Communicating science with mobile applications

The advanced connectivity and computing power of Smartphones opens up new possibilities for science communication, and an increasing number of institutions are experimenting with this great potential. That’s the topic of the thesis I published as part of my Masters of Science Communication, in which I look at the potential benefits and limitations of science-related mobile applications. This excerpt summarises the main ideas, and I hope it can be beneficial to some out there.

Use of a mobile app at the Natural History Museum, London. Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Use of a mobile app at the Natural History Museum, London. Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Great potential yet to be explored

For science communication professionals who are continuously exploring new strategies for communicating with current and potential audiences, mobile applications open up the possibility for reaching new audiences through a personal device they have chosen and are familiar with. In the case of science museums and science centres, mobile apps also enable the institutions to reach those audiences not only during the museum visit, but before and after also.

“This ability to reach users in conditions and in an environment of their choice opens up new possibilities for the communication of cultural content for life-long learning and edutainment, in addition to the potential for cultural marketing. Additionally, the fact that these users are connected in a wide network offers possibilities not only for one-to-one communication between the cultural organization and the user, but also for social networking and creating communities of users interested in cultural content, incorporating Web 2.0 capabilities.”

(Economou and Meintani, 2011)

Furthermore, in the past few decades we have been observing a paradigm shift in museum learning which is based on an explorative hands-on approach and focuses on the users’ needs rather than the curators’ key message. While traditional museums put visitors into a passive and ‘guest’ position, this new paradigm is about participation and interactivity and puts the users into an active role (Kahr-Højland in Katz, LaBar and Lynch, 2011).

Use of QR codes in Museum. Image in Public Domain

Use of QR codes in Museum. Image in Public Domain

With their advanced computing abilities and connectivity, smartphones are regarded as the key vehicle for customizing and enhancing visitor experience and seem to fit perfectly into this new learning paradigm. However, in reality, museum mobile applications are not as numerous as we may think, and the few that exist do not seem to significantly enhance the museum visit experience (Valtysson, and Ling in Holdgaard Katz, LaBar and Lynch, 2011). The majority of museums apps developed so far have the form of enriched audio-guided tours (with images, video, and sometimes additional texts), and few of them actually support social interaction and participation.

Facilitate accessibility, encourage dialogue

But edutainment mobile applications are not limited to museums, and science-related apps actually abound. A quick search on iTunes with the keyword “science” gives more than 2,000 results. In my thesis I look at a sample of mobile applications created by science museums, science centres, and research institutes, and analyse the means they used to convey science-related content.

A mobile app for plant care.

A mobile app for plant care. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

It appears that a good way to embrace this new learning paradigm, and retract from the passive one-way information delivery from institution to user, is to enable the user to contribute to the content (e.g. upload photos), ask questions, provide feedback, and share on social networks. Smartphones are connected devices, so let’s use that feature!

To convey science-related content to a large and diverse audience through a mobile app, there are a few things to keep in mind, such as: don’t forget to offer different levels of reading (e.g. with “in-depth” or “further info” options available), make the content available on different platforms (e.g. develop the app on different OS, upload content on website as well), use a level of language adapted to the audience (avoid jargon and keep technical language to a minimum, in a manner that it is not misleading, but that your audience can understand quickly and easily), increase usability (e.g. provide captions for videos, title the back arrows with the previous page’s name, have an option to change contrast and text size), and it’s a smartphone app so use the smartphones features (e.g. camera, microphone, GPS, connectivity, gyroscope…).

A mobile app is the device, not the message

Smartphones do offer a broad range of possibilities to science communicators and can be fantastic devices to communicate science to different audiences, and some apps are truly brilliant. However a mobile app may not be the most adapted tool for everyone’s communication.

Clean Energy Future: Using market research to inform strategy (ACT event)

27 June 2012
6:00 pmto8:00 pm

Join the Australian Science Communicators Canberra Branch and CSIRO Discovery for a session with Trish Johnston from the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency.

Trish was part of the team that carried out extensive market research to inform the communication and advertising strategy around climate change and the Clean Energy Future campaigns. Hear about what her team did, how the research informed the communication strategy, how things have played out, and the communication challenges and opportunities ahead.

This event is for communicators wanting to know what it’s like to be working with one of the most complicated and politically-charged topics of our time.

Date: Wednesday 27 June.
Time: 6pm for a 6:30 start (will finish about 7:30pm).
Venue: CSIRO Discovery, Black Mountain (map and parking directions here).
Catering: Nibbles and drinks provided.
Cost: Free for members. Non-members gold coin contribution.
RSVPs required by 25 June:
Enquiries to: asccanberra at or 0413 883 414.

