Science and craft

Mendel's peas
Mendel’s pea, by some of last year’s science communication MSc students

There seems to be more and more events happening which I can only describe as science-craft. I thought I’d write about it, and did a post for the Guardian Science blog.

There are overlaps here with sci-art projects, just as there are overlaps (sometimes problematic ones) between arts and crafts more generally. However, I think science craft events have the potential to involve new and different communities which sci-art doesn’t necessary reach, and to be more participatory in their whole project set up too.

There is the question of what you participate for exactly: what are you making? At danger of repeating myself, science communication isn’t all about baking a cake shaped like a neuron. In particular, I worry that the fluffier ends of sci-craft might act as a distraction from the production of more politically controversial outcomes.

Still, we shouldn’t loose sight of the use of these more playful products too. Or rather, we shouldn’t ignore the power of the social interactions which surround their production. My knitting friends often laugh at me for being a ‘process knitter’. I’ll happily take a piece apart and re-knit it, several times. Finishing is nice. But, for me, the fun’s in the doing. Similarly, I suspect much of the worth of public engagement happens in the process rather than the outcome. The various collaborative processes often involved in crafting can provide a space for people to talk through and think through ideas together. As I end the piece for the Guardian:

At a knitting evening held at Hunterian Museum a few years back, I ended up sitting next to a homeopath. As well as swapping tips on the best way to bind off for socks, we discussed our own research projects, including the ways in which they might be seen to clash, and some of the items of the history of surgery that surrounded us. Other people listened and joined in, before we all moved on to complaining about estate agents. It was polite, humorous and thoughtful. It was also pleasingly mundane; something that we’d all do well to remember a lot of science is.

To give another example, I spotted this video of a neuroscientist, Zarinah Agnew,  making a giant sandcastle. She told me she wants to do it again, but as a workshop rather than a film. I like this idea, because the time spent making the sandcastle allows space for social interaction which simply watching the film might inspire, but won’t necessarily do in itself.

Not all public engagement can or should have an obvious political or scientific outcome. Whether you want to open up the governance of science or increase the public understanding of science, you are unlikely to get anywhere without quite a bit of cultural change first. Playing with a bit of yarn might seem unambitious, but arguably the social interaction and reflection that comes with it can help us get there. Or this social interaction might lead us somewhere else entirely.

6 thoughts on “Science and craft

  1. alice Post author

    I’m also tempted to argue that there’s a long history to a lot of this in the various science-based games and toys which people have made for centuries and are often packaged as activities for kids by science museums and science centers. Perhaps now all that’s changed is it’s been repackaged for adults too, that it’s all just part of a sort of juvenilisation of popular science (not that this is necessarily a bad thing…).

  2. Amy

    You might be interested in ‘Threads and Yarns’ . Its a project we’re doing to mark the Wellcome Trust’s 75th Anniversary.

    Seniors from Camden are working with Textiles students from Central Saint Martins to craft together (using flower looms) and talk about their personal experiences of health and wellbeing over the last 75 years.

    The crafters’ recollections and stories are being recorded and integrated with the final piece which will be displayed at the V&A on 18 July – there will also be crafting workshops and responses from medical historians and other researchers.

    Hope you can make it!

  3. Carolina (@braziliancakes)

    I think the idea of getting people involved in science through crafting allows for the creation of a platform in which to present new ideas and teach science to the public. In grad school I organize a knitting club. I’ve found it to be quite useful for science discussions as well as merely hanging out doing something I would normally not do. I have also been tested in my teaching skills since most people who come to our meetings have never knitted before.
    I do wonder though how much science non-scientists retain after participating in such science crafting.

    1. alice Post author

      I don’t see the role of projects like these to teach science – it’s more about building relationships so that when someone does actually want the answer to a question, they trust scientists to give you good answers (e.g. rather than someone just wanting to make a quick buck with some quack cure). Does that make sense? I don’t think teaching people science for the sake of it does anyone much favours, unless it’s fun at the time, in which case does it really matter if they learn it or not? They’d remember it if they needed it or wanted it. So what’s the problem?

      That said, there are some educational views that say if you are doing something like knitting while you learn, you are more likely to remember. I’m a bit skeptical about that, but it’s not my area – you’d have to ask an educational psychologist.


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