Tag Archives: education


Speaking to… Sarah Bearchell

“We started with some Balloon-CD hovercraft were a huge hit until one child tested them to destruction!”

Sarah-Bearchall-Science-Communication This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Sarah Bearchell


Dr Sarah Bearchell

Where are you based? 


Who do you work for?

I work with different primary schools on a freelance basis

What type of science communication do you do?

I do workshops, science shows and longer projects designed for specific groups of children. I work with both mainstream pupils and children with Special Educational Needs. I also do some science writing for adults.

Who is your main audience?

Most of my work is with primary school children (age 4-11).

How did you get into it?

Small children are scientists. Even before they can move they are exploring the world by putting things into their mouths. Then, when they move, they poke their fingers into everything. Next a pointing finger appears and is accompanied by a grunt which is their way of asking ‘What is this?’. By the time they can speak they are accomplished Principal Investigators in their own world. The ‘why?’, ‘what?’ and ‘how?’ questions are just a natural progression. If the questions get answers, they will stay curious and keep asking them.  If we ignore them, the curiosity slowly dims.

These observations are based on my own children; Matilda (7), Joe (5) and Archie (4). When my daughter started school it seemed natural to offer the teachers some growing projects (my background is in botany). One year we grew sunflowers and then the class grew a loaf of bread from seed. The children loved the sense of achievement that both of these projects gave them. The school then asked me to become Associate Governor for Science and I also became a STEM Ambassador as a way of formalising this voluntary work.

Why do you do it?

It is just so fantastically rewarding.

In one of my first sessions I had a ten-year-old pupil who was initially unimpressed at having to make paper trees to withstand a ‘hurricane’. However, she listened to my introduction about what happens in nature, incorporated that into her paper tree and built one of the best trees in the whole session.  At the end she said ‘I love it when we don’t do work!’ and was beaming as she left the room.

I also work with a Special Needs school where the children have a huge range of abilities.  We have recently been doing Sensory Science. In one session I froze water into lots of different jelly moulds, bottles and bowls and we mixed these up with hot water bottles and buckets of warm water. Each child explored the activity in their own way. One child liked to stroke the ice as it melted, another liked to catch the ice cubes in a plant pot as the water drained away and a third child was delighted when she was allowed to smash the ice out of a plastic bottle.  We did counting and discussed temperature and sizes all as a natural part of conversation. The feedback from the school has been fantastic; apparently science has always been their worst subject but it is now climbing up the subject list.

How do you tailor science education to special needs children?

I start by going into one of their normal science classes so I can meet the children and teaching staff. It gives me a great insight into how they will react to what I have planned. I need to know how  they will react to things such as loud noises, music, furry objects and different light levels. I need to be sure I can engage them, not scare them! It also gives me clues to their dexterity and concentration spans so I can modify my plans accordingly.

My aim is to get them exploring an activity and using language or signs to describe what is happening. We use all our senses and talk about size, temperature, light and feel. We use numbers and countdowns at every opportunity.

How do you work with special needs children when all of them are so different in their needs?

My Key Stage 1 (age 5-7) SEN classes only have about six children and three or four adults depending on the specific needs of the children. The school staff know which aspect of an activity is most likely to engage each child and generally encourage the child to explore that first. I follow each child’s lead and expand with what I think they are likely to enjoy next.

My method is best explained with an example such as our session on air. We started with some Balloon-CD hovercraft were a huge hit until one child tested them to destruction! Then we moved to blowing up balloons and letting them go again, feeling the air rush out, listening to the sounds and watching them sail through the air. I had also made some sail powered cars which were disappointing because too few of the children had the dexterity to work them, so we just moved on. Next we blew lots of bubbles and chased them round the courtyard. The final activity was the biggest hit – an air rocket. The children were initially worried by it but as soon as their teachers had a go they joined in with the cheering and countdowns to launch. They were great at taking turns and collecting up the rockets. Some of them were able to relate stamping on the launch pad to the height the rocket achieved and even how to aim the rocket either high or far. One child in a wheelchair was delighted to have his carer stamp his front wheel on the launch pad and another child had to be lifted into the air to produce enough force for launch but they all cheered and came back for more. Some of the children were delighted to feel the air from the pump on their faces, but others were not. Each session is a learning opportunity for me too!

Is it sometimes very difficult to communicate with special needs children?