Trish’s bio:

Trish Johnston is the acting Director of the Campaigns and Engagement Team at the  Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. Trish is a communications specialist with almost 20 years experience in developing, implementing and evaluating Australian Government communications campaigns. Trish started her career with the Department of Health working on social marketing campaigns on issues as diverse as childhood immunisation and recruiting doctors to rural areas. Trish spent several years as a senior communications advisor at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet where she provided advice to the Government and government departments on best practice approaches to communications. Trish has led workshops on the use of market research in Government campaigns and how to write effective communication strategies. In her current role, Trish leads the team responsible for the recent Clean Energy Future advertising campaign. The team is now working on a range of other related community outreach initiatives. Trish has an abiding interest in what makes people tick and how effective communication and social marketing interventions can lead to meaningful change.

ALSO ** coming soon ** events calendar for rest of the year!!

ASC Canberra Committee:
Join us on Facebook:!/ASC.Canberra

Australian Enabling Technologies Roadmap

The deadline for submissions about the Australian Enabling Technologies Roadmap is 23 February. Have a read of the ‘ETRM’ at It covers the projected developments of new forms of nanotechnology and biotechnology and synthetic biology over the next 10-15 years. It also mentions some expected impacts.

My comment would be that the ETRM is light on in how it will navigate the landscape with all levels of the community. I welcome your views before the impending deadline.

Jesse Shore
National president

Evidence-based science communication workshop, 10 June 2009

Getting the Message Across

ASC NSW event, 10 June, 2009

By Shannon Fong, ASC NSW event reporter

Carol Oliver enjoying a finely made point during the workshop discussion

Carol Oliver enjoying a finely made point during the workshop discussion

How effective is science education within Australia? Dr Carol Oliver, from the Australian Centre for Astrobiology, said this will be an open question until adequate research is done into the subject. Carol emphasised the importance of understanding one’s audience in communicating knowledge effectively yet highlighted the lack of evidence that audiences are taking away the intended messages.

“How is it that the Australian Government can spend millions of dollars on science education when they do not even know what the outcome is?” she said. Longitudinal studies have demonstrated that by the time children get to high school, much of the scientific information that they have learnt in their primary years has since been forgotten.

In Australian universities, a substantial proportion of science students did not do science in Years 11 and 12. It appears that many are opting to get into university with a low UAI by choosing a science degree, and this could be lowering the quality of science students. With the Australian adult scientific literacy rate being approximately 15% (figure derived from a pilot study by Dr Oliver), our democracy is facing less informed decision making for an increasing number of science related issues. Perhaps a key to developing a more scientifically informed electorate is for science educators to make far greater use of changing modes of communication.

In America, more than half of the audience in search of scientific information look towards the Internet. In Australia, 92% of the population use Google as their search engine, and as of December, 2008, one fifth of Australians over 18 used Facebook. “This certainly says something about where to aim information, as well as where to gain feedback from the audience on the impact of such information,” Dr Oliver said.

Question time during the workshop

Question time during the workshop

However, numerous questions remain. To encourage general public interest in science is it more effective to promote information from science experts or provide access to a less expert but more populist knowledge source? And should scientific information be aimed at all of the population or only those who are interested? If the Australian Government undertook research into the effectiveness of scientific education, then maybe we would know.

Background to the National Science Communication Strategy

Towards a National Science Communication Strategy (NSCS)

Background Information for Participants


For a number of reasons, it is timely to examine the science communication landscape in Australia and to consider whether the status quo is a satisfactory situation. At the national level, there have been recent reviews of the National Innovation System, CSIRO Science Education Centres, and two areas within the Australian Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (DIISR) – the Science Connections Program (SCOPE) and Questacon – The National Science and Technology Centre.  The ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster, is currently undergoing a major public review phase.  Furthermore a new national science curriculum is under development.

Australia is fortunate to have a range of quality organisations and individuals in the science communication ‘ecosystem’ and significant strengths to build upon. It is in Australia’s interest to work towards a more coherent approach to fully utilise all national assets.

Australia has significant strengths in science communication but the broad science communication effort is fragmented and uneven across the country.  This problem was identified in the 2003 Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC) study into Science Engagement and Education that recommended a ‘national framework-local action’ approach.

A DIISR Steering Committee comprising the Deputy Secretary, the Chief Scientist, the Chief Executive of CSIRO, the Director of Questacon – The National Science and Technology Centre, and a representative of The ABC, together with supporting officers, has met to discuss the need for a national science communication strategy.

As part of the post-Budget re-structuring of the DIISR, the Questacon division of the Department has been asked to work towards the development of a national strategy which will encourage a more coordinated approach to science communication across Australia. Questacon now has responsibility for the SCOPE program, which includes a number of national initiatives such as National Science Week. Questacon has been asked to design a replacement program for this lapsing program, as part of a national science communication strategy.

