Marcos Perez from Casa de las Ciencias on science communication and lessons learned from the CASC project

We’ve been finding out the thoughts and opinions of some of the Cities and Science Communication delegates ahead of this week’s final conference. Here, we find out from Marcos Perez of Casa de las Ciencias what his views are on the future of science communication, the representation of science in the media, and what lessons can be taken away from the CASC project activities.

What methods would you typically use to measure the effectiveness of a project? How would you go about measuring some of the components of the CASC project?

Objective measures such as attendance and spontaneous feedback are the starting point for our evaluation procedures. However, more than seeking to check if visitors are getting what we were intentionally offering them, we are interested in learning about what happened from their point of view and why it happened that way. We are aware that a science centre is a place where people construct knowledge, experience and emotions, and it is difficult to evaluate that. For this we rely on personal conversations and careful observation by informed professionals that know how to differenciate the expectations, language and behaviour of different sectors of our audience.

Most actions taken under CASC did not reach very wide audiences (either intentionally or unintentionally), and this allowed us to have personal contact with most of the public and obtain valuable feedback. In particular the Learning Together action at Teixeiro Prison will require extensive monitoring relying on external volunteers, since access to this particular audience is restricted and information, by the sheer nature of the context, difficult to assess.

What would be the one policy which you would change?

Funding of science communication projects at European levels, although limited, has found appropriate channels to reach the most active and innovative institutions. Spain is a good example of this, with a yearly call for proposals from the Ministry of Science as well as from several regional governments. However, private funding of science communication projects may need some stimulus since it seems to be way behind what we see in the EEUU, for instance.

On the other hand, drawing from the Children´s Palace we visited in Shanghai, it would be experiment with some kind of scheme that would combine the best of non formal education (lack of pressure on students, interdisciplinarity, incidence on emotional aspects of science education) with the structured nature of formal education. Something like an after school programme for students to be developed at non formal education sites.

What made the biggest impression on you during the project, and have you changed anything because of this?

The Learning Together pilot action includes the development and implementation of specially designed educative materials for the women at the Mothers Pavillion in Teixeiro prison. Parents of toddlers are usually extremely receptive to any information regarding
the physical, sensorial and emotional development of their children. In this sense, a very good level of engagement was foreseeable and eventually obtained. Moreover, it is fair to recognise that any novelty coming from the outside is usually well received in Teixeiro, where routine is perceived as one of the main problems.

The action succeeded at improving the living condition of its target public. Whereas the kindergarden school where mother and children spend their mornings is very well equipped, the playgrounds (inside and outside) where they spend the rest of their time are much more spartan. These spaces lacked some basic stimula that promote development in kids, and have certainly improved after the action.

What kind of role do you think science education plays in scientific developments and discoveries?

For any country it would be very difficult to develop and sustain a competitive technoscientific system without the support of a science education scheme that provides both the skilled workforce and also a social context that favours science and technology (in terms of investments, appreciation of results, etc.). However, it is important to state that science education is not limited to “knowledge transmission”, something that tends to cope most efforts in many education systems.

More than that, science education should also foster intellectual skills and attitudes such as curiosity, rationality, dedication, antidogmatism, critical thinking, self-confidence, etc. that are basic for any scientist, but extremely useful for every citizen.

How do you think the way science is represented in the news affects how the public engages with scientific matters? How do you think media can play a part in changing this for the better?

Research on this issue, including our own, shows that the media offer a somewhat distorted view on science. To begin with, scientists are often pictured as caricatures, something that is reinforced by views promoted by fictional works.

On the other hand, following the traditional motto that “good news = no news”, science usually appears in the media linked to diseases, natural disasters, environmental threats, energy shortages and the like. It is true that space exploration and medical advances provide a positive view, but as a whole, they project an image centered on the problematic nature of science. This may partly explain why some people mistrust science as a motor of social change for the better.

However, to be honest we must concede that the media offer a good coverage of the problematic nature of science, addressing the ethical, social and economical implications that are missing from other sources of information such as the school system or even science museums.

What do you think the project has done to help celebrate science and scientists? What more work do you think can be done, or needs to be done, in this area?

Science and technology are perceived as an important motor for social change. However, the role of scientists in this complex proccess is often obscured by that of other agents such as governments or private companies that make huge investments (in terms of time and resources) into promoting their views. Climate change, for instance, may be a case where this trend has been inverted to a certain extent, as scientists have developed a public speech that includes not only the science itself but also reflections on how to deal with the issues it describes. It is important that the views of scientists on big social issues reaches the public, so that we can access it before it gets mediated by policy makers and economic agents.

The extension of the Choose the Right Fish project within CASC has provided an opportuniy to develop effective ways to promote the opinion of scientists on a socially entangled issue. This involved diminishing fish stocks, a declining local fishing industry, fish markets and consumers that are used to think of fish as an unlimited resource. The results from this action show that innovative approaches are needed to make the voice of scientists sound clear and distinctive in a context where simplistic, interested or uninformed opinions have rooted in the public debate.

What methods do you think are most useful for communicating science information? Is there a danger that people can be disengaged due to jargon or ‘science speak’?

Each sector of the public has its own necessities and has to be reached.

What can you tell us about the Twitter event which was scheduled to happen in October?

We decided to leave this idea for a future project, since the idea of recopilating “critical success and failure points” in science communication did not seem to appeal to other institutions in the consortium. This made us think that the action would need to be planned in a different context.

Part of Work Package 2 included software development – how did that come along? How successful has it been?

The software has been done and it is working. We actually showed a beta version at the British Science Festival in Birmingham. Think Tank has a copy and we are making it a bit more user friendly before releasing it to other members of the consortium. At this point it runs on Linux OS and installation requires basic knowledge of these systems. Once installed, however, it is very intuitive.

At Casa de las Ciencias we are linking this web crawler to an exhibit based on augmented reality. The scientific concepts “swim” randomly projected on a table and users can “fish” them using a small racquet. Once they have physically picked the word it stays within the borders of the raquet. Turning the racquet around results in the sucessive projection of headlines the word has just appeared in and images associated with it.

What did you learn from the study visits as part of Work Package 2? What examples of best practice did you come away with?

“Everything is related to everything and everything matters”. This is the basic approach of Universeum, Suecia, which defines both its exhibition project as its program of activities. We share with them objectives as:

  • Awake careers in science and technology in young people
  • Address the various manifestations of technology in exhibitions and activities
  • Emphasize the relationship with the environment and promote sustainable development
  • Develop an educational platform
  • Encouraging the use of the five senses in the different experiences of the museum
  • Relate what you already know and what you are learning
  • Asking questions forever
  • Continuing to offer the public the experiences that make them know themselves better

What potential applications are there throughout Europe of the ‘science in contemporary society’ programme piloted in Spanish schools? What are the tools and uses associated with such a scheme?

We are no experts in this formal school initiative, although members of our team have participated debates prior to its final design and we have even written one of the textbooks that is being used by many schools (Ciencias para el mundo contemporáneo, Oxford University Press). From our point of view the scheme is working well, offering all students, and particularly those that left science and maths aside at the first chance, an opportunity to engage again with science from a different perspective.

The spirit of the subject is to provide students with basic knowledge on how science influences our society and how scientific thinking can be useful in their lives. It has also been successful at improving the perception of science, traditionally associated with subjects that are highly abstract and tend to skip the evident connections with the real world.

However, the scheme may be facing some problems associated with the way it has been deployed at schools. Many teachers have not received appropriate training and others try to introduce contents that belong to classic science courses, as if trying to stuff students with the science they ran away from a few years back.

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