Live chat with Science Communicator Emma Weitkamp

Thirty-three chats and still going strong! For this one we had the pleasure of speaking to Emma Weitkamp, Professor in Science Communication at UWE. She is both a researcher in science communication (currently working on science theatre) and a practitioner who has been experimenting with mixing science and comics, giving birth to the ScienceComics and CosmicComics projects. These were aimed at both teachers and children (mainly upper primary and lower secondary) with a view to provide some context around the curriculum.

So, have a read of this blog to find out more about the role that school and family have to play in encouraging (or not!) kids to engage with science, how to counteract stereotypes (often gender related) about science and kids, the difficulties of getting teachers interested in science in the first place and why science interest seems to drop in secondary school. Over to you, Emma!

Q: Do we know anything about why science interest drops off at secondary?
Emma: Partly. Primary school kids tend to mostly enjoy science, so with that group it is probably more about getting teachers interested. We find that interest in science drops off when the kids get into secondary school, so there it is about helping them see the relevance of science to their daily lives. With CosmicComics (which was mainly aimed at lower secondary school) we were exploring whether we could make astronomy and space science relevant to the pupils, to see whether we could keep their interest. While there is research on secondary pupils in terms of their interest in science, unpicking why is quite challenging; it seems that part of the issue is related to teaching, but family is also important. So it may be that the move to more formal science teaching can leave young people thinking that science is just a collection of facts to be learned, which many won’t find interesting. There is also evidence (with older secondary school pupils) that young people don’t really understand what a scientist is and does and what a career in science might mean, so that is also something that needs to be tackled. That seems to be one of the areas that I’m a Scientist tackles well, though I don’t know whether you have longer term data on this.

[note: I’m a Scientist is an online platform where students can meet scientists, interact with them and ask them all sorts of questions about their work. It is also the website which very kindly hosts our Nappy Science Gang chats!]

Q: You said family is also important, can you explain a bit more about that?
Emma: Young people have a number of influences on their behaviour and interest, such as friends, family, schools and many more. Family is the cornerstone though, and so parental attitudes can be important in shaping who you are, what is interesting and what you think you are capable of. Some of that is about exposure (e.g. visits to science museums) but it is also about what is valued in the family. Researchers at King’s College who worked on a program known as Aspire, defined the “science capital” as the ability of children to access science cultural activities (i.e. science outside of school), and found that this is strongly influenced by family background.

Q: So family influence isn’t just whether parents have science backgrounds or jobs, but what they value, their attitudes to science?
Emma: yes, it is about the family attitudes to science, not just how strong a background the family has. There are many people who don’t have science backgrounds or careers who are still very interested in science and these families pass this on. From a families perspective, parents can do a lot (both positive and negative) in terms of children’s’ interest in science. Providing opportunities (or not) to participate in science, in the home and elsewhere, but also through discussion and whether parents help with science homework and the messages they send when they do (or don’t help) – such as whether they find it interesting, difficult etc.

Q: Do you find that the level of engagement varies noticeably between areas? For example, is there a clear difference between a school where not many children go onto university compared to a school where lots of students come from a university going background?
Emma: In terms of school environment, my gut feeling is that yes, this is very important. However, I haven’t looked at the Aspires work that closely to see if they have researched your specific question. I’ve worked in some schools where there is low participation in University and science knowledge is probably a bit lower. However, there are still kids in these schools who are interested and some of these will look for science careers that don’t need university degrees, which is something we should not forget.

Q: How can we keep our children from being discouraged with science as they get older?
Emma: I think making science part of dinnertime conversation (or equivalent) helps. It normalises it, but it might still be boring if they have a dull teacher.
@Emma: I remember my Mum always saying “I was never very good at science at school” and it kind of gave me the excuse to be the same, she didn’t value it so it wasn’t pushed.
Emma: Yes, my mother always complained about her science teacher, but she also encouraged me to pursue science (amongst other things) so it’s probably important not to give them a ‘get out’ clause. I think it can be dangerous to push though (with teenagers). It’s a fine line.
@Emma: It also tells you it’s something hard, which some people just ‘don’t get’, rather than being something you could do if you really tried.
Emma: It’s never too late though.

Q: So what would you say you are aiming to achieve? You mention families passing on an interest in science, but earlier you mentioned choosing science careers. Are you trying to get kids interested in science (in a broad sense) or going into science careers, or something else?
Emma: For me, I’m most interesting in supporting people’s access to science (whether in school or out of school) so that they can participate in the scientific debates that go on and also make appropriate decisions related to science. From a schools perspective, I would say this is about helping children have a positive attitude to science (whether they choose to study it further or not). I think it is really important that people are able to engage with scientific information and make decisions that are appropriate for them.

