Building new worlds for exploration: designing online exhibits during COVID-19

Written by Dr Debbie Devis

I never thought I would be chatting about psychology and loneliness whilst running from a zombie, but COVID-19 has surprised me in unexpected ways. When the pandemic hit, we all had to adjust. For us at MOD. at UniSA, that meant we had to close galleries and set up an online exhibition called LIFE INTERRUPTED. It was important to maintain live, interactive escapes from the isolation of staying at home and so two of my pet projects were born. These projects were MOD.Craft, a public, moderated Minecraft server, and MUSEUM.shift, a tabletop role playing game (RPG) written by myself and another moderator, Josh Vanner. Both of these interactive exhibits were designed to subtly introduce science concepts to young adults, whilst also providing a safe online space to continue interaction with  MOD. and others.

 

MOD.craft was broken into two exhibits; BIOPHILIA focused on whether nature needs to be real to gain the benefits of being outside, and in LIFE AFTER we explored whether we would choose to work together or alone after a major disaster. The greatest lesson I learned during this was the importance of community. We built up a group of regular visitors who invited friends and who were looking for company, but this led to most of the science discussions we ended up having. The regularity of moderators doing silly things like taming llamas and fiercely protecting villagers broke down some of the scary walls of “silly questions”, so our conversations became predominantly community lead as people started to ask us questions unrelated to our exhibit themes. The topics covered ranged from “What is unfalsifiability?” to “ How could we reverse gravity?”.

Image of an island created in Minecraft

An Island Retreat – by MODzilla for MODcraft BIOPHILIA

It is difficult to say whether this ease of comfort was driven by Minecraft or the fantastic facilitation from moderators, but minecraft provided such an easy medium to build those relationships. We built houses based on our own artistic styles and backgrounds, so visitors were able to identify which people were experts in which fields and direct targeted questions they had burning in their minds. This exploded when we set up a Discord server to allow people to talk to us in game when they weren’t playing, because people regularly came to chat, even if they couldn’t play. Overall, this made me realise the importance and power of online communities for breaking down barriers between demographics. Demonstrating  that we are all just humans with all our own skills and fallibilities is what made our visitors respond so well to us and the idea of chatting science.

Visitors wrote books in Minecraft about their experience in LIFE AFTER

Visitors wrote books in Minecraft about their experience in LIFE AFTER

MUSEUM.shift was a completely different experience, and was a game designed for people to take home and play with friends. This is a roleplaying game where players pretend to be a museum worker in a fantasy museum. A single player is the “game master” and tells an open ended, choose your own adventure story that players participate in. For example, the game master might say “As you are straigenting the tapestry, you hear a bleating as a sheep pushes its way out! What would you like to do?”. Each game was completely different depending on the decisions players made and ranged anywhere from strict logical progressions to complete absurdity. These were small games of 2-5 players, so it didn’t not have the same community strength as MOD.craft, but it did allow a lot more moderator lead science.

MUSEUM.shift games don’t require any specific knowledge background, but Josh (our resident RPG expert) and I would prepare as much as we could to put accurate history, science and art principles into each game. If a player asked to search the reference library for details on wormholes, this provided us an opportunity to give them accurate information. On another occasion a player wanted to melt a slime monster, so we were able to make up a machine based on thermal resonance.  The hardest part of this for us was how unpredictable each game is, but the opportunity to add a bit of science into the game became evident as soon as we started playtesting the game.

Museum Shift Map

Map of the fantasy museum in MUSEUM.shift. Players use this to fuel their imagination.

Both exhibits challenged my idea of how I communicate science. I often feel like I am not doing enough unless the science is explicit in what I am saying, but the breadth of science discussions we had in both exhibits made me reevaluate that notion and see the benefit of “unexpected science content”. I still got killed by a lot of skeletons, but at least it means somebody asked me about why plants don’t need bones.

 

 

Silos or ecosystems? Reflections on ASC2018

Lizzie Crouch, David Robertson and Djuke Veldhuis of Monash University attended the 10th annual Australian Science Communicators conference (ASC2018) in Sydney in November 2018. Here, they jointly reflect on the conversations they had and sessions they attended.

None of us knew what to expect when attending the ASC2018. Having spent a large part of our recent working life in Europe, we were not overly familiar with the landscape of the science communication sector in Australia.

ASC2018 was an opportunity to find out more about the wider science communication community and to raise conversations about topics at the centre of our practice, including designing engaging events, art-science collaborations and institutional recognition of impact and engagement.