The teachers and support staff know how to communicate with each child. I take their lead and we generally use some basic signs, lots of facial expression and huge amounts of praise for all scientific observations. Their teachers spend part of the session observing the children and noting down their progress so they can monitor it over time.

Most of the children are so excited to have something so different to their normal day that they don’t need much encouragement. The teachers suggested I repeated some of the favourite exercises and we noticed that the children started by repeating what they had before and then expanded into new skills or words. It is so rewarding to watch their confidence and abilities grow.

What has been the most challenging lesson you’ve had with special needs children?

I haven’t really had any yet. The teaching staff have been great at helping each child to get the most from the sessions.

Why do you think science communication is important?

You interviewed one of my ex-tutors, Dr George McGavin, and he said ‘If you can get the fire going in an 8 year old, it will blaze away for the rest of their lives.’ He is so right!  I really want to keep that innate spark of curiosity alight.  It’s so easy to maintain it but so hard to re-ignite when it goes out.

I genuinely believe that we can turn around the decline in scientific subjects by working with younger children. It is hard to convince funders to invest because there is such a long lead-time before any measurable increase in uptake will be seen.  Primary school science is comparable to blue-skies research; there is no immediate profit. I’ve toyed with the expression ‘rainbow-skies funding’ for primary school science but however you describe it, it needs serious consideration.  We need to create a more scientifically literate society, better equipped to question research in a rational fashion. If this happens there should be fewer knee-jerk reactions to scientific reports, especially amongst politicians.

What do you love about science communication?

I get to share my love of science with a wonderfully receptive audience. One of the five-year-olds requested a labcoat in his letter to Father Christmas last year. How cool is that?

What has been your favourite project?

That is a hard question. I love them all!

My favourite project with the children is ‘Ask A Scientist’. They can ask me anything on any STEM+M subject. They write it down and put it in the question box (which looks like my head) where I have a think about it then design a demo to explain it. The questioner becomes The Scientist to explain the answer to their classmates. There are a huge range of questions but we have mixed bogeys, made intestines, used a whole class to demonstrate seismic waves and dressed up as Neanderthals and superheroes.  It can get quite silly but the children and their teachers love it. They remember lots of the information too. I use demonstrations which employ materials from around the home. It needs to be super-accessible so they realise how easy it is to be a scientist (and how much fun it can be). It’s a case of Do Try This At Home (albeit in the garden).

On a different note, I was quite surprised by my own reaction to taking part in Science ShowOff recently. It’s an ‘open mic for all communicators of science’ where you get nine minutes to talk about your subject. Most of my fellow Showoffs talked entertainingly about proper research, we had a song about Pluto (Phil Dooley), Sarah Cosgriff dressed as a sumo wrestler and Lucy Rogers describing what happens to your body in space. I stood up and put a mixture of porridge and coffee into a pair of tights to replicate the intestines and ended with defacation live on stage. It went down pretty well with a Friday night crowd and I was left buzzing for hours!

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

There are two great projects coming up in the autumn.

Harvest Loaf

I have been working with a class of children on a project called ‘Growing A Loaf’. The five and six-year-olds sowed wheat seed in a corner of the playground and watered, weeded and nurtured it to a beautiful crop of strong plants.  We got some interest from BBC Radio 4 Farming Today who came out and recorded with the children, Charlotte Smith was fantastic with them and they all chatted really confidently about their crop.

The story was then picked up by BBC Radio Oxford and BBC South Today television.  The children were recorded during the summer and again as they threshed and winnowed the crop by hand.  South Today also came to Mapledurham Watermill to see the grain being milled.  The children are going to work with Helen Hales, their fabulously talented teaching assistant, to create a wheatsheaf shaped loaf from their flour.  This will be presented to the vicar at the school harvest festival in the village church and South Today will be recording them do it all. The whole story will be broadcast in mid-late October and I can’t wait to see the results.  The children have worked so hard and have amazed everyone by confidently explaining their work to the journalists. It has been an enormous boost for the whole school.

I am also delighted that I have been asked to be a judge at the Stemettes Oxford Hackathon. It’s a free event for girls and women aged 7-21. They will learn how to code and create an infographic from scratch. Details are here.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Most people say you should stick with your research, become a STEM Ambassador and keep practicing your skills. They are absolutely right. It is possible to do it outside research but it is harder unless you network like crazy. My advice would be the same as for researchers; become a STEM Ambassador because you get some training, lots of fantastic support and even suggestions for activities until you get more confident. Remember to listen to feedback and don’t give up!