Q: Can you tell us about how you evaluate your impact? We’re about to enter our evaluation phase, so we’d love to learn more about this.
Emma: Evaluating impact is really hard. It is pretty easy to get information about immediate impacts (whether the event was fun, did it get them to think about things etc) but it is very hard to do any longer term follow up. So for example, I ran a set of workshops with year 9/10 pupils in schools in a low participation in University area. We had before and after attitude questionnaires regarding genetic engineering (the topic of the workshop). These were designed to measure interest and knowledge before the workshops and again after the workshops. I found the most interesting result was that the workshops stimulated an interest in the role of science in society (which was what I had hoped but not what I expected). It’s more difficult with the theatre projects I’m working with because you can’t really ask people about their attitudes before the performance. So there we are asking them about what they think of theatre as a means of stimulating interest in science and also about things like how important the narrative is, the emotional engagement and the scientific accuracy. It looks (very preliminary results) like scientific accuracy is quite important to the audiences (which matches with what scientists want). We are using questionnaires and interviews for this work. I think the key thing with an evaluation is to identify initially what you think the impacts might be and then work from there to design the evaluation methodology.
@Emma: It’s hard though isn’t it, to show if that really makes a difference to future behaviour and interest in science and society issues? And realistically, how life-changing can we expect one workshop or event to be? 🙂 (I’m sure it’s a great workshop, but you know what I mean)
Emma: I think it is almost impossible. You can only do that through a longitudinal study (properly follow subjects through time, rather than just measure the intentions once) and most of the times all we can measure is what they say at the time we engage with them. I had wanted to do a follow-up with the participants after 6 or 9 months but I couldn’t get the schools to respond at that point and I couldn’t approach the students directly (didn’t have any means to do that but also tricky from an ethical perspective). Plus, how could you claim that a one off event (like a workshop) could possibly be an influence say 10 years down the road? Its impact, if anything, would be minuscule!

Q: Do you find that you need to tailor the activities based on gender after a certain age? Or that one gender becomes less interested at some age?
Emma: In terms of gender, I think there are some surprises, but I also think that some girls and some boys will be interested regardless. Magazines might be different to other kinds of activities, but the space comic was definitely more appealing to boys (and actually the comics projects generally were more appealing to boys, even in primary school). That has to do with the medium, though, not the content.

Q: How do you choose what level to pitch at for the group? Do you base it on age, science curriculum, or have you done lots of trial and error and learning of your own?
Emma: In terms of age, I think it is very important to get advice from teachers. It’s really easy to pitch too high or too low for the group. That can also be about whether you are working with a science club, where they are already interested and probably working above the curriculum level, versus going into a class where the teacher thinks pupils are not very engaged. So there is differentiation that is needed based on age and interest.

Q: Do you have to fight against kids that think or that are being socially forced to pretend science isn’t cool? Can you share any insights into this?
Emma: In terms of interest, I expect some kids are reluctant to participate for social reasons, but others don’t mind. In primary school, I didn’t really find this was an issue.
@Emma: I remember seeing an article by MC Shanahan which said that some of the things expected to promote girls’ interest in physics actually don’t, like talks from female physicists or ‘more group work’.
Emma: Oh yes, I agree that people don’t have a very sophisticated idea of what girls are interested in and how to appeal to them. WE are clearly more complex than boys… By the way, when it comes to schools based activities (where there isn’t really an option to opt out) then I don’t think you need (or probably ought) to appeal to a specific gender (even if it’s a girls school). That’s my personal opinion and not something I can back up, but I think there are too many times when this sort of approach backfires. It probably is different though, when it comes to informal opportunities (where you can opt out). But whether gender is the key differentiator here or not, I’m not sure. I suspect that other factors may be more important.
@Emma: Regarding informal opportunities, and maybe we come back to other people’s attitudes now? Like, grandma says, ‘Oh no, physics is for boys’ or whatever. Or people are more likely to buy a science kit for a boy for Christmas, etc.
Emma: Yes, I think these wider attitudes are quite problematic and must surely have a bearing. I don’t know any research around this (quite hard to think how you would do it), but it must have an impact. Also, I think there are plenty of parents out there who are scared of science themselves and these attitudes rub off on children.

Q: Could you point me at experiments for specific age groups? My son is 3 and I never know how simple to keep it.
Emma: There are some great books on kitchen science. I would go there for tips. With little kids, it’s about having fun and trying things out. Think of them as little experimenters and don’t focus on knowledge gain too much.

