How can we get more young people interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)? Wendy Sadler is director of a social enterprise that puts on events to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. Here she explains the goals and challenges of working in science communication.
Wendy spoke at last week’s 2014 Science Communication Conference in a session presented by the British Council.
What are the goals of science communication as you see them?
Everyone, regardless of background or previous interests, should have the chance to experience the wonder and excitement of science and engineering. There are many reasons why someone may not have loved science before — a bad school experience, a lack of ability in maths, parental influence, self-doubt — but whatever it is, as a science communicator, I want people to see that science is relevant and fascinating and can be done by anyone with fairly cheap and simple equipment. I want people to become emotionally affected in some way — excited, surprised, amused, or amazed — or better still, intrigued enough to go and find out more for themselves after the event.
How effectively does science communication stimulate interest in STEM studies and careers?
It depends on how you define ‘science communication’. I’d argue that teaching, TV programmes and informal science learning are all ‘science communication’ and all hugely influential on how young people view a career in STEM. Much of the educational research suggests that there is a thing called ‘science capital’, which is a measure of how much you are surrounded by people who do science, or talk about science first-hand. Parental influence on career choice is bigger than most people would expect, and chance meetings with passionate people at just the right time in a young person’s life can be pivotal.
There is a growing pool of evidence from science communication initiatives that external visitors to schools with the right technical and emotional skills can make a difference. Sometimes the only person a student will have met, who they consider to be a scientist, is their science teacher. If they don’t find them inspiring, then the only chance they might have to encounter a scientist is at a science communication event.
What are the challenges of sustaining a business in science communication?
Nobody seems to agree on who should pay for it. Some people do it in an unprofessional way for free, which can give science communication a bad name. It can also make those organisations who have to charge a fee look expensive. It’s frustrating that many people still don’t see science communication as a profession. I believe it isn’t valued as much as it should be, despite the fact that keeping 150 teenagers engaged with a 50-minute science presentation is one of the most challenging tasks there is!
Those who fund science communication initiatives measure success based on how many students go on to study science, but I like to think it is just as important for all of society to have a better idea of how science works. However, the funding for that kind of general public engagement is often harder to find. It is difficult to maintain a small enterprise that’s bigger than just one person, but not big enough to have support and infrastructure behind it — like universities and museums do.
What qualifies someone to be a science communicator?
You’ve got to be passionate about engaging people. At every moment you need to be thinking on your feet, watching the faces of the audience and improvising your delivery on the spot to adapt as closely as possible to the unique situation that every audience provides.
I think there is a kind of pecking order as far as the media are concerned in that they almost require you to have a PhD (or better still have a Prof. title) before they will consider you as TV material — and this attitude can be present in universities and learned societies too.
I think a basic and broad level of science knowledge is pretty essential, but more important is the ability to think hard about different ways to explain things and keep an audience engaged. It’s important to admit when you don’t know an answer, and even the best specialists don’t know all the answers — an important message in science. You can have the best brains in the world, but once those 150 teenagers have decided they haven’t got a clue what you’re saying, they won’t get any inspiration from your brains at all!