Towards a multigenerational debate about science

Last week, I was supposed to be one of the speakers at the World Conference of Science Journalists, part of a session on reaching younger audiences. For various reasons (some including ambulances…) I didn’t actually get to give my talk. This post is a linked-up version of what I would have said. The images are screengrabs from an old website, Planet Jemma, which is discussed near the end.

One of the rare bits of research on young people and online science media was conducted back in 2004 by some communication researchers in Florida, published as Attracting Teen Surfers to Science Web Sites in the Public Understanding of Science journal. I know it’s old work, but it’s their attitude I’m interested in here, not the primary data. They concluded that attracting teens to science websites can be difficult because when teenagers do go online, they do so for social interaction and entertainment, not to be educated. They seem to be a little disturbed by this, or at least see it as a problem to be managed.

I don’t think they should be disturbed though. I think they should be excited.

Let me give some background. In recent years, much of the discussion about the public communication of science and technology has focused on what we might broadly see as a shift from a top-down model to a more distributive approach; models which stress the need for scientists to listen to the public, and the role of public-to-public communication in the construction of ideas about science. Many science communication professionals now see their job as facilitating conversations, not providing ready-made polished stories (see this post for more on that).

It is rare, however, that we see this approach followed through when it comes to work with young people. The idea of ‘discovery learning’ was briefly popular in the late 20th century (put kids in a classroom with a load of science kit, let them discover it for themselves). However, as many educational researchers pointed out, this is rather naive: it only works if we actually believe scientific research comes from such uncomplicated, quick interaction with physical entities. In reality, science teachers accommodated students’ results that did not fit the expected outcome. They were demonstrations, not experiments; activities wrapped up in a rhetoric of discovery. Additionally, when young people are asked to debate science policy issues or ethics in class – as we see increasingly English science curriculum – this is seen as a rehearsal for democratic engagement in later life; the kids aren’t going to be listened to as kids.

This shift from providing polished stories to facilitating conversations isn’t unique to science communication. Developments in media technology and cultures surrounding these have led to changes in the way journalists consider the people formally known as the audience; changes I do not need to repeat here. There is also a specific debate within children’s media about the history and politics of adult-to-child narration. It should be remembered that so call-ed ‘children’s media’ is usually given to young people, not produced by them. Even writers aiming at a ‘child-centered’ approach will draw on memories of their childhood which may well be out of date and framed by adult worries. David Buckingham, riffing off Jacqueline Rose, talks about a form of generational drag; adults acting as if they were children, based on an adult conception of what a child is.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with sharing science across generations. Indeed, we might think of science as a generational activity, and the lengthy time frames of science is something I think we need to acknowledge. But we should also be aware of when exactly younger people are asked to speak rather than being spoken for, how much freedom they have, and how often they are listened to.

I will now briefly introduce a few examples of UK science communication websites aimed at young people, before offering two conclutions.

First up: SciCast. Here, children are invited to make short films about science and share them. There is a competition for the best ones every year, and they have a big Oscars-style awards do (finalists announced last week). There are some gems on the site: do go and have look. Let’s not pretend it is unmediated kid-to-kid communication though. Kids are drawing on the ideas of adult scientists, some of which are long dead too. They are also using adult-made media technology, and I’m sure some videos were lead by parents or teachers. It’s also a competition, judged by adults, so kids work to their idea of adult expectations. But I don’t think it pretends to be adult free either. Indeed, the project invites adult professionals to leave feedback, and gives feedback itself, because they see this as a productive part of the process.

Secondly: I’m A Scientist Get Me Out of Here. Scientists are put in zones with four others, each zone is matched to a set of schools. The scientists introduce themselves with a profile, and then the school students ask them questions. It runs for a bit over a week, and adopts the loose structure of reality TV show; the scientists get voted off daily so they compete to give good answers. Here the kids do not produce content, but rather lead it with their questions (and the content is sometimes slightly scrappy forum post answers from scientists, not carefully constructed literary prose). The questions are diverse – about the scientists as people as well as factual – as are the scientists who are everyday working researchers rather than the super-star presenters you might see on TV, and the project is proud of the way it communicates a sense of how science really works. Another key point to stress about I’m a Scientist is that the questions are not always resolved: a lot of scientists simply reply with ‘I don’t know’ (see this post and comment thread for some discussion, as well as this video made by one of the contestants).