You can follow Sarah on Twitter at @SarahBearchell or see what she’s up to on her website.

Katherine Harmon

Speaking to… Katherine Harmon

“Again, basically all of the above. It is also amazing to get to spend so much of my days learning about new things and always needing to deepen my understanding of others.”


Katherine Harmon

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Katherine Harmon


Katherine Harmon

Where are you based?

Longmont, Colorado

Who do you work for?

I’m freelance–as of just five months ago. I’m currently a contributing editor for Scientific American, where I was an associate editor before going full-time freelance. I also write for WIRED, Gourmet, Nature, and others. I recently finished my first book, which will be out this October. It’s a nonfiction book about octopuses called Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea (Current/Penguin).

What type of science communication do you do?


Who is your main audience?

Generally the science-interested. Although I always hope that my work will also reach folks who didn’t think they were interested in science, health or a particular field and turn them on to it–even if just a little bit (even if just for the duration of the story).

How did you get into it?

I’ve always hoped to write as a career, but I didn’t consider journalism until a couple years out of college. I wound up (happily) in science journalism by getting an internship at SciAm in the last semester of my master’s program (at the Missouri School of Journalism). As I was going through J school, I knew I was interested in “explanatory” journalism–and for that I figured either science or business journalism would be a good fit. Most of my family was much more into science than I was when I was growing up, which helped give me a comfort level with the subject even if I didn’t have the formal academic training. Although now I do wish I had taken more science and statistics in school.

Why do you do it?

Aside from always loving a challenge (switching gears from learning about how a new vaccine works to brushing up on the latest early human ancestor controversy in one day keeps one on their toes), I think there is a lot of good to be done by helping to bring more science and health information to more people. Huge issues of our day, such as global climate change and the current health crisis in the U.S., are at stake, and if people aren’t well informed about these issues, our future is going to be even more challenging. The hope is that by covering these topics responsibly, we can help create a better-informed public discussion and hopefully better policy. Additionally, being able to convey the “wow cool!” in a new scientific discovery, be it a crazy new species of spider or a new insight into how to study earthquakes, to readers is an absolute joy and huge honor.

Why do you think science communication is important?

See above. Also, I hope that it will help more people see that “Science” isn’t just some mysterious back-lab process but a way of looking at the world that we can each use (regardless of training) to better understand our world (from what to buy at the grocery store to what’s “out there” in the night sky).

What do you love about science communication?

Again, basically all of the above. It is also amazing to get to spend so much of my days learning about new things and always needing to deepen my understanding of others. And once the writing, editing and revision process comes along, I look at it as, essentially, problem solving, which helps even when I’m feeling uninspired to turn a project into a fun puzzle.

What has been your favourite project?

This is a tough one. I tend to get excited about just about every story germ that crosses my path (which means I have a hard time taking it easy). Of course my book was a huge, engaging and challenging project (especially since I had nine months to research and write the darn thing–while working full time as an editor at SciAm). I also will always have a special place in my heart for a newspaper feature I wrote in graduate school called “Murky Waters” about management challenges along the Missouri River. I was flattered that my editor gave me a Sunday front-page feature for a story about sediment (okay, it was a relatively small town). Plus I actually got a few awards for it, which was surprising and really nice.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

There is my book, Octopus! coming out October 31, 2013 (from Current/Penguin). And I am working on a couple related pieces for national magazines that I’m excited about. I am also starting a small side project about the microbiome for another national outlet. And I’m hoping to be able to start on another book proposal soon!

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Take some stats classes! Read as much good writing as you can. But also save time for quiet, creative reflection of your own–I’m not great at always doing this, but it never fails to offer fresh perspectives for a story (whether that’s a better analogy or a better structure altogether).

You can follow Katherine on Twitter at @katherineharmon or see what she’s up to on her website


Speaking to… Dr George McGavin

George McGavin
Credit BBC

“I’m 59 now, and I’ve been a full-time TV presenter for 5 years. I hope I can an extra 5, or 10 years more. Come on, Attenborough is in his 80’s, so if he can do it, then I can! I think I’ve got a few more years in me!”

