that press coverage varies

National Science and Engineering Week places great emphasis on improving knowledge of science and engineering, particularly on how they relate to our everyday lives.  Television and radio programmes reflect this by a growth of science-related programmes.  Media stars are being created. The image of scientists as mad boffins in smoke-filled laboratories has been replaced by super cool presenter Brian Cox; the girl next-door, Kate Humble or cuddly grandfather, David Attenborough.

National Science Weeks take place in all major European countries, many with backing from the European Commission. Perhaps surprisingly in our cash-strapped times, money is available in the UK for the promotion of science and engineering. Enthusiasm for the subject is increasing.  But is this enthusiasm reflected in the amount of media coverage the week receives? And does it forge stronger links between scientists and journalists?

Local press enthusiastic

Certainly there is more interest paid to the week by provincial journalists and broadcasters as well as magazines dedicated to covering specialist subjects.

Newspapers outside London, particularly the free press, are delighted with the availability of easily accessible, photogenic stories taking place in their area.  Scientists are being encouraged to undertake media training enabling them to explain their work and research to a lay audience.  As a result, local radio stations have a field day finding media savvy interviewees. Journalists’ contact books are filled for future reference with instant local experts ready to comment on scientific stories in the news.

National press discriminating

National Press coverage paints a different picture. Science editors are competing with other specialist areas for space and a story has to be good to get in. The nationals are not in the business of handing out free publicity.  Column inches are too valuable for that.

Steve Connor, the Independent’s science editor, acknowledges NSEW may play a useful role in raising awareness of science and engineering among the public and political classes. But he says that, as an engine for generating new stories, it doesn’t really work.

‘News desks are highly tuned to detect well choreographed attempts at creating synthetic “good news” stories, especially those that reflect the government of the day in a good light,’ he says.

Despite this, NSEW does create a buzz and although many science journalists do not write about the week they certainly store away information about the work scientists are promoting for future reference.

It’s not difficult

And it’s worth it, says Lucy Wallace

In 2010 the Thames Valley Branch of the British Science Association organised the first ever Reading Science Week during National Science and Engineering Week, and it was such a success that 2012 will be its third year. It’s hard work, and very intense, but we reach between 1,000-2,000 local people each year with the diverse range of events that span the week, so it’s definitely worth it.

And it’s worth it, says Lucy Wallace

In 2010 the Thames Valley Branch of the British Science Association organised the first ever Reading Science Week during National Science and Engineering Week, and it was such a success that 2012 will be its third year. It’s hard work, and very intense, but we reach between 1,000-2,000 local people each year with the diverse range of events that span the week, so it’s definitely worth it.

National Science and Engineering Week provides a great opportunity to discuss science, engineering and technology. It can be seen as a way of helping people to encounter new ideas, but it can also encourage engagement with the issues surrounding science in society. Enabling this dialogue about science within events does not need to be complicated. It can be as simple as providing a space and asking a question.

Getting comfortable

People often want the option to be able to discuss science, engineering and technology but they don’t want to feel they are doing all the work. Too much time for dialogue can make everyone feel a little out of their depth and lead to lots of uncomfortable silences. Therefore the events that usually work best are those with an element of ‘expert and audience’ to focus thoughts, followed by informal discussions where people can participate either as much or as little as they want to.

Once people have been encouraged to make one comment or ask one question, they are more likely to ask another. However, it can be difficult for everyone to have their say as it’s very easy to allow a small group of loud voices to lead and steer the conversation, putting off quieter voices which need a little more prompting. So you usually need someone to act as a neutral ‘chair’ during discussions.

I’ve found that making people feel comfortable when talking about science helps to ensure that discussions continue well after an event finishes.

Benefits for all

Public dialogue on science, engineering and technology can bring benefits for all, not just the ‘public’ - it can provide feedback about research and inform future work. Many of the scientists I have worked with have told me that discussing their work with different groups of people at public events helps them to evaluate critically what they are doing, and enables them to see their research from different points of view.

Using events such as those in National Science and Engineering Week as a platform to encourage public dialogue on science, engineering and technology helps to make sure that when people encounter ‘science’ in any of its forms they feel comfortable enough to question and discuss. I think this then goes some of the way to nurturing a more science-engaged society.

Nathalie Hall
Nathalie Hall is the Manager of the Dean Heritage Centre www.deanheritagecentre.com
Barbara Drillsma
Barbara Drillsma is a freelance journalist and vice-president of the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations
Dr Lucy Wallace
Dr Lucy Wallace is Chair of the Thames Valley Branch of the British Science Association www.britishscienceassociation.org/readingscienceweek
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