This feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Jenna Stevens-Smith
It’s important for scientists to have the ability to communicate their research to the public, for many reasons already explored in several of the interviews in this series. But for this podcast I’m speaking to Jenna Stevens-Smith who is the newly appointed outreach officer at the Bioengineering Department at Imperial College, London, where she is helping their researchers get their work out there.
Speaking on the panel I proposed that engineering is still lacking in enough performers, or stars, that can infiltrate the mass media and thus reach large numbers of adults. Yes, of course this isn’t the in depth engagement we’d like there to be, where a dialogue happens with community groups affected by the topic in some way. But it is still a critical route for getting messages out to the masses about what engineering is. And for reaching parents who may influence their children.
People engage best with people. Mark Miodownik pointed out beautifully in the keynote that Steve Jobs gave Apple the human face that turned the company around. Engineering might sometimes be about the ‘shiny things’ produced, but the public still need a human face to help relate to that shiny thing.
Has anyone ever studied the characteristics of engineers vs scientists? Are scientists more extrovert or likely to be exhibitionists? Could that explain why more brilliant engineers have not yet made it onto the prime time TV slots occupied by Al-Khalili, Miodownik, Roberts and Cox? Why have we not seen more explicit engineering on the pinnacle of STEM TV; The RI Christmas lectures? (1974 was the last time by my research).
My other theory is that many scientists might wander into the world of communication seeking a more immediate social reward than their research alone can give them. Most engineers tell me they are driven by the desire to improve lives, and the world more generally, so perhaps they get their social reward fix every day? After all most engineering has public engagement firmly built in with public consultation a critical part of the job. Not to mention of course that careers in engineering are lucrative, and it would take a dedicated person to sacrifice that financial lifestyle to become a poverty-stricken communicator full time.
So, do we need to dig harder to find the engineering presenting talent of the future? Or do we need to develop a support network of engineering communication professionals who can help get their message out for them? As Steve Cross put it, if you take away all the plethora of professional science communicators, perhaps scientists themselves haven’t greatly increased the amount of engagement they do directly, but we’ve just evolved a huge team of supporters who go out there speaking on their behalf.
When we tried to recruit an Engineering Communicator for our Engineering Explained project some years ago we received less applicants than for any other job we have advertised in 10 years. But if there are plenty of well paid, socially rewarding alternatives out there for engineers, why would they want to do it?
And Steve Jobs and Apple? Well possibly the biggest engineering company in the world, but you never hear the word engineering. Engineers are referred to as designers but we know engineering is what makes the product a success. Oh, and a lone genius, on a stage, performing and giving the product a human face. And all the time reinforcing the misleading message that engineering is conducted by single genius figures and not done by huge diverse teams.
So we need to see a range of engineering faces out there giving the public someone to emotionally engage with whilst understanding that engineering doesn’t progress on the back of one lone genius. It is going to be my mission now to talk to all the engineers I can find to dig out the extroverts and find out why they aren’t motivated to become the new face of engineering. FameLab Engineering could be a good first step.
Yes, E is for engineering and engagement, but we need to see a bit more extroversion and exhibitionism too (within the realms of decency of course!) And for any engineers who are already out there in TV land, please stand your ground and tell people you are an engineer and not a scientist. Come out of the closet and let society see you!
I personally don’t get to do as much direct communication as I used to but over the years I have done everything from Bubbles shows to nurseries to debate events with the WI and a TEDx event. Most of my time is now spent training researchers, developing my presenting team and managing the business but I still get to dabble presenting about my love of science and music, and after-dinner science speaking with a difference!
Who is your main audience?
science made simple works with around 70,000 people each year and around two thirds of those are 11-16 year olds. The other third is made up of primary schools and family audiences at festivals. We also deliver training to universities and researchers in partnership with Graphic Science as The Training Group and through that we reach around 300 people each year. I also got to present some science on ITV’s Alan Titchmarsh show last year with viewing figures of over 1 million per programme which was quite exciting!
How did you get into it?
I studied Physics and Music at Cardiff University and thought I wanted to be a sound engineer, then I got a casual job at Techniquest science centre and loved what they were trying to do in changing the perception of physics. I had found people had a bad attitude to my choice of degree subject and liked the idea of trying to do something about that. I also felt it was a way of combining my interest in creative arts, science and performance. I then worked my way up at Techniquest, spent a year travelling science centres in Australia, a year being the IOP schools lecturer and then set up on my own back in 2002. We’ve grown steadily over 10 years and now employ 13 people and reached over 250,000 people.
Why do you do it?
I want to share my passion for science and leave some legacy of changing people’s perception that science is only for scientists who are clever enough to study it a high level. People are inherently quite scared of science and I want people to rediscover that childish curiosity about the world around us and the beauty of how it all works. I love the emotional connection you can make with an audience in a live performance and I know our presenters are making a difference every day they are out delivering shows in schools. There is a buzz in a live performance and the ultimate flexibility in the level of information given that – with the right presenter – can be hugely effective.
What do you love about your job?
Working with people who are passionate about making a difference and seeing the amazingly creative ideas we can generate as a team to translate complex ideas into engaging performances.
What has been your favourite project?
I still get thrills when I see our theatre project, ‘visualise’ – it began as a mad idea in 2005 about trying to do a science show with no words that wouldn’t be a cringe-makingly bad mime show. The show has evolved over 7 years of development and various guest directors and there is still so much we’d like to do with it. But when I see it with an audience gasping at the beauty and curiosity of science and coming away with questions and desire to find out more I feel very proud to have been part of it. When it was short-listed for a theatre award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival the first year we took it there, I was giddy with excitement!
Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?
Get some experience and try and get video footage of yourself presenting something – ideally to a real audience but even just to camera. Don’t try and be like any other presenter, find your natural style and then take every opportunity you can to learn from people beyond our field who are experts at what we’re trying to achieve (ie audience engagement). Comedians, magicians, performers all have years of experience that we need to learn from and bring into the science communication sector. Look broader for inspiration and try and find a niche that you excel at….oh, and if you are a great presenter – send us your CV as we’re always talent hunting!
You can follow Wendy on Twitter @wendyjsadler and read her blogs here.