As well as meeting some wonderful people, from conversations, debates and workshops we identified recurring themes that provoked our thinking. We have captured these below and welcome feedback and your perspectives.

Silos or ecosystems?

There are many domains of science communication in Australia, and there seemed to be a degree of ‘silo’ mentality between them – school outreach; science edu-tainment for adults; strategic and political science communication; journalism and popular science writing; PR and research translation, and more. This phenomenon is not unique to Australia. Given that people have specific jobs and all have to specialise to some degree, you might ask, ‘Why is this a concern?

Our observation is that this ‘silo mentality’ impedes collaboration and information sharing across sectors. People have had to work hard to build up their programs, prove what they are doing is valid and fight to get access to limited funds. It is therefore understandable why it can be tempting to hold on tightly to content, or critique activities of others based on one’s own objectives and approaches. But this leads to ‘competition’ and will ultimately prevent our practice developing as fast and efficiently as it could. Some silos are already starting to crumble – for example, the idea that researchers themselves are incapable of communicating about their field – but how to take down further barriers? How do we grow the field overall so there’s more resources to share around, rather than divide up and protect what little there is now?

Can we identify strategies for addressing this through lessons learned from other sectors and countries? And how do we identify factors and infrastructure that are unique to Australian science communication ‘silos’?

Communication or engagement?

The landscape of science communication and public engagement (PE) has changed dramatically in the last decade; many people now speak of public engagement rather than communication, reflecting a movement from deficit model to dialogue/engagement activities (although evaluation has shown that although the term ‘engagement’ is used, often the activities prioritise one-way delivery of information).

After working for almost a decade in the UK, and living this change, it was interesting to hear so many at ASC2018 speak only of science communication rather than engagement. But does this mean that engagement activities are not being done? Or is communication just a convenient label for a swathe of diverse activities? Many conversations made us think yes; others no. There was certainly substantial debate about whether we’re stuck in deficit model activities, and the usefulness of such definitions. Examples from other disciplines, such as ‘designerly’ approaches, offered the opportunity for new directions and collaborations.

One possibility is that, due to lack of interaction and a ‘competition for recognition’ between science communication ‘practice silos’, we are not listening to each other and appreciating the role for diverse types of activity/practice. Thinking of the sector as an ‘ecosystem of engagement’ could be helpful; like a biological ecosystem, each part of the complex web has a role and value, and while boundaries exist, these are places of active exchange and cross-pollination, rather than walls.

What’s our value?

As hinted at above, part of the struggle of science communication, whatever our practice, is to prove the value we create. Almost everyone seemed to be grappling with the same question: ‘How do I show that what I do has any impact on those I engage?’

As we move into an ecosystem of engagement, rather than deficit-model communication, it should be easier to justify the work we do. Evaluation frameworks which capture stakeholder insight and action as well as the usual demographics will be able to capture the rich value of our work; the inspiration, the behaviour change, as well as the knowledge learnt.

It was suggested during a number of sessions during the conference that a unified approach to impact-evaluation could allow us to share expertise and provide a national framework that would allow us to properly analyse the impact of our sector.

At the moment this type of impact is little recognised by formal reporting systems, such as the Engagement and Impact assessment (a companion activity to the Excellence in Research Australia). Could the creation of a national evaluation framework could allow better recognition of the societal and cultural impact of our work, enabling greater participation and funding?

The framework could draw on a number of existing sources such as Science Capital (a research project that seeks to ‘understanding patterns in science participation’ in the UK) and frameworks developed by cultural organisations around Australia. It will require a working group to speak on behalf of a diverse group of science communicators as well as state and federal organizations. It will be tricky to find a framework that works for all, but what could it look like?

Continuing conversations

We all appreciated the insights, contributions, conversations and efforts of our fellow science communicators at ASC2018 – as well as the organisers (especially Kali for tireless help!) and hosts at the wonderful Powerhouse. The questions above are not ones we can answer or resolve alone – we’d love to hear your thoughts, in the comments here, or in public forums such as Twitter.

Science communication stars at the Eurekas

Thank you to Bianca Nogrady for this article.

It’s fitting that, at the so-called Oscars of Australian science, your entrée is described as a ‘gastronomical geode’ that must be excavated from a box of edible dirt.

