“I’m a maker at heart. I love tinkering, building things and carrying out my own crazy experiments”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Peter Wright
Where are you based?
Rural Devon – just north of Dartmoor
Who do you work for?
Myself (I own the company – Wonderstruck Ltd)
What type of science communication do you do?
We cover a range of different things. Our main activity involves going into primary and secondary schools around the UK running a range of exciting STEM workshops and shows. All of our workshops are team-based, most are competitive and they all involve building something that does something – cars powered by fans, hovercraft, two-stage water rockets, robots, medieval siege engines etc. Our shows are spectacular; including some of the loudest bangs it’s safe to do indoors, 4 metre fireballs, setting the presenter’s head on fire and plenty more.
We take the science communication part of this seriously though; it’s very easy to overdo the ‘entertainment’ side of things and forget about the science. Everything we do is explained at a level appropriate to the audience. We do sometimes deliver workshops for museums, but generally not shows, as 4 metre fireballs don’t usually mix well with collections of valuable paintings etc.
We also deliver workshops for some university summer schools.
Another part of our business involves developing and building science-based educational resources for museums. We’ve worked with quite a few museums in this capacity – Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, HM Tower of London, Historic Dockyard Chatham, Royal Engineers Museum, The Royal Gunpowder Mills, The Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter amongst others. This involves another aspect of science communication as most of this type of work is designed to be delivered by people who aren’t necessarily science specialists so activities have to be simple and the science learning has to be quite intrinsic.
We have in the past done a lot of resource development for the likes of the NHS and The Royal Navy and also worked on projects with the now defunct Creative Partnerships (an organisation which brought together people from different backgrounds to work with schools on a massive range of projects). Unfortunately though, with the downturn in the economy and change of government, most of this work dried up.
Who is your main audience?
Following on from above, most of our work is now directly with primary & secondary students and informal learners in museums.
How did you get into it?
I went into engineering after university which was great because I learned a lot of the practical skills that are now essential to what I do. After that I became a physics teacher but after 3 years, to be honest, got a bit disheartened with the lack of time to be creative with the subject. I moved into the informal sector and developed and ran the education programme at a (then) new visitor attraction called Action Stations, based on the modern Royal Navy in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. After 3 years of that I had the opportunity to work part-time for the University of Portsmouth helping to develop the science strand of their schools outreach programme. During that time I set up Wonderstruck and the rest, as they say, is history.
Why do you do it?
I’ve always been fascinated by science and I’m a maker at heart. I love tinkering, building things and carrying out my own crazy experiments – we’ve had a cheeseburger and fries on a plate in the office for a year and taken a picture of it every day to record its decay (or lack of). I recently stitched all the stills together and put together a short time lapse film which you can find on our channel on YouTube (wonderstruckwow).
What I do now gives me a great sense of freedom. I can come up with ideas and work them up into workshops or resources and I love the opportunity to communicate all this stuff.
Recently, for example, I’ve learned how to crack a bullwhip for a new show demonstration about pressure, shockwaves and the speed of sound. And I’ll be programming microcontrollers as part of a project to develop some educational interactives for a museum. If, however, the sun comes out I might go and mow the grass instead!
Why do you think science communication is important?
STEM is the very core of our modern world. It holds the key to so much that could make our future as a species more amazing than we could imagine – defeating disease and hunger, colonisation of space etc. I think that it is unbelievably important that we inspire future generations to get involved. I also think that having an understanding of the natural world around us is essential to getting people to understand how we should be behaving in an ecological/conservation sense.
On a more mundane level I also think that too many people are simply passive consumers of technology, using it without understanding anything about it, and I constantly feel the urge to encourage inquisitiveness. That’s one of the main reasons I feel that the current popularity of ‘making’ is such a positive trend. It’s turning people into active consumers who understand that with a little knowledge they can modify pre-packaged technology and get it to do something different.
What do you love about science communication?
I love the opportunity to speak to people about science. When I’m running workshops I love to see students engaged in a task and learning without even realising that they are learning. I think that is an incredibly rewarding experience.
What has been your favourite project?
Always the one that’s just coming up!
Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?
We’re currently working with the University of Portsmouth to develop an outreach project based on robot motion. The idea is to get primary and secondary school children to think creatively about how things move and that motion doesn’t always have to involve wheels. There’s plenty of inspiration available in the natural world – particularly when you start to look at microscopic life forms.
We also have an exciting project on the drawing board which will involve working with schools in India – but that’s still in its early stages so I can’t say too much about that one.
Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?
That’s a difficult one because science communication is such a broad discipline. I can’t really offer much advice regarding the media side of things but as regards doing the kind of stuff we do – a teaching background is very useful. If you’re planning to work with schools, particularly running workshops you do need to understand how to manage a classroom and how to design a task that will keep children engaged and learning. A sense of fun, plenty of energy and creativity are also essential. Getting experience of running activities in museums and at science festivals is also good practice.