Getting ‘Schooled’ on Science Communication




Scientists and engineers should do more public outreach!

That phrase almost always conjures up images of blogging, tweeting or working with news media – but it can also include collaborating with your local k12 schools.

I came across an interesting paper by Dr. Sam Illingworth, a lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK. He and his co-author, Heidi Roop, discuss the value of engaging with schools. Beyond the obvious benefit to students, they say that researchers often benefit too – and they explain how. They also offer advice for successful engagement with schools and address the challenges that sometimes make it difficult.

Dr. Illingworth elaborates on the paper in this Q&A:

What sparked the idea to publish a paper about scientists engaging with school kids?

The reason that we wrote this paper is because my co-author and I felt very strongly that going into schools and doing science outreach was of great benefit to not only the students and teachers but also to the scientists. The key skills that you can learn by going into a classroom environment are many, but it is not an easy thing to do at all! We wanted to offer some advice from our own experiences, and also to lay down a bit of a marker, as we think that outreach and public engagement activities should be better recognized as worthwhile and demanding achievements.

The term ‘public outreach’ doesn’t always lead researchers to think of engaging with schools. Should scientists and engineers be spending more time in schools?

This is a really interesting question because I think that there is a massive issue with the nomenclature of science communication, which given the relative fledgling status of the field is to be expected. I have written another paper which looks at this issue in more detail, and which is currently under review, so if you’re my reviewer and you’re reading this, please hurry up and get the comments back to me as soon as possible, so that we can clear this up! But setting aside my flagrant self-promotion for a moment, yes, I think that researchers should spend time in schools, but only if they want to. As with most areas of science communication, it is important to find an area that you connect with, and which matches your own skill set and aspirations. Some people should not be allowed near a school, but that does not mean that they are not good communicators in other respects.

Does working with schools have any impact on a researcher’s communication with peers within the scientific community? 

I think that working with schools is a really useful way of learning how to interact in a meaningful manner with a variety of people. As well as improving my networking skills, doing school outreach has undoubtedly improved my communication skills. If you are able to explain cosmic microwave background radiation to a 10-year old (as I was required to do on a recent trip), then suddenly having to answer questions about the nature of your own research to a room full of experts seems a lot less daunting.

It seems that working with schools also helps build the skills researchers need to other types of public engagement. 

Absolutely. Working with school children is a great way to help to better understand how to communicate your research. It is also a fantastic learning environment for teaching how important it is to think about the pitch of your explanation, as being over patronizing is just as bad as being overcomplicated.

Dr. Sam Illingworth of Manchester Metropolitan University

Dr. Sam Illingworth of Manchester Metropolitan University

You offer some recommendations to help researchers get the most out of engagement with schools. The first two Involve the Teachers and Evaluate the Activity sound much like Know Your Audience and Measure Your Impact. Can you elaborate?

I would say that the first point is about more than ‘knowing your audience’, as our recommendations talk about involving school teachers in the entire process from design to delivery. Whilst it is possible to roughly know the age and ability of a class, it is very difficult to really know them as either individuals or a collective unless you have spent time working and learning with them. In many situations, there is not enough time to work with school children over a prolonged period, so the most effective way is to go straight to the teacher and mainline all of the tacit and implicit knowledge that they have about the class. They are the real experts as to what will and will not work in any given situation, and I think that it would be arrogant of me to try to think that I could meaningfully engage with a class without benefiting from the teacher’s expertise.

Evaluating the activity can be thought of in terms of ‘measuring your impact’, but I think that it is important to use terms that are commonplace in the scientific vernacular. I am yet to meet anyone working in higher education that can give me a succinct and consistent definition of what impact actually is. Evaluation, on the other hand, is something that scientists are aware of, and which they do on a regular basis. In the paper, we argue that we should evaluate the relative success of the activity, what the students learned and the level at which they engaged – all guided by the scientific process. As well as yielding more useful results, this also means that you can start to write up some of the activities for publication, which is necessary in order for science communication activities to be more fully recognized as valuable and viable academic output.

 You hit hard on the lack of support and recognition around public outreach. I’ve spoken with researchers who want to engage, but have difficulty justifying it while working for organizations that don’t see the value. How do we fix this?  

This is the single biggest problem that is facing the effective communication of science. In order for outreach and public engagement activities to be better recognized, there needs to be a top-down level of support. We are definitely seeing this happen in some places. My own research institute, Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) offers grants and prizes to the most innovative science communication activities. MMU has also been a key instigator in recognizing excellence in these activities as an acceptable route into academia (as evidenced by my own permanent position as lecturer in science communication). However, this needs to become the norm.

Of those lucky enough to work in places where their outreach is recognized – many don’t feel like they get the necessary training and support to be successful.

For me, there needs to be a change at the most fundamental level. Quite simply I don’t think that enough attention is given to communication skills in undergraduate and postgraduate education, with many students simply expected to be able to deliver presentations and write articles at the drop of a hat. There needs to be more focus on developing these skills, not only because they are useful in academia but because they will also be incredibly useful to the large proportion of students who do not decide to pursue a career in research. As I have said before, it is a misnomer that scientists are poor communicators; in fact given the amount of formal training that they have received I think that they work wonders!

How do you (personally) practice what you preach?

As well as working with several thousand members of the general public a year in delivering outreach and public engagement activities, I also write (bad) poetry about (good) science in an attempt to introduce new audiences to the wonder of science. I also teach science communication across my faculty and am in the process of trying to embed these skills across as many degrees as possible. In addition to this, I continue to advocate for institutional recognition for excellence in science communication.

What’s next for you? 

I aim to continue publishing papers in the field of science communication, and currently, I have enough outreach and public engagement events lined up over the summer to keep me busy. I will, of course, continue to write bad poetry (any scientists who would like me to write something about their research, please get in touch), and I also have a couple of creative surprises up my sleeve, so watch this space!

We really wanted this paper to act as a catalyst for the idea that outreach and public engagement need to be better recognized as areas that require expertise, and which should be rewarded as such. We will know that we have been successful when science communication is seen as a viable route into academia, with specific training embedded into the undergraduate and postgraduate curriculum of science students. So not too much to ask then!

I hope that people enjoy reading the paper and that they get something useful from it. This is a conversation that we need to have, and I am always happy to talk about how we can help to give science communication the platform that it needs. Hopefully, people are beginning to realize that this is necessary, to ensure that society can continue to benefit from the many opportunities that science creates.

Dr. Sam Illingworth is a lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK. His current research involves looking at the similarities between science and poetry, and how different popular culture media can be used to connect science and society. When not doing science or writing poetry he enjoys anything to do with satellites and writing about himself in the third person.

Twitter: @samillingworth

Blog: The Poetry of Science

Paper: Developing Key Skills as a Science Communicator: Case Studies of Two Scientist-Led Outreach Programmes Geosciences 20155(1), 2-14; doi:10.3390/geosciences5010002

3 thoughts on “Getting ‘Schooled’ on Science Communication

  1. I think the point about getting the teachers involved is important. I have done several in-class demonstrations both in a group or me alone would do an activity in front of a classroom for 30-60 minutes and then leave without really knowing if it was useful to the kids and how to improve upon it.


  2. wrt science communication being an avenue into academia with training available at undergraduate and postgraduate level, I wrote a book chapter about development of postgraduate programs in science communication (available from my ResearchGate page). Also available via ResearchGate are articles and reports about evaluation and impact of science engagement and outreach.


  3. Pingback: SciComm: How, why & what for? | scicommsource

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