The Eureka Awards

Eureka winner Renae Sayers

As amusing as that was, it was but a minor moment in a night that delivered plenty of rousing cheers for the science communication community. The highlight was ASC’s very own Renae Sayers, whose Fireballs In The Sky citizen science project rightly earned her and colleagues at Curtin University the inaugural Department of Industry, Innovation and Science Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science. In true science communicator fashion, Renae delivered the most passionate and entertaining thank you speech of the evening.

Another highlight was, as always, the Eureka prize for science journalism, which was won this year by Wain Fimeri, Sonya Pemberton, Dr Derek Muller and Steve Westh for their documentary Uranium – Twisting the Dragon’s Tail. Sonya Pemberton took the opportunity on stage to call for greater support of science journalism and science communication in Australia, although she was nearly drowned out by the infernal music designed to usher excessive talkers from the stage.

The fabulous astrophysicist Dr Lisa Harvey-Smith from CSIRO took home the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding of Australian Science Research. She also earned the greatest number of celebratory tweets, which is equal testament to her popularity and reach.

And the winners and runners-up of the two University of Sydney Sleek Geeks Science Eureka Prize showed that the future of science communication is in capable hands. Hayden Ingle from Banksmeadow Public School channelled David Attenborough in his documentary on The Bluebottle and the Glaucus, which took the primary school prize. Claire Galvin and Anna Hardy from St Monica’s College Cairns, undertook a painstaking reconstruction of the animal skeletons extracted from owl pellets to explore their significance in conservation and ecological studies, in Owl Pellets: A Postal System to Scientists.

It was a night to remember, and not just for the eye-watering pink-and-purple colour scheme of the Town Hall lighting, or the smoked potato masquerading as a dragon’s egg in the edible dirt.

The science communication community was out in force and in finery, filling the room with familiar faces and strong voices. The pomp and ceremony, and several speakers, also sent a clear message that Australian science are alive and kicking, despite best political efforts to the contrary.

All the 2016 Eureka Prize winners are listed here.

Image credit: Australian Museum Eureka Prize

ASC reflection: Deceptology

ASC member Sarah Turnbull won free tickets to Nicholas J Johnson’s show (also an ASC Member), Deceptology, as part of the Melbourne Magic Festival in July. She wrote up this reflection of attending:

When Nicholas J Johnson opened his act by making his head expand and then shrink, I found myself giggling with delight.

Deceptology, which was part of the Melbourne Magic Festival, is a mix of magic, critical thinking, comedy and theatre. As the “honest conman”, Johnson uses sleight of hand and mentalism to wow the audience, then educates us about confirmation bias, misdirection, hypothetical projection and how our brains can be fooled.

His skilful interaction with the many volunteers he pulled up on stage was funny without being embarrassing. A rare trick.

The show ended with a change of pace – a shadow-play that stood on its own as a tiny work of art. And if you want to know how Nicholas managed to project it into an audience member’s head, you’ll have to see the show for yourself.

Thanks to Nicholas and the ASC for a fun night out in Northcote.

New global science of learning website launches

International publishing group Nature Research has launched a global online community dedicated to improving knowledge on the science of learning, in partnership with The University of Queensland.

The npj Science of Learning Community website is a space for communicators, teachers, policymakers and scientists working in neuroscience, education and psychology to discuss how to enhance learning in schools.

The website’s launch content includes:

  • An opinion piece from leading education researcher Professor John Hattie
  • Interviews with education thought-leaders and policymakers including Microsoft Corporation Teaching and Learning director Dr Cathy Cavanaugh, Google Australia Engineering Community and Outreach manager Sally-Ann Williams, and social commentator and writer Jane Caro
  • An article by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Dr David Dockterman

The site is a place to discover and share information and news, learn from experts, and collaborate to advance the science of learning. You can explore and share content, follow your favourite contributors, and make your own contributions to the Community.

The website is live now and free to join.

Contact: Donna Lu, npj Science of Learning Community managing editor, d.lu@uq.edu.au, +61 7 3346 6419.

And that’s a wrap! Here’s a story from our day at the beach #scistoryASC

Thanks to Sarah Keenihan for this post

Science is renowned for being factual, emotionless and objective.

So how on earth can we convince non-scientists that it’s also beautiful, revealing and intimately connected with life?

By creating stories.

On Friday June 3, ASC South Australia was delighted to host the event Storytelling in Science Communication: a day at the beach.

With a full house in attendance, we explored the role of storytelling in science communication, and considered the importance of culture, character, structure, mood, narrative, emotion, vulnerability, voice, crisis and resolution in attracting and enthralling audiences as we write, draw, talk and perform science.

