I’ve found science fascinating for a great many years, and one of the things I enjoy most in life is helping others to catch some of that fascination for themselves. It’s a big part of the reason why I became a teacher before I started my PhD, and I’m so glad that science communication and outreach opportunities have continued to appear since then – after all, research shows it’s good for you, and for others. In this post, I want to reflect on some of the outreach fun I’ve had in the last year, and maybe encourage you to have a go too!
It all started with the Fascination of Plants day in May 2017. Maca had helped run the event with great success in 2015, and she kindly put me in touch with Jonathan Mitchley and Alastair Culham from the School of Biological Sciences for the sequel. In the University’s Harris Garden we explored the theme of useful plants with brilliantly enthusiastic students from Oxford Road Community School. They made a video about what they’d learned for the global Botany Live project (watch it here) – check out Jonathan’s review of the day to get a fuller taste of the event!
A few months later I was invited to give a session to the school’s fantastic STEM club, the Oxford Road Space & Science Academy (ORSA). In that session we continued to think about what plants can do for us, looking at what plants the students would take to Mars for food, medicine or simple enjoyment. When I returned last week for a session about uncovering past environments, I was absolutely delighted to discover that some students had managed to get seeds they’d planted in the summer’s session to grow really well! Maja’s chilli seeds, for example, seem to be absolutely thriving – certainly doing much better than anything I’ve ever planted…
In last week’s session I introduced the students to the ‘fossil pollen time machines’ that we work with in the TPRG. We looked at hazel catkins with hand-lenses, and ended up making models of pollen grains with playdoh – as the photos below show, many the students managed to interpret the descriptions incredibly accurately!
Casting sediment records as ‘fossil pollen time machines’ is something I first did for the summer’s 3-Minute Thesis competition (3MT). The rules are simple enough: you have to explain your PhD research to an audience of non-specialists using three minutes, one static PowerPoint slide, and no props. I spent a while wrestling with how to describe palaeoecology in an accessible way (after all, cores come from apples and ‘vegetation reconstruction’ sounds like salad surgery), but eventually alighted on the ‘fossil pollen time machine’ idea and built my talk around it.
At the university 3MT final the subjects varied enormously, from musical Spartans to flood prediction and the biochemistry of disease, but in the end my talk was announced as the judges’ winner! It was then filmed and, along with 57 other winners of university competitions, entered into the Vitae national 3MT semi-finals. I didn’t quite get to the final but I did manage to make it into the top twelve – proof, perhaps, that there’s something about pollen, the past and the future that grabs people’s attention! If you’d like to hear my talk, the video is available on YouTube, and below:
If you don’t mind giving presentations and fancy a challenge, I really recommend giving the 3MT competition a go. If you do, there’s loads of good advice online: these two videos have the essentials, these two are examples of simply excellent talks, and this video has both! And if you can find videos (like this one) which show every talk in a competition you’ll soon work out what grabs and keeps your attention – go and do likewise!
For what it’s worth, my key points would be to incorporate narrative elements (characters, challenges to be overcome, a central theme to bind everything together); to lay out the relevance of your research (why should the listener care?); and, finally, to practise. Practise so you remember your lines, practise so you can ad lib if need be, practise so you know your timings, and practise on a friendly, honest non-specialist who can point out any obscure language that’s crept in.
There is, however, no practising for the last outreach event I did in 2017. It’s called I’m A Scientist: Get Me Out Of Here! and it’s probably the most enjoyable thing I’ve yet done in science. It’s as reality TV-like as it sounds – groups of scientists field questions from school students to win their votes and avoid getting evicted as the competition progresses. I wrote about my experience in the competition at greater length on the University’s Connecting Research blog in December, but suffice to say it was a brilliant, frenetic rollercoaster of a fortnight! And, after 330 questions and 7,233 lines of live chat from 415 students, it ended with me glued to a message board which – achingly slowly – revealed the outcome…
Winning the competition comes with a £500 prize to be spent on outreach activities, and I’m planning to use the money to scan and 3D-print pollen grains. They’d be an amazing tool for science communication – and quite possibly teaching, too – and I can’t wait to get underway. But I want to know: have you made 3D-printed pollen models before? If so I’d love to know your thoughts! And on the other hand, if you haven’t done this before but think it sounds fun then get in touch! I would love for this to be a resource that benefits people beyond our research group and the schools we visit, and maybe we can make that happen together.
As I end, I can’t recommend I’m A Scientist highly enough. From the wonderful team of moderators to the incredible, inquisitive students it was an absolute joy to take part in. Do you think you’d enjoy putting your mind to questions as varied as these? Then express your interest for March’s competition – there’s even going to be a climate-themed zone! From becoming someone’s bae to sparking a passion that could last a lifetime, you are certain to have an impact – and, as with all the opportunities in this blog, you’ll also have a whole load of fun!