Posts from April 2011

Excellence in what?

At the Beacons’ Engage2010 conference back in November, one of the more lively sessions involved the stalwart Jim Al-Khalili. He reported on the then-current trains of thought regarding public engagement’s place in the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework, and I think it’s fair to say it was a prickly session. My perception was that many practitioners in the room felt the policy-makers were lagging somewhat.

One specific concern I raised was more strategic: it sounded to me like the sort of system the research councils were considering would tend to reward tried-and-tested, low-risk approaches to engagement. Which is rather in contrast to their approach to research projects, but — if I’m taking a cheap shot here — would put them in step with other funders of public engagement. Ahem.

I haven’t managed to keep up with discussions about the REF, so I don’t know how it’s developing. However, idle chat this morning with Paul McCrory of Think Differently did bring us to another realisation: shifting research councils’ STEM engagement funding into research grants, and assessing that research against public impact metrics, will tend to skew the public engagement audience older.

Suppose you’re a cub researcher, and you’ve been lumbered with delivering your lab’s engagement quota. Or maybe you volunteered, either out of exuberant idealism or because your department head is an inspirational leader (somebody like the aforementioned Al-Khalili, say, or everyone’s favourite chemist Andrea Sella). Whatever, your challenge is to convey your work to a wider audience. More specifically, it’s to increase the public impact of your lab’s research, since that’s what’s being measured by the REF.

The upshot, most likely, is that you do a Café Scientifique slot and a few talks in schools. Great. Both worthy things to do, and unless you’re a really hopeless speaker perhaps even quite effective. For the moment we’ll gloss over whether such approaches are a bit ‘empty-vessel’, because what I’m really trying to get at here is:

When an academic works with a school audience, in most cases they’ll be in a secondary school. Their audience will be 13-18 years old, likely even skewed towards the upper end of that range. Talking about current research with this age bracket is absolutely something we should be doing, and trying our darndest to do really well.

But contrast this with current education research, like the longitudinal ASPIRES project being run by King’s College London. Their starting point goes like this:

There is now considerable evidence that children’s interest in school science declines from the age of ten onwards. The continued under-representation of girls and women in science is also well documented.

Yet research suggests that there is little or no gender distinction in attitudes towards science at age 10, suggesting that there is a critical period between the ages of 10 and 14 in which to engage students.

My question, then, isn’t so much about how the REF is going to promote and develop excellence in engagement work. It’d love to get a solid answer to that sometime, but rather more pressing is:

How is the REF going to increase STEM engagement provision for under-12s?

The research councils would likely say that, frankly, this isn’t their problem. They’re quite likely right.

So whose problem is it?

Make: wave machine

Wave machine  Maker Faire 2011

The jelly-baby wave machine film we made last year for the National STEM Centre and the Institute of Physics was featured on the Make: blog a couple of days ago. Yay!

Even before this the film was the most-viewed resource in the National STEM Centre’s eLibrary.

EM Induction

I mentioned this film in the previous post — we made it for the Dream Teachers competition. Also to test some camera and audio equipment and to remind ourselves how we work together before we shoot a bunch more of the physics demonstration films.

It’s a long way from perfect, but we’re happy enough to put our name to it. Alom has some notes over at the YouTube page about why he introduces the topic with this demo rather than the more traditional magnet-and-wire-with-ammeter approach.

Colophon for the video nuts: shot on a Nikon D7000 with Sigma 17-50 ƒ/2.8 OS, Nikkor 50mm ƒ/1.4 & 105mm ƒ/2.8 lenses. Audio from Sennheiser wireless lav dropped into an awful MicrotrackII recorder. I had my lighting kit with me, so thought I might as well use it.

[update: The film was picked up by one of the science bloggers at the Guardian.]


There’s a bunch of stuff I want to write about O2Learn and Jamie’s Dream Teachers, but since we’ve entered the latter I should probably be careful. At least for now.

One thing I did just tweet, however, is this:

Crowd-sourced rubbish is still rubbish. Don’t waste people’s time with it unless you’re offering quality as well.

In this context: don’t waste teachers’ time with crap resources, even if they’ve made them themselves. It’s a waste of a precious resource (ie. teacher time), and you’ll build neither audience nor participation that way.

There are, I think, three alternatives:

  1. Quality, then scale.
    Set a standard, establish a form, then invite contributions. I guess this is what we’re trying with the Physics Demonstration Films.
  2. Nurture, guide, shape.
    Your project isn’t about ‘user-generated content’, it’s about investing editorial effort with a wide network of collaborators. Example: compare YouTube, which is full of cats falling in swimming pools and ripped-off TV shows, and Vimeo, which is full of exquisitely-crafted films made by talented directors. I caricature both sites, but you get the point.
  3. Don’t take it too seriously.
    Be playful; reward attention by entertaining; keep your utilitarian goal at arm’s length, let people have fun, and trust that where there’s joy there’s value.

I reckon I took all three approaches with SciCast, to varying extents. It’s deliberately silly and playful, and I spent much of the first year of the project on the road running workshops in schools, partly to kick the project off with the ‘right’ sorts of films but also to help judge what kind of support our contributors would need. We’ve done less of the latter than I’d like, but then, we’ve only ever run on a skeleton staff.

All this boils down to one thing: if you’re looking to run a resource site based on contributed content, it’s not about participation and the stuff people give you, it’s about the editorial approach and support you offer to them.

50 tips for writers

This is terrific: an eclectic mix of fifty ‘writing tools’ (PDF link). Written by Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute, as you’d expect it’s aimed at journalists. Much of the advice fits for other types of writing too, and where there are quirks or specifically-journalism-related tips, they’re either challenging or inspiring.

It’s hard to pick favourites from so many gems, but try:

40. Draft a mission statement for your work.
To sharpen your learning, write about your writing.

…self-reflection being a useful tool in many circumstances, but I also think this applies on a smaller scale. Even for ultra-short two-minute factual films, the scripts I write typically include a block of information pertinent to the shoot but not vocalised in the film. One of those elements is a summary — a ready answer to questions like “What is this film about?” and “Why are we telling this story?”.

It’s ridiculously easy to forget what it is you’re doing, or (worse?) aim for something, miss, and never notice.

Here’s another gem:

8. Establish a pattern, then give it a twist.
Build parallel constructions, but cut across the grain.

…which echoes the way the writing team on How2 used to challenge each other, and my absolute favourite:

37. In short pieces of writing, don’t waste a syllable.
Shape shorter works with wit and polish.

…because the explanatory line is simply delightful.

It’s tremendously challenging for some of the academics with whom we work to rediscover their voice as a writer. Research publishing labours under a smothering weight of received style, which must be thrown off to truly engage a reader; advice like this helps remind people that the third-person passive voice is not the only way of structuring a story.

(A tip of the hat to SciCast-alumnus-turned-New-Scientist journo Jamie Condliffe for the link to this. He got it from Richard Fisher, also of NS, who… etc.)

We’re all about the images

Bleached caboose detail

Testing uploads and all that. Besides, it’s about time there were some pretty pictures on this site.

I took this shot in glorious evening light in the ghost town of Rhyolite, between Beatty and Death Valley. One suspects the wood looked like this even when it was new and the paint was fresh.

We have a voice

It’s high time we started talking about what we’re doing, what we think, what inspires us, what frustrates us.

More. Here. Soon.


StoryCog is a communication consultancy and film production company; see more about us here, or explore the links above left. The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, though they're quite likely to represent the company's position too.


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