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Dr George McGavin

So lets go back a few years – what was it that sparked your imagination and lead you onto the career path you are on now?
Several reasons. One, I was always interested in the outside world, the world of animals and plants. As a young boy growing up in Edinburgh I had a pretty bad stammer, so the thought of doing something in languages was really not a good idea! I did enjoy english and art, but biology seemed to be what I was good at, so it seemed obvious that I would do a zoology degree at Edinburgh. I didn’t really think of any other career path.

So what happened after Edinburgh?
After finishing my undergrad at Edinburgh I went to the Natural History Museum and Imperial College to do a PhD. I had a very happy 3 years there, although it was hard work! In those days you didn’t do much in your first year, which you then regret as you only had 2 years to finish the PhD. I woke up a bit and started working like mad!

As you were at NHM, were you doing outreach too?
The outreach work really began when I was at Edinburgh during my final year. We had a scheme whereby all the final year students were attached to a primary school in Edinburgh. I thought that was really great; we would head out to the schools and I used to do all kinds of things with them as we had access to things that they didn’t – heads of animals, skulls etc. I remember I once did a rat dissection for a primary school and it caused huge alarm amongst the parents! They thought I shouldn’t show a dissection of a rat to young children (who were about 8 or 9). But the children loved it, they thought it was fantastic! There was one boy I remember, and I hope he’s now a surgeon, because he was fascinated, but kept fainting! He fainted the first time and the teachers took him out and said “oh no this is terrible we can’t have this!” but he was fighting to get back in saying “No I wan to be a Dr I want to be a surgeon let me back in!” and then he fainted again! So I hope he did become a surgeon in the end.

What is it about outreach that you like so much?
The reason I like outreach, and the reason I did it during my job at Oxford, is that outreach is incredibly useful to everybody. I think you owe it to your science and the people who funded you to share it! I certainly get a great joy form sharing my excitement for animals and ecology with as wide an audience as I can. I don’t care whether its 5 or 80 year olds, its the same deal. And it was because of this that actually resigned from my post at Oxford after 30 years in the world of academia!

What happened after you resigned?

Really I had been doing a bit if TV for about three or four years at the some time as my academic job and I began to realise that I could not do both at the same time – I need to direct my energy to one thing. The experience of what I had done gave me the push to take it on full time

I (never really) wanted to become a TV presenter. Some people thought I was absolutely mad to be giving up a tenure position at Oxford University, but it all happened quite quickly.

It was December 2007, and I was on the way home from a Friday of tutorials. At one point I realised that what was important to me was to share my excitement and my interest in the natural world with an audience. My thought process went something like this: in a tutorial class I would have an audience of 4. If I was on a cruise ship, which I would occasionally do, I would have an audience of maybe 400. But if I did this on TV I would have an audience of 4million. So, I went home that night and wrote my resignation letter. I didn’t even have a beer, just typed it out! And that was it. It was a little bit scary for a couple of weeks…

How did this transition go?

Yes you do learn as you go along and you get better at it but you need to have the ability to communicate in the first place  –

Being on TV is not something that you know how to do instinctively, you learn as you go along. I get tonnes of emails from individuals asking “how do I get on TV? What do I need to do to get on TV?” And I rarely, if ever, answer these questions because I think you need to become an expert in something, and then go onto TV.

When I was younger I would never have considered for a minute that I would ever be on the box. If you had said to me at 15 (when my stammer was rather bad), “George, you are going to be a university lecturer for 30 years, and then become a TV presenter.” I would have laughed in your face and thought the idea absurd!

I think these things just happen. Whilst being at Oxford I became known as someone with an expertise in bugs, arthropods etc. So when there were news items I would get calls for a sound bite. At first was very scary, but I eased into it. Then it grew bigger and I started doing local BBC radio things a lot. After that it escalated again: I was asked to be a scientific advisor to Sir David Attenboroughs’ Undergrowth series. I was simply blown away. The following year they asked me “Would you like to go to Borneo?” I thought it was the same deal, to be a scientific advisor for the programme. But this time it was to be ON the programme! So I said yes, of course. And the next years we did The Lost Land of the Jaguar, and The Lost Land of the Volcano, both of which were successful. After that, I decided I could make a career out of it!

Which TV programme has been your favourite to work on so far?
Well I hope it hasn’t happened yet; I hope I still have great things ahead of me! But they’ve all been interesting in their own different ways. I thought The Lost land of the Volcano was very very good. And The Dark, which we did last year, was also excellent.

