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Science communication – what I’ve learned

Since the inception of the Science and Biotechnology Learning Hubs in 2007, I have created the digital media and located images for our educators and content developers. I’ve interviewed hundreds of scientists, engineers and associated people up and down New Zealand to create thousands of video clips, interactives, animations and diagrams.

I might just have the best job in the world, and it’s about to get better, as I take over the Hubs’ social media channels from the talented Cath Battersby.

Developing digital media for the Hubs has been a great privilege – it’s also been an extraordinarily fun adventure. I have held endangered frogs and elderly eels, sped about waterways on small boats and tramped through snow, mud and estuarine bog. I’ve sourced a lion’s whisker and eaten ice-cream laced with fish oil.

I’ve never blanched at a request from our educators in their quest to teach science – I’ve filmed cows peeing, found images of mating earthworms and learned far too much about spawning mussels to ever be able to eat them again. My job has taught me that, no matter how obscure a topic, there will be a passionate person somewhere with information, pictures and footage!

It’s all very well four-wheel driving to exotic locales and getting inner glimpses of the back rooms and laboratories of some of our great research institutions, but what about the hard science? What have I learned, you ask?

Well I’ve learned that science is not scary, and that no science is too difficult to understand when you’re curious.

Science is not scary

As a film and media specialist, having only taken science to year 13 level, I approached my early interviews with some fear. I was worried that I would be confounded by the complexity of the research our scientists were involved in. My colleagues assured me that I was an important ‘translator’. If I could work with the experts to understand their work, then we could be assured a 14-year-old could too – a comment that calmed me somewhat and then caused all kinds of new neuroses when I reflected on it later.

I came to this project with an aversion to physics, and yet I can now say, hand on heart, that nuclear particle physics really does ring my bells – that any one could fail to be intrigued by the Large Hadron Collider saddens me deeply!

What I’ve learned is to fear nothing – that everything can be understood with curiosity and an enthusiastic expert. The passion, desire to communicate and a generosity of spirit of our showcased scientists, engineers and innovators is genuinely inspiring. There is no aspect to science – not even the most hard-core molecular biology – that would daunt me now.

Indeed, I have met the most toxic creature in New Zealand – one teaspoon of this critter (ingested or licked) could kill me – and yet I felt no fear. Who knew the grey side-gilled sea slug was kind of cute?

Science is weird – this is a good thing

Science isn’t scary, and it is bursting with weird wonder. I might be the last adult on Earth to learn that bees dance, but did you know that baby eels – elvers – can climb? Some of our ecologists are even creating ramps and other climbing structures for them! Or did you know that comets can sing (stay posted for our upcoming story on the Rosetta Mission), a cancer cell is immortal and robots can be emotional? And have you met New Zealand’s own bioluminescent earthworm? Let our Primary Science content developer Angela Schipper introduce you to Octochaetus multiporus.
 

The beauty of strange facts is that they grip us all, and we become compelled to ask questions. Why do bees dance? What’s the comet song all about? Isn’t space a vacuum with no sound? With one weird fact, we can each start our journey as a scientist.

Science and empathy

Science has also been a gateway to deepening my empathy and challenging my personal viewpoint.

Understanding diabetes was fundamental to our work on xenotransplantation research – Pig cell transplants – at Living Cell Technologies. An understanding of what diabetics deal with on a day-to-day basis will challenge one’s ethics in regards to xenotransplantation research. 

The Looking Closer story in our Fighting Infection collection looks at the story of David Vetter – the Boy in the Bubble.  I had the simple task to research images and clear permissions with David’s mother, and yet I couldn’t help but be haunted by the story from our writer and professional development guru Barb Ryan. David was born with severe immunodeficiency and spent his life in sterile plastic environments – never feeling the touch of human skin on skin. The article asks us to consider, “There is ongoing debate as to whether it was cruel to let David live as long as he did… What do you think about this science achievement?”

Scientific findings pose ethical dilemmas, and the Hubs have many resources to explore these important questions. Importantly, I’ve also learned from my work with the Hubs that it’s OK to say, “I am spiritually opposed to this particular scientific application.”

Science is creative

I came to the Hubs believing the popular myth that either one was creative or one was a scientist or engineer or mathematician (or accountant), but I’ve learned that no discipline that asks its practitioners and researchers to imagine and realise a better world is without creativity.

Prof Rod Dunbar says, “People’s images of science is often that of people in white coats going about very routine procedures over and over again in a boring way, but science actually is a creative endeavour. It begins with thought, it begins with imagination.” One cannot dream of firing a rocket into space from just off the North Island, mimic gecko features to design an innovative air filter or ask “How can we create a vehicle that can go at supersonic speeds?” without imagination. Science is about imagining and working towards the impossible. Science is also about dreaming impossible dreams and then going on the learning adventure in order to make it happen. As Nigel Latta says, “…the real adventurers are the scientists.”

Engagement

To help our children and young people to engage with science, we need to engage with our science community. For science to deliver and meet our needs now and into the future, as a general public – and as educators and students – we must communicate our needs, hopes and desires for our future. And we need our scientists, engineers and innovators to imagine the impossible and meet the big challenges head on – the changing climate, our ageing population, dwindling resources and a world on the edge of so many different ecological disasters.

Here is a very real opportunity for us as individuals and New Zealanders to influence and shape the research we are publicly funding.

I’m also really excited about continuing our engagement with educators, students and the science community as we work towards educating our kids about the exciting possibilities the world of science offers all of us – and how to make decisions about where and how that science is then used.

I am particularly looking forward to getting to better know our audience – those of you in the classrooms. I welcome discussion and questions – and if I don’t have the answer, I will have a contact that does! 

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Pond: www.pond.co.nz/community/214015/science-learning-hub external link

Useful links

A Nation of Curious Minds is a strategy to encourage and enable better engagement with science and technology across all sectors of New Zealand society.
www.curiousminds.nz external link

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