SciCast and I’m a Scientist are unusual though. Most science media for young people is made for them, not by them. Moreover, although some may offer forms of interaction, it is worth questioning whether this is interactivity or, more simply, ‘activity’. So here’s my third example: Energy Ninjas, a science computer game developed for use on gallery at the Science Museum, which you can also play online. It has a loose narrative, though you have some control over the order. You move around a city, pick a site to enter and watch the Energy Ninjas chastise people for their carbon consumption. Where you choose to click will have some impact on your route through the game, but it won’t impact on the structure of the game itself, or even change the outcome of any loose story it contains. What you as player choose to click on certainly doesn’t get fed into science, or science policy.  It’s reasonably standard as the genre of these mini-science games go. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we should be aware of the limits of user involvement here.

Finally: Planet Jemma. It’s from 2003 and not online anymore (edit: a demo version is now up), but I think it’s fascinating and so worth sharing with you, so I’ve included some screengrabs the developers had archived, and there are some reviews online (this is interesting, and do see the comment thread includes response from developer). There’s also a Guardian article about it. This tells a story of Jemma a physics student in her early months at university, though emails sent to you as if you were an old friend from back home. You learn a bit of the science she is learning, but also about her life at university. The emails you get relate to where you’ve clicked on an associated website which includes videos and photo stories. Think of it as database-driven personalised narrative. This is a very good example of adult writers aping kid-to-kid discussion (see earlier point about ‘generational drag’). However, I should stress this was 2003. I’m sure the developers would have loved to have brought more of the actual teenage audience into making the story rather than just being the recipients and characters in it, something which is simply easier to do now. I’d love to see a project of this level of imagination and narrative complexity run today, but with the various technological and cultural resources we now have available.

Conclusion one: We should be honest about generational issues at play here. Don’t pretend to be providing a child’s voice when it’s an adult’s one, be aware of how adults are framing, possibly curtailing, children’s interactions with science (and why – they may have reasons for doing so). We should also be honest about the age of scientific content discussed with and by young people. I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with young people talking about old ideas, or using old ways to demonstrate them (in some ways, it’s quite exciting that people back in the 18thC did similar tricks to demonstrate science that we o today), but I do think we should be honest about this long history, even aim to explicitly pull it out. Moreover, rather than looking at communication patterns as just top-down or side-to-side, maybe we need to think about co-constructed multi-generational media; both in the construction of content, and its audiences.

Conclusion two: there are a host of projects getting kids to work with scientists, even to be involved in the scientific research. Why not get kids doing science journalism, with science journalists, too? Why not get science journalists doing ‘outreach’? Yes, there is SciCast and some projects to get schoolkids scienceblogging. My mother told be me about a science radio project in North London in the ’80s. But why not more of this? Moreover, why not include the more probing critical work of professional journalism? Kids can do more than explainers. I think this would have a number of educational benefits. Moreover, just as scientists doing outreach is sometimes (cynically) seen as serving the scientific community as a form of promotion for their profession, maybe is science journalism is under threat as a profession, maybe doing outreach could help promote youselves? And, just as scientists often say they learn a lot from working with young people, maybe science journalists could learn something too.

You want to reach young audiences? Stop thinking about them as ‘audiences’, and involve them.

15 thoughts on “Towards a multigenerational debate about science

  1. Hilary Sutcliffe

    Excellent post Alice, but I feel you could write this exact post without just kids in mind, but with all of us. The issues of real engagement, involvement, listening, acting and then telling us what actions were taken based on our input are common to all public engagement. You will perhaps know better examples than I do of where this is working, but in my area of emerging tech, I see it hardly at all.

    Eg: But we should also be aware of when exactly (younger) people are asked to speak rather than being spoken for, how much freedom they have, and how often they are listened to.

    Also, others who ‘speak for’ don’t just include adults for children, but ngos or media for all of us. However, it’s an expensive business tracking content and opinions in a way which is meaningful, that’s another part of the problem.

    I am looking more and more to the things business do to understand their customers and I think it’s much more sophisticated and lessons to be learned.

