“Direct science engagement is incredibly rewarding – you see the immediate impact on the audience in front of you.”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Paul McCrory
Where are you based?
In Norn’ Ireland, but I work across the UK and internationally.
Who do you work for?
I run a STEM engagement organisation called learn differently.
Basically I get paid to play and do what I’d be doing in my own free time. Someday I must get a proper job.
What type of science communication do you do?
We perform science demonstrations on stage to reveal the wonder of science. As well as this direct science engagement, we also train other people in engagement techniques.
Who is your main audience?
Half of our work involves directly engaging pupils or the public in science – mainly in Northern Ireland; and the other half consists of training and consultancy work with STEM researchers, teachers, and communicators – nationally and internationally.
How did you get into it?
The short answer – One life-changing year studying and working at Techniquest science centre convinced me that there was another way of engaging people in science and helping them to learn.
The long, over-sharing answer (sorry, but you did ask) – As a child I loved magic and I filled notebooks full of scribbled plans for new magic effects and methods based on my somewhat naive scientific understanding. (I still haven’t entirely given up on the whole magnetic beam levitation idea, in fact.) Even though I was painfully shy, performing allowed me to overcome my shyness. It’s the same today.
But it wasn’t just the secrets to the tricks that fascinated me. The true magic in any performance is being able to make others feel emotions that you have felt. I was obsessed with how performers move their audiences emotionally – curiosity, wonder, surprise, amazement, humour. It’s the same today.
One of my strongest childhood memories is sitting on a beach struggling to read a verbose text on performance techniques in magic written in 1911. Without a trick in sight, it argued that we should be aspiring to treat magic as an art form – not just showing off things we know which the audience don’t. This book made my young head buzz with ideas. As I tried to make sense of the big words and old-fashioned phrasing, I remember being puzzled and thinking, “why am I so interested in this ancient book?”
School was predictable – I loved science and maths, and knew deep inside that I wanted to teach these subjects. Later, the MSc in Communicating Science at Techniquest was absolutely pivotal for me. It was a great blend of the theoretical and the practical elements of informal science education. In the first week I knew I had found what I wanted to do the rest of my life. Magic. Performance. Science. Play. Wonder. Everything clicked together.
Why do you do it?
Direct science engagement is incredibly rewarding – you see the immediate impact on the audience in front of you. Like all of us humans, I’m horribly ego-centric and I guess I need to constantly feel that I’m making a difference. I’m more needy and insecure than most people, however. I find the continual interaction and feedback that you get presenting to live audiences reassuring, compared to writing or presenting on TV.
Why do you think science communication is important?
That’s a big question with many legitimate answers. Briefly, here goes my personal response …
Science represents a way of thinking that generates the most reliable models for explaining and predicting the world around us.
On an international level – these models, although imperfect, are also the best bet for getting us out of the many problems currently facing humanity – eg food shortage; water purification; climate change; infectious diseases; cancer.
On a national level – science and science-related industries offer countries the greatest opportunities to become economically competitive and sustainable. A scientifically attentive public is also required to guide science policy decisions, such as investing in GM crops or nuclear power stations.
On a personal level – scientific thinking helps individuals to make informed choices about many important decisions in their lives, like vaccinating their children. Science also allows people to experience a natural sense of wonder and curiosity about the world. This appreciation of beauty and underlying pattern, although much neglected, is important in its own right.
Science communication is important because science is important.
The form of direct science engagement that we do shouldn’t be about trying to “teach” science or make everyone uncritical fans of science. In my opinion, we should be focussed on raising awareness that science can be both relevant and inherently interesting on all of the levels above.
At learn differently we have a ban on the damaging phrase “making science fun”. You cannot “make” anything fun. It is what it is. The more obviously you try to “make” it fun with external sugar-coating, the more you reinforce the common beliefs that science is boring and difficult ie not fun. Instead, “we let the fun in science out” – we try to use the most intrinsically appealing and concrete aspects already present in science as a hook to engage people in the less immediately engaging and more abstract ideas. Science communication is a starting point to a journey, not a destination.
What do you love about science communication?
As a child science filled me with such a sense of wonder that I’m compelled to spending the rest of my life trying to figure out how to inspire those thoughts and emotions in other people. It’s as simple as that. The thought of doing any other job seems ridiculous to me.
I also love that I can use my job to save me from social situations which would normally terrify me. Who’d thought that you could perform maths demos in a Best man’s speech in Switzerland to guests who understood one of three different languages. (Readers can ask me if want to know why Mobius strips are so romantic, but I warn you – it gets pretty sloppy.)
What has been your favourite project?
As well as being passionate about science, I’ve increasingly become interested by how people learn – in both formal settings (like classrooms) and informal environments. In particular, I’m fascinated by why some things are interesting to most people and other things aren’t. Interest is the necessary, but not sufficient, trigger for all learning.
So my favourite project, if you can call it that, has probably been my PhD research into how science teachers and communicators can create interest through emotional engagement. It allowed me to synthesis a tool kit of techniques to help engage learners in science eg self-disclosing personal information about how you became so passionate about your subject; using emotional contagion to infect your audience with your emotions; creating curiosity by carefully drip-feeding clues to the final reveal or answer; exploiting countdown stalls to generate suspense; and incorporating storytelling techniques in your delivery. Presenters and teachers tell me that they were aware of many of the techniques before, but that the value of the tool kit is in putting them into the context of a framework or deeper model. They say this helps them think about when and how they use the techniques, and it also reassures them of the educational and psychological research supporting the techniques.
(If you’re interested, you can read more about the research here.)
Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?
Lots, actually. But most of them depend on me finishing the rambling indulgence of a book I’ve been intermittently working on for several years.
I’m shocked that a growing field like science communication has so few practical books to help disseminate best practice. So I’m trying to capture the most useful engagement techniques I’ve learnt or researched over the years. Even if no-one else reads it, writing the techniques down has forced me think through how we engage and explain.
If you see me, ask me “how’s the book coming?” Hopefully, it’ll eventually become less painful just to finish the book, rather than keep explaining my crippling procrastinating to everyone!
Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?
First of all – understand what you’re getting into. The “profession” of science communication is still relatively young and it has many growing pains to work through, for example – low pay and recognition compared to formal education; a lack of clear career structures; a dearth of training and professional development opportunities; a desperate need to professionalise without losing our inherent playfulness and creativity; and, our generally low aspirations of quality and impact as an industry.
Rant over. Despite all of the above challenges, science communication can be the best job in the world.
Be passionate – you really have to love what you do if you’re going to sustain a career in science communication.
Get experience – get as much experience of as many different types of science communication as you can eg join BIG, BSA, and STEM Ambassadors; enquire about helping out at local science centres and science festivals.
Keep reflecting – like all skills, science communication is a constant learning curve, but simply having the experience isn’t enough. You need to reflect honestly on what worked and what didn’t.