We also discussed how digital tools can be used to support storytelling in science communication, including the creation of well-structured written content, the use of bespoke and meaningful images, putting audience at the forefront of communication design and thinking, the importance of multi-faceted production (audio, visual and textual content) and using social media effectively to attract and sustain audience interest.

A number of links and tools were mentioned throughout the day: here is a reference list to remind attendees and share ideas with others who weren’t able to be there.

Other useful links:

A very big thanks to all our attendees for this event. It was great fun to put together and we hope you found it useful and inspiring!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who needs science journalists anyway?

Thank you to Bianca Nogrady for this piece!

According to this report from Undark magazine, the National Association of Science Writers in the US is experiencing an all-too-familiar existential crisis; who exactly are they?

Unlike the ASC – which accepts executive and council members from across the broad church that is science communication and science journalism – positions on NASW’s board are limited to professional journalists.

But that looks set to change with the recommendation from an ad-hoc committee that the executive be opened up to science writers and ‘public information officers’ (who we call science communicators).

Many science journalists within NASW appear to oppose the move, while the majority of science communicators and PIOs are in favour.

This tension exists within the ASC as well. The organisation was founded by a mixed group of science journalists and science communication professionals, and we share a common passion for the communication of, and about, science.

But, as has been discussed a lot lately [see this video of last year’s ASC NSW event on this very topic] , science journalists and science communicators are different creatures, with different and sometimes competing agendas. If we try to play down these differences or pretend they don’t exist, we risk making the ASC irrelevant to one or another of those groups.

There’s no doubt science journalism is on the back foot in Australia, if not the world. We have very few dedicated science reporters in the mainstream media and most of the science journalism is being done by freelance journalists who also derive income as science writers and communicators. It’s worth pointing out that not many of these in-house or freelance journalists are ASC members; something we’re working to change. Cosmos magazine is fighting the good fight to keep long-form science journalism alive in print, but as we heard at the recent ASC conference in Brisbane, it’s a tough battle.

So why should the majority of ASC members, who define themselves as science communicators, care about the fate of science journalists, either within the ASC or outside it?

Because now, more than ever, we need to support, encourage and nurture science journalism in Australia. Who else would be in a position to uncover our own government’s censorship of international reports on the state of the Great Barrier Reef [http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/29/australia-covered-up-un-climate-change-fears-for-tasmania-forests-and-kakadu], report on scientific fraud, or get the general public caring about gravitational waves? Science journalists bring science – warts and all – to the general public.

The rift within the NASW is raising the prospect that science journalists will desert that body en masse and form their own organisation. The fact that they have the numbers to even contemplate this is probably only a factor of the sheer population size of the US. In Australia, such an organisation would be dwarfed by the Flat Earth Society or Trump Supporters For Climate Change.

Some might argue that journalists have the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance –the union and peak body for journalists  – so why don’t science journalists stick with that?

Speaking personally; I’d say because it’s boring. At ASC meetings, and get-togethers with fellow science journos/writers/communicators, I have the kind of conversations that leave my brain buzzing for days. As a science journalist, I have so much more in common with someone who works as a PIO for a research organisation than I do with a journalist who works in-house for a metropolitan daily covering the court round.

Science journalists, like science communicators, do what they do because they are drawn to science. Whether they see themselves as a cheer squad, critic or impartial witness, it’s about science.

The Australian Science Communicators was named as such to make it as inclusive as possible. I hope we can keep it that way.


More from Bianca (Freelance science journalist and author):

 

Storytelling in science communication (#scistoryASC): June 3 2016 at Marine Discovery Centre, South Australia

Storytelling can transform dry, technical information into compelling and relatable content that everyone wants to read, watch, listen to and share.

So how can we harness storytelling techniques to improve science communication?

The SA Chapter of Australian Science Communicators is hosting a one-day mini-conference for those interested in learning more about storytelling.

Participants, we’d love you to capture and share the day though social media! Others across South Australia, Australia and the world will be interested to hear your reflections and experiences of this event. Using the hashtag #scistoryASC, you may choose to share via Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, blogging, SnapChat or other media as a way to summarize, highlight, excerpt, review and critique the presented materials.

Of course normal good manners and conference etiquette apply: please ensure the author or speaker is referenced and cited appropriately, do not share material in full and please do not audio- or video-record presentations.