  2. Alice

    Yes, I know that message could be apples to many in the ‘engagement’ field. However, there are already a lot of people saying that. Yet It’s rare that this idea is applied when the publics are under 18. So stressing a possible conconstruction of, here sci journ, but I think we can talk of sci and sci policy too, is what I wanted to do with this piece.

  3. Hilary Sutcliffe

    Yes, I think you are right there are lots saying that, but few making it so practical and giving the useful concrete examples of what might work that you did! Maybe I am just not reading the right stuff!

  4. Jonathan

    One of the things I always wanted SciCast to be about was using films submitted by students to define a style and tone for other films submitted by professional scientists; I wanted films from the school lab and the research lab to sit alongside each other, on equal terms. There are several reasons for doing this, but chiefly I think too much engagement work from academics is overly-serious. Worse, it underestimates how much information – how much *science* – even quite young children are hungry for if it’s packaged well.

    By letting one group of participants (children, née ‘audience’) define that packaging I wanted to free the other group (‘scientists’) to be more playful with their approach. The flip-side is this: curriculum science is too-often plain dull, and the exciting/inspiring stuff is ‘too hard’ or simply not known to children.

    So I wanted a project that revealed more inspiring/horizon-stretching/thought-provoking science than the curriculum encourages, but addressed in a way that was approachable by young teenagers. Getting both ‘content’ and ‘treatment’ right is the chief challenge of factual TV for children; SciCast was an attempt to find a workable mechanism that didn’t involve a highly-specialised team of production personnel.

    After five years I’m now convinced that such a goal is achievable. I’ve just no idea how to fund it, and it’s no secret that SciCast will be shutting down shortly (though the website and film archive will stay online).

    I will say this, however: working more closely with the people-formally-known-as-the-audience than I ever could in broadcast has been profoundly satisfying. However, as a programme-maker (or, by implication, journalist) you have to completely rethink what you do. It’s notable that both SciCast and I’m a Scientist take that supposedly-central role and put it in the hands of the participant; my role is no longer to make the films or interview the scientist, it’s to facilitate, guide, and coach others through those tasks.

    To paraphrase and extend Alice’s closing line: if you want to reach young audiences, stop thinking of them as audiences and don’t merely involve them: work out what’s central about your project and invite them to do that.

    1. alice Post author

      thanks for that – sorry I could only skirt over what is, I think, a very rich project (i.e. SciCast…)

      Do you agree a lot of it is quite old sci though…?

      1. Jonathan Sanderson

        Absolutely. It’s a big problem with any project that builds on what children already know – which includes things like broadcast TV too. We always used to say that broadcastable physics finished at end of the nineteenth century, and we were only half-joking.

        One of the tricky parts in designing engagement projects is arranging for a flow of factual information towards young people without that feeling like it’s a top-down, empty vessel sort of thing to do. The information coming back the other way is going to be of a very different nature, and balancing that difference can be difficult. I’m a Scientist is notable because it handles this asymmetry as a central part of the project design. SciCast could too, but if I’m honest we only showed that we could, it wasn’t something we delivered on a significant scale.

        Scale is the real problem here. I think something very exciting could be done nationally (eg. to supplant Researchers in Residence), but the STEM engagement world has precious little experience or expertise of imagining, let alone delivering, large-scale projects.

        You know, we should get together and see if we can’t dream up the the one true PE project to rule them all (…and in the darkness, bind them, etc etc.).

        1. alice Post author

          I want someone to fund a kid and professional co-constructed film about sci. Totally do-able, if only had money pots.

  5. Jon Copley

    Great stuff Alice – has started me thinking about how to involve young people to a greater extent in my area of research.

    My work involves going to sea on expeditions, exploring the ocean floor with deep-diving vehicles, often finding new species etc. At the moment our team answers questions submitted by young people who follow our expedition blog while we’re at sea, and we have a live chat facility for school classes to interact up with team members on the ship (ok, we’ve shamelessly followed the excellent “I’m A Scientist” in those areas).

    But for some time my dream has been to enable young people to see what we see directly (i.e. join us as the first people to see new landscapes and species for the first time), over the internet, and even take control of our vehicles, helping to make decisions about where to explore next on a dive etc (i.e. really involving them in the heart of what we are doing).