Q: So can you tell us how your comics fit into all of this, and your interest in using humour?
Emma: The comics project originally developed because I wanted to explore whether you could use a transcurriculum (literacy and science) approach to get kids interested in science. It didn’t really work as I conceived it though, because the kids were interested in science already. However, the teachers reported that the comics got children who were not interested in reading to participate in literacy activities (not sure if the science content was important here or not). We designed experiments for the teachers to use with the comics, to develop the science aspect. In retrospect, I think this was a bit too much for teachers, who I suspect don’t like having messy classrooms. Also, connecting the two elements together worked fine if I was delivering a workshop, but only appealed to some teachers.
@Emma: That almost makes it sound as if things that appeal to the kids may not be the things that appeal to the teachers, sometimes?
Emma: I had some good feedback from teachers, but a select few who liked the idea. The children clearly enjoyed reading the comics and did seem to understand the messages I intended. But, yes, not sure it appealed to teachers in the same way. This is a challenge of working in the formal sector though – you’ve got a gatekeeper. I think the humour worked well for the children. They would laugh when reading the comics and they found the visual humour engaging. So I think it could work. But I’m not a publisher so it has become difficult to see how the project could be developed further. If I just put them on the internet, who would find them (that sort of problem). I also think humour works for adults (obviously different), but you have to think again about the objectives of the study. We created some cartoons about drought that I’m about to test. All we are aiming for though is ‘stop and think’ not any substantial learning. There isn’t enough information contained in them.
@Emma: Was there a difference between the primary and secondary kids in their responses? And in the primary and secondary teachers?
Emma: The secondary school project was approached a little differently, in that we were using the comics as only part of the project. The project didn’t have that much funding and so the comics were quite short. Then there was other media content surrounding them and an “ask an astronomer” aspect. The latter was probably the least well used aspect (which was disappointing). Also, the secondary school comics were more about visual narrative than humour, so I don’t think I can really address the question properly.
@Emma: Humour can make things more memorable, and also more shareable I guess?
Emma: I think humour can act as a stop and think, but usually it is not providing very much depth, so it is hard to get much knowledge change. In terms of shareability, Twitter seems to like humour so it does have potential for message spread (if the message is simple). One of the things about cartoons and comics is that you can illustrate things visually as well as in writing. I think that is one of the strengths of the approach that is underrecognised. There are some interesting science comics for adults appearing now, so there seems to be a growing appreciation of the medium (which has generally been looked down on in the more high brow circles).

Q: Do you think that’s important because it’s more accessible (e.g. to people who are visual rather than verbal thinkers) or because a picture can communicate things words can’t?
Emma: I think pictures can show you possibilities in ways that words can’t. They can be more concrete. So I think they are valuable for people who are and who are not visual thinkers. So, yes they can say more than words, but also things words can’t easily say.

Q: What is it that catches children and what subsequently keeps them interested? More the exciting experiments or more the critical thinking?
Emma: Probably depends on the child and the child’s age. For young children, I think it is the experimenting. For older children, it is a mix depending on the child. Young children also get caught by narratives and stories. I think that is important in keeping attention too. It draws you in. I guess when we think about maintaining interest in the longer term, then the critical thinking becomes more important.

Q: Do you think there is enough around to engage children before secondary age? it seems that there’s more as they get older, but if they’re already switched off by secondary school, is it then too late to get them interested again?
Emma: Most are probably not switched off by secondary school (or sadly if they are, they are switched off school rather than science per se). The current national curriculum does not emphasise science much for primary school children, so I think they don’t have a chance to be put off in truth. There is also quite a lot of evidence that teachers (primary) are not that interested in science so this probably further limits access. But there are options for primary schools to have scientists and science expos visit their schools. There is stuff out there as it were, but the teachers don’t necessarily ask for it. There is also lots for parents in informal sectors for younger children (but again, that is only accessed by some parents).

Q: What do you think we could do about that? Are there ways we could support primary teachers better with science?
Emma: Teachers react most to a push from government. So, to change primary school science requires an emphasis on science in the curriculum. But teachers also have a lot on their plates, so telling them to do more is not likely to be popular! By the way, my personal teacher bug bear is that my daughter’s school is going to Cadbury’s world as the ‘SCIENCE’ trip this year!

Q: If you had one piece of advice to a mother raising a girl as to how to get and keep them interested in science, what would it be?
Emma: let her experiment, encourage her to play (in the kitchen, with Lego, whatever catches her fancy) and take her to places where she can participate in live science activities (like the Cheltenham science festival – when she’s old enough). Also be positive about science and finding science role models for her.

Q: What questions can we ask ourselves every day to think about things scientifically, rather than fearfully? Because I think that will naturally play out with our children.
Emma: I would say read (watch, listen) to media critically. Interrogate the claims in reports and challenge them. Then do some online research to find answers if appropriate.

Q: When we’re inclined to react to a report in the news about nutrition, or about medicine, or about the presence of life on a planet, what should we be asking ourselves? Because I reckon if we get into the habit of doing that, it will probably naturally flow into the conversations we have with our kids.
Emma: Yes, reacting to news, I think it is being critical and not just taking it at face value. Challenge (to the best of our abilities) the statistics that are reported. Think about what the impact really means. There is a lot of hype in the media.

Q: If you could wave a magic wand and do anything in science communication (either research, or a science communication project), what would it be?
Emma: Argh. That’s tough. On the one hand, I would like to see science just a normal part of society (not special), you know like history. Something anyone can do and participate in. On the other, there are some really big research questions out there in terms of what influences people to engage with/participate in science and what sustains children’s interests. Probably, I’d have to go with the first though, as that would mean Science Communication had done its job (in my view) and put science firmly in the public sphere. I’m not sure I’ve got a magic wand to do that (teachers are also important here). All you can do is give them opportunities to engage with science and then to highlight (but not too obviously with teenagers) why science is important. They may still get discouraged though.

@Emma: Thank you so much for your time Emma, this has been really interesting.
Emma: It’s been a pleasure. Feel free to contact me if you have more questions!

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