The Goal

As previously articulated (PMSEIC 2003), Australia’s success as a 21st century knowledge society will depend on having an excellent education system, a technologically-skilled workforce, a science-literate community and well-informed decision makers.

Science communication activities supports

  • the development of an adequate supply of well-qualified scientists, mathematicians engineers and technologists;
  • the development of a society that is informed and excited about science, values its importance to the country’s economic and social well-being, feels confident in its use and supports a representative well-qualified scientific workforce; and
  • the provision of trusted quality information for opinion formers, policy developers and decision makers.

It will be important for a national science communication strategy to:

  • embrace a broad definition of science communication to encompass science, mathematics, engineering and technology, as well as to incorporate the perspectives of the humanities and social sciences;
  • draw from the experience and findings of similar initiatives, including overseas initiatives;
  • consider how current assets and capability (at national, state/territory and local levels) could better be aligned, connected, developed and delivered in order to achieve greater outcomes and impacts in these areas;
  • develop a “national framework – local action” model which takes into account relevant policy initiatives at federal/state/local levels, which optimises opportunities for existing and potential players and investors to contribute, and which builds cooperation through questions such as “What can I do? What can you do? What can we do together?”;
  • address issues of leadership, facilitation and coordination which will be key to the success of any forward strategy and implementation plan;
  • be practical, providing improved outcomes which can be achieved within the short term (next 12 months), within the medium term (next 5 years), and within existing and realistic resource and budget parameters.

The Process

The Steering Committee will propose a more coordinated approach for science communication to Senator the Hon. Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research at the end of September 2009.

In order to inform the development of a national policy framework, a forward strategy and implementation plan, a series of key stakeholder discussions are planned during July and August to obtain broad input from a range of organisations and individuals with an interest in science communication. These consultations will be led by Professor Graham Durant as a member of the Steering Committee, or senior secretariat officers.

The consultations will not involve all individuals and organisations with an interest in science communication. Rather, a sample of individuals and organisational representatives, who are associated with state/local science communication initiatives, are being invited to participate in a small group discussion to provide:

  1. insight into the state/local science communication scene
  2. suggestions on how state/local initiatives could benefit and develop through better coordination or through linking into a national framework
  3. practical ideas on actions which could be taken in the short term (during the next 12 months) and in the medium term (over the next five years)

In addition to stakeholder discussion sessions and interviews, the Steering Committee would welcome further input by way of a written submission. Written submissions must be received no later than 24 August 2009 via mail to:

The Secretariat
National Science Communication Strategy
Questacon – The National Science and Technology Centre
Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research
PO Box 5322  Kingston ACT 2604

Alternatively, written submissions can be emailed no later than 24 August 2009 to sciencecommunications [at]

Towards a National Science Communication Strategy (NSCS)


  • Introduction
  • An opportunity to introduce ourselves and to clarify the process to develop a national science communication strategy
  • State Scenario
  • Outlining the state of play for science communication in your state
  • Who are the key players?
  • What are the major activities?
  • Who are collaborating (at local/state/national levels) to deliver science communication activity?
  • How well is this scenario working and what could be improved?
  • National Framework – Local Action
  • What mechanisms would support and sustain more effective and extensive cooperation, involvement and investment?
  • The Way Forward
  • What are some practical ideas that we can action in the next 12 months, in the next 5 years?
  • Summary of Discussions
  • Where to from here?

ASC submission on the National Science Communication Strategy

If you are interested in the development of the National Science Communication Strategy, here is an opportunity to get involved in shaping the Australian Science Communicators’ submission.

This is an invitation to join an electronic forum/discussion where you can put forward your views. The URL is

Time lines are short. The submission has to be emailed to the steering committee by Monday 24 August. I propose to begin drafting something on Friday 14 August. During the week commencing Monday 17 August, I will be in Brisbane at the Intecol conference and the ASC Hot Air symposium  (Wednesday 19 August) where I will be meeting with Jenni Metcalfe, Joan Leach and Will Rifkin among others, to refine the draft submission. Hopefully, I will be able to complete it when I get home in time for lodging on Monday 24 August.

During this process, I should be able to lodge draft versions in this forum for comment.

What I want from you is input on the following:

  1. What should be the goal of a National Science Communication Strategy? What should science communication achieve?
  2. How do you evaluate effective science communication? Examples?
  3. Practical examples of successful science communication.
  4. Practical ideas for action in the next 12 months and the next five years?
  5. What should be the Commonwealth responsibility in this area and what should be left to the States?
  6. Mechanisms that could support and sustain more effective science communication—particularly those which would simulate cooperation between groups and future investment in science communication.

You can lodge your ideas on these and other topics on the Ning set up for the purpose.