From Demo to Democracy

By Wendy Sadler

How science communicators can change the world…

Opening SciFest 2016

Opening SciFest 2016

On 4th March this year I had the honour of giving the opening keynote speech at the 20th Anniversary event of SciFest Africa – a festival I have been part of many times. Although it has been 10 years since I personally attended, other SMS presenters have been and come back similarly inspired by the huge passion for learning exhibited in the audiences there.

I was asked to speak about how demonstrations have an important part to play in the bigger issues of STEM engagement, and how science plays a role in democracy. These are the 3 areas I talked about – I’m sure there are many more but it would be great to hear your views

1. Break myths, don’t make them

Bernoulli Blower

This is one of the most popular science exhibits and demos worldwide – The Bernoulli Blower. This version made by Techniquest is the reason I first went to South Africa in 1999 with a touring exhibition called Commquest. It is incredibly engaging because it looks unbelievable. How can a ball be hovering against gravity? You can feel the air coming out of the fan and it is definitely blowing. Why isn’t the ball getting blown away? We witnessed first-hand some learners becoming quite frightened by the behaviour of the ball. It seems almost supernatural. As science communicators we have to use this engaging tool with care. If we fill people with confusion and awe and don’t resolve those questions, there is a danger we can reinforce myths rather than empower them with the knowledge to make sense of the world.

Science is not the same as magic. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

We can’t have a democratic society if the public are so in awe of the mysteries of science they are making decisions blindly and without question. And we can’t have people being scared by the misuse of science because they don’t feel equipped to ask the right questions.

Of course curiosity is a massively powerful hook. Some research I conducted on the short and long-term impact of science shows concluded that the demos that were curiosity-driven had the best chance of being remembered. But does that mean they help our cause? Perhaps they are remembered purely for visual surprise or because they caused mental confusion? More research needed I feel…

The phenomena illustrated with the Bernoulli Blower can however be made more powerful by adding a person skilled in engagement to the mix, or even better as a demo with context and narrative within a performance. There’s an even bigger impact if you can show people how to do it themselves without specialist equipment then you can empower them to believe you aren’t a magician, and they can be a scientist.

Hairdryer bernoulli

This conclusion has definitely steered my career towards using performance and people as a powerful tool for engagement and education rather than relying on standalone interactive exhibits. Good science centres do invest in staff who can enhance exhibits, but it’s expensive and difficult to do with every visitor.

In 2006 we developed a show all about science myths to help tackle some of the internet misinformation straight on and took the show to SciFest. The show included a section on the possible scientific explanation of ghosts! With many local beliefs around lightning and mirrors, it was especially interesting to see how SA learners responded. It’s our duty as science communicators to provide information or tools to our audiences that help them make choices or ask better questions. Using curiosity and intrigue alone may just help reinforce the myth that science is just weird stuff done by other people.

In addition, I think we have to strive harder as a sector to bring out the inherent interest and beauty within science and engineering and not feel the need to package it up with some quick win explosions to please an audience. Science IS exciting and fun and isn’t all about the flashes and bangs. Let’s not compound the myth that it needs to be made louder and brighter to MAKE it fun.

2. Engage emotions to create change

If we want true democracy we really need get more people to care enough about science to ask more questions. Even though science festivals are a great way to involve a wider community in science, they still tend to attract those who already value science or have an interest in it. To increase the diversity of people entering STEM careers or just taking an active interest in STEM issues we need to make sure we don’t just preach to the converted.

Demos can be inherently interesting to science-types, but how can we increase their appeal to non-typical audiences?

We need to look beyond our own type to broaden the creativity of our approach. We need to use theatre tools, street performance skills, clowning, music, humour and drama. All the things that humans have been engaging with for hundreds of years – all things that are highly successful at creating emotions.

Video rotation projected

Human fractals in our non-verbal science show

Words themselves can be a big barrier. What would happen if we tried to do science without any words? This is exactly what our 2005 project ‘Visualise: the Beauty of Science’ was about. We had to learn fast from theatre and lighting experts to work out how to present science in a completely different way. The show was a rapid learning curve and has been changed and adapted hugely with support from theatre directors and physical theatre experts over the years. It is now a much more playful show called The Experimentrics that is more character driven but still with the playfulness of science at its heart. None of the demos use stage are illusions as we wanted to be very clear that these were all things people could replicate for themselves when they got home. We have taken the show to over 19 countries as it’s lack of language and the blend of science and art suits very different audiences to our usual science shows.

The relationship and emotions between the characters on stage are key to getting the non-scientists to care about the science they are seeing. We also want them to spot for themselves the patterns that connect diverse science themes, something that is core to the process of science, but not always obvious to those outside it. We hope it will make them excited about dabbling in some experiments and encouraging other non-converts to do the same.

3. Smash the stereotypes

For a number of years SMS was an all-female science company. The press loved it because it went against all the stereotypes of physics and engineering where girls and women are so under-represented. As SMS grew, so did our staff numbers and we now have a mixture of men and women as an Equal Opportunities Employer.

The issue of diversity in science is still a big deal. 

In the UK the number of girls doing A level physics is pitifully low. People talk about the Brian Cox effect which has been part of a wider range of media coverage of science that has sparked more interest in physics, but this effect does not seem to be the happening in the same way for girls.

As a career scientist and now a mother of two I have become increasingly aware of how society likes to label boys and girls from a ridiculously early age. The fact traditional STEM toys are seen as ‘for boys’ and that boys shouldn’t be seen to be playing with dolls double up to create a society that accepts inequality is OK. We have to challenge this.

superhero logoSMS has always wanted to use it’s shows to promote positive female and male role models and one of our most popular shows for primary schools is called ‘Who Wants to be a Superhero?’. It features 6 young scientists and engineering (5 women, 1 man) and shows 7-11 year olds how scientists and engineers are doing jobs that replicate some of the superpowers that we admire so much in fictional super heroes.

One of the scientists we feature is Prof Haley Gomez – an award-winning astronomer from Cardiff University and one of the youngest Professors of Astronomy in the UK. She works in the area of understanding cosmic dust in space, we say she is working on a kind of X-Ray vision! In the show we use a simple version of the technology Haley uses in her multi-million pound telescopes. It is a simple Infra Red thermometer that can measure the temperature of the students in the audience from a distance, and even through black plastic (which is invisible to Infra-red radiation)!

Funding from the Welsh government is now allowing us to tour this show to 120 schools in Wales to reach over 20,000 students. We’re also teaming up with Let Toys Be Toys to work with teachers on lesson plans that tackle gender stereotypes in the classroom.

These I believe are three vital ways that we can use demos to help tackle much bigger societal issues and improve democracy.

Break myths not make them

Engage with people’s emotions

Smash the stereotypes of society


We’d love to hear what you think…

Posted in Exploring Science, News, Science Communication
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