    The brilliant Bob Ballard has already done much of that in the US (check out his Nautilus Live project – he is now getting funding from the Justice Dept to beam his engagement programme into after-school clubs that keep kids out of trouble. Can you imagine getting money from the Home Office to engage young audiences in your research, as a crime-reduction measure?). But the hardware cost for the HD satellite link that Bob’s programme uses is £250k, and sadly I’m not optimistic about persuading RCUK etc to make that kind of investment for us in the near future.

    So I’m thinking about a “lite” version of the above, using the technology we have available (at present, a 256k satellite modem, which can just about carry Skype-style video that we can stream from the ocean floor while allowing text chat), and hope to trial that on an expedition in 2013, with some schools lined up to take part.

    What I’d really like to do, though, is to invite a “young person” to join our expedition team, and give them free rein and support to create the kinds of self-generated outputs that you mention. But there seems to be a fairly impenetrable health-and-safety barrier to taking an under-18 to sea. However, the Planet Jemma example has got me rethinking: perhaps a first-year undergrad could still fulfill that kind of role to some extent.

    I’d be very grateful to hear any thoughts and ideas from those “present” on how we can make the most of what we can do in this area.

    1. Jonathan Sanderson

      Hi Jon – I loved the deep-sea vent stuff you were doing last year, really gripping stuff and a terrific glimpse of the immediacy and (sometimes) excitement of field work. At the Science Communication Conference I was talking to Michael Douglas (?) about that project, in the context of some video stuff we’re kicking off at the Royal Institution. We should talk.


      I think there’s a difficulty with using young adults in an attempt to appeal to children: my hunch is that a typical 12 year-old brackets ages into “little ones”, “about the same as me,” “older child,” “adult,” and “wrinkly.” Which implies that there’s little perceived difference between an 18 year-old and a 40 year-old. In kids’ TV this view was somewhat heretical, but it holds up pretty well to casual inspection.

      I also think part of it isn’t about how old people are, but about what they know. So, an older figure whose subject knowledge approximates the child’s may be more accessible than a younger figure who ‘knows too much.’ Perhaps you should be thinking of taking a more experienced science journalist rather than a subject-specialist undergrad?

      1. Jon Copley

        Many thanks Alice and Jonathan. I take that point about perspective-brackets of young audiences (you can see that when you ask young relatives how old they think someone is – anyone more than about five years their senior is often deemed “ancient”!). So I’ll look into taking an adult science writer for that role.

        I have to say some of the best questions I’ve had in outreach work have come from young audiences. A couple of years ago a letter arrived in my pigeonhole from a primary school class, who wrote “We are studying seashores. We have questions for you. Q1: why are there fish?”.

        I enjoyed spending a weekend drafting an answer (What makes a fish a fish? Where did fish come from? How does having a fish-body help an animal to live? How does natural selection work? Ok, I used a bit of a “Just So” story for that one, but I remember that from my own primary school days to introduce the idea – and it made sense then to me). And now I set that question as an essay title for my undergraduate marine biology tutees.

  6. Jason Millar

    Great post, Alice.

    We do treat kids as empty bins to be filled with stuff–they’re “sponges” after all, aren’t they? They’re the objects of research, not the researchers. “How can we make them properly?” That’s seems to be the dominant theme in everything child-rearing. Books are filled with important facts, and kids are meant to sit quietly at the teacher’s feet while taking them in. Although kids might teach you to be humble as a parent, we obviously can’t expect them to teach us much more–they haven’t yet proven themselves in anything. Eventually the smart ones will learn to do things the way they’re supposed to be done and succeed, while the others will languish in obscurity and ignorance for lack of ‘getting it right’.

    Your post cut through all the above nonsense. I think you’re absolutely right that having kids help frame science education would lead to better science by cutting through the cycle of scientific mythicizing.

  7. Pingback: Towards a multigenerational debate about science – by Through The Looking Glass | Engaging Talk

  8. Sai

    Hi Alice,
    Rob Bevan has put the demo site for Planet Jemma up, as I was asking about this a while back too: Also some interesting possibilities came out of the Children’s Media Conference last week for more ‘transmedia’ platform engagements. Can chat further…
    Atb, Sai


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s