George McGavin
BBC: Strange Science of Decay

There was a programme I did in a glass box in Edinburgh which we just filled with food, and watched it decay over 8 weeks. That was called Afterlife: the Strange Science of Decay and that won 5 awards, it was a huge programme!

What was the scariest programme you’ve ever worked on?
Oh, thats easy. The scariest one I’ve ever had to do was last year when we made a programme with Dr Alice Roberts called Prehistoric Autopsy. It was scary because it was filmed “as live”, it’s been the biggest piece of TV I’ve ever done.

So we had three studio days with an 8 camera shoot and talk-back in our ears, as well as auto-cue on the camera. So even though it wasn’t actually live, it was filmed as live, so you were on camera the whole time. I had voices in my ears going “Right George, in 5-4-3-2-1 camera 2″ so then I’d turn to camera two and say my line. It was an adrenaline rush; I may have looked calm but beneath the surface it was pandemonium! That was a steep learning curve.

Had you had any training?
No, I hadn’t. I’m glad I got through it though, because it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Anything from now on has definitely got to be easier.

What is one of the best things about working in TV?
One of the great things about this job is that you get to go and see some great things, areas of the world and animals that you would otherwise never see. If I had stayed in Oxford I would have maybe had one trip a year, I would have had to apply for grants to get funding which can be nightmare.

When working with TV they’d say “Right George, we’re filming Orang-Utans in Sumatra. Could you be at the airport tomorrow morning  at 5am?” And off I go! I don’t have to organise anything, I just turn up.

I used to think it was glamorous, going off to Guyana, or Venezuela. But the reality is that the airports are hellish and flying is hellish. I look forward to the days that we can be virtually transported.

On top of that, I hate long haul flying, especially in economy: 8/10 hours in economy is not conducive to you feeling great the next day.

What’s it like to film in places like the jungle?

George McGavin
BBC: The Lost Land of the Tiger

We’re not living it up in a hotel.

Filming  The Dark we spent a weeks in the jungle, and for one sequence we abseiled 150/160 feet into a crevasse in a Venezuelan tepui. We then spend 5 days in total darkness filming. It wasn’t comfortable: we were wet, cold, hungry etc, but the rewards! We filmed a new species of fish in the cave and a new species of cave cricket. It was an amazing experience.

I think audiences aren’t fooled by what they see. They want the real thing- the whole experience. They want to see you uncomfortable, cold, wet tired, hungry, bitten alive etc. That makes good TV.

So the perfect job for you then?
I think it is. I actually thought the museum job at Oxford was perfect for me: I’m doing teaching, research, going on the occasional trip, working in a fabulous museum. And then suddenly, at the age of 55 to get a second most amazing ob in the world doing TV presenting is amazing! I know that there are many people out there rather jealous. They thought “why should he get 2 brilliant jobs in his life?” I’m very lucky!

So, you’ve done live, TV, and writing! You’ve done a bit of everything!

I guess so. I think now I’ve written about 14 books, not all as sole author, some as a contributor or an editor. I’ve written a couple of kids books too. In fact, my new kids book comes out in October. Its a Bugs book, published by Walker Books. And it’s a beautiful pop-up book: as you open the pages scorpions and cockroaches appears out of the pages! So that’s aimed at young kids.

Which medium do you find the best at bringing across your ideas?

They’re very different animals. A text book I wrote called Essential Entomology took me a year to write, and it’s a very solitary existence. And even though I have a stammer, I’m a fair extrovert – I like being out there doing stuff! And I love a big audience, so my favourite is actually live talks.

The trouble with TV is you don’t have an audience. You have a camera man who is interested in the shots: is it over exposed? Then you have a director who is interested in other things, you’ve got a sound man whose merely there to make sure the words are intelligible, and there are no helicopters or dogs in the background.

But you do have to remember that you have a virtual one, which you can’t see. It’s very difficult to engage emotionally with an unseen audience. That’s why live stuff is so much more enjoyable because you can work the audience. It’s really a performance art: the best speakers you’ve ever heard are the ones that regard it as a performance.

It’s impossible to tell your audience, whether students or not, what they need to know in an hour. That’s what books, libraries and personal study time is for. What you’ve got to do in that hour is to fire them up, to inspire them, to make them excited and make them want to go and find out more! The best people on their back legs in front of an audience are the ones that make it fun, entertaining and exciting. There is no excuse for a dull lecturer who stands up and drones: you put people off.