PROGRAM

9.00am: Coffee/tea and mingling

9.30am: Welcome and introduction
Rona Sakko
President of ASC SA
Coordinator of Bright Sparks Science Club

Professor Chris Daniels
Award Winning Science Communicator
Biologist at UniSA
Marine Discovery Centre Patron  

9.40am: Opening address
Dr Kristin Alford @kristinalford
Director of UniSA’s Science, Creativity and Education Studio (SciCEd)
Futurist and Founding Director at Bridge8

10.15am: Where is the storytelling? Critical analysis of communication case studies
Chair: Sarah Keenihan (Freelance Science Writer) @sciencesarah
Panel members:
Katrina McLachlan, Director and Senior Journalist, Stories Well Told @storiesWT
Joost Den Hartog, Channel Manager, RiAus TV @RiAus 
Dr Tullio Rossi, Animator and Illustrator @Tullio_Rossi

11:15am: Morning tea

11.45am: Wonggayerlo – Footsteps in the Sand
Karl Telfer (Kaurna leader and cultural bearerMarine Discovery Centre Patron@winda8) and Michael Mills (Heaps Good Productions, @Heapsgood) present a story about ways of understanding our relationship to the natural world. A performance piece exploring where science meets culture.

12.30pm: Beach walk
Experience real-time science communication from different points of view amongst the sands.

1.15pm: Lunch 

2pm: What is a story?
David Chapple is Writing Development Manager at the SA Writers Centre (@sawriterscentre). In this workshop David will take you through a hands on exploration of how the narrative techniques of fiction can make non fiction writing sing. Participants will play with ideas of character, setting, story structure, metaphor and descriptive writing to tell the story of their practice in more engaging and dynamic ways. Workshop includes 2 hours of practical exercises and literary tricks. Bring your favoured writing device!

4pm: Drinks and networking

President’s Update

Thank you to Joan Leach for the President update.

Can it be prize season again?
As much as it terrifies me that another year has come round, I’ve spent some time over the last week looking at nominations for some of the national prizes — the Eurekas, FameLab — to just name two. It’s pretty inspiring what is happening in Australia — I’m genuinely keen to hear who is going to win the inaugural prize for innovation in Citizen Science. The bar is getting higher and the communicators associated with the projects that I’ve seen have been doing a stellar job, and one that should be rewarded (as well as awarded).

Glass ceiling for science communicators?
The point about rewarding science communication was put to me rather pointedly this last week when a colleague mused that he thought there was a ‘glass ceiling’ for science communicators’ remuneration. Once you get to a certain level, you really can’t go further and need to branch out (into consulting for example) or re-orient your work (into science policy, say). This is as discouraging as the award season is encouraging. I’m interested in how this looks internationally and will have a look around and find out if anyone has any data on this — if you are aware of any, let me know! (president@asc.asn.au) I hope to report back in next month’s SCOPE.

President’s update

Thank you to Joan Leach for the update.

Still taking the conference in…

I’ve attended a lot of conferences over the years and fashions in conferencing certainly change—there is a ‘pre-conference’ mania, the 4 day multi-streamed headspin, the International plenary shock-and-awe—and this year the ASC went for a one-day plenary with wide but high-quality programming, association with the World Festival of Science, and opportunities for networking. I haven’t had that much fun and been so engaged in a conference in a fair while.

I am still sitting with a copy of David Throsby’s “Economics and Culture”—in a great session curated by Lisa Bailey at RiAus, Professor Throsby and colleagues, Professor Julian Meyrick and Dr Tully Barnett—really put the question to science communicators about how much our industry is worth and how best to express that (hint:  not in dollars).  This question of the value of science communication and value in science communication is just so important.  I’m reminded of Dr Melanie McKenzie who said to me, “and who decides what value science communication has, anyway?” Indeed. I’m sorry she isn’t alive to help me in my reflections on that conference session, but for me, it was a turning point for the field. WE need to articulate our value—in a narrative—and not be bullied by dollar signs.

I’m also really appreciative of the session Heather Catchpole curated with the best of new modes for doing science communication—in video, through art, in journalism, with obvious passion.

You can read our Chief Scientists opening speech here, but what you can’t read is the obvious affiliation he has with science communication. Sometimes we need to recognize when we have an advocate who ‘gets it’. Our current Chief Scientist ‘gets’ science communication.

What next?

We’d like to come off this high of this conference with a plan for the next.  So, if your organisation would like to make a day-plenary conference happen again, let us know. We’re looking for bidders for the next ASC conference.  Multi-streamed, shock-and-awe, plenary…pitch us!