Well we’ve all had one or two of those…
We’ve all had them, and it’s a great shame. Lots of universities tend to put that sort of person in front of the 1st years, and the inspirational ones in front of the older students. And that’s just the wrong way around! They should be putting the inspirational ones in front of the first years. By the time you reached your third year you should be self-motivated enough!

So that’s what you’re doing: you’re simply getting that fire going, which will hopefully blaze away for the rest of their lives. If you can get the fire going in an 8 year old, it will blaze away for the rest of their lives.

Do you think educating young kids in science is important?

I think education for young kids is very very important, as the name implies “Primary education” should be the most important education. I think between the years of 5 and 8 you’ll learn more than you’ll ever learn.

I think that the most inspirational teachers should be put in front of young kids, not the older ones; you need to catch them early. If you wait until they’re 14 or 15 then girls and boys and iPods become important and you might lose them.

So what else is next for you?
So there’s the children’s book in October.

I’m just finishing filming for a BBC 1 documentary on swarming animals which will be out this autumn . We filmed honey bees in California: I had about 80 thousand bees all over me. We filmed Bats in Austin, Texas where I was hanging at the top of a cave entrance with thousands of free-tail bats flying around my head and peeing in my face (great stuff!). We filmed reindeer, red crabs and much more.

I’m also working on a three part series coming out next spring which is called Planet Primate (or something like that). For this show we’ve been around the world filming lemurs, aye-ayes, chimps, orang-utans, macaques. We even got some behaviour that has never been filmed before, which is unbelievable. So that’s going to be a big series, and I’m hopeful that will be the biggest thing I’ve done yet.

Then, in three weeks time I’m off to film infant orang-utans which will be super cute, obviously! But that’s the bit that I’ll do the final part of the series, talking about the fact that although there are more than  600 primate species in the world, more than half of them are endangered. And there is only one species of primate that is doing well, and that’s us.

So it will be an eye-opener.
I think it will be quite amazing. Some of the behaviours we filmed won’t be able to go on the show as they are quite extreme. As the show will be an 8pm airing, on BBC1 when there will be young children watching it. So unfortunately some of it will have to become archive material, most of all the bit where a group of male chimpanzees rip a live monkey apart. Remove the heart and eat it whilst it was still beating.

That must have been quite frightening to watch?

I often get asked this. One instance people remember is when I crawl into a hollow log in a forest and it was about 80ft long, and full of scorpions, spiders, bits and pieces. And I wasn’t scared. The excitement of being there, the drama of being there and finding out what was in there was so high that you forget completely that there might be something in there that might kill you. So on the principle that great TV often involves the presenter being bitten or stung by something, it’s usually fine!

For those of us who would like to go into TV presenting, what golden nuggets of advice do you have?
I think someone like that is born rather than made, but you have to have  passion for what ever it is you are doing, whether its geology or particle physics. You need to be thinking you would rather be doing this than anything else in the world. And if you don’t have that I don’t think you can really start out in TV.

Anything else?

I’m 59 now, and I’ve been a full-time TV presenter for 5 years. I hope I can an extra 5, or 10 years more. Come on, Attenborough is in his 80’s, so if he can do it, then I can! I think I’ve got a few more years in me!

Speaking to… Peter Wright

Peter Wright

“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


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.


Huw James

Speaking to… Huw James

“It takes me all over the world, talking about stuff I love to talk about, that’s really exciting to me.”


This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Huw James.

Huw James
Credit Elin Roberts


Huw James

Where are you based?

Cardiff, Wales.

Who do you work for?

I work for the people! I run my own business out of that there Cardiff in Wales. Have worked for many great people in the past though, all much nicer than my current boss.

What type of science communication do you do?

I do live interactive shows, writing, producing and presenting them. Have recently moved into some more TV and Radio work as well. If I was going to give my Science Communication a “type”, I’d say Progressive House or Nu-Disco?

Who is your main audience?

Main audiences are Secondary school students, mainly because that’s my favourite audience. I still do primary too though, and do a lot of family audiences at Festivals and the likes too. Becoming more often now, my audience is a camera lens or a microphone. But I doubt I’d ever leave live presenting altogether, you get an instant feedback from audiences that just aren’t there with any other media.

How did you get into it?

As most Welsh Sci-Commers, I went down the “experience” over “academia” route, and after Uni went straight down to Techniquest Science Centre (the longest running Science Centre in the UK) to hand in something that resembled a CV. Luckily, with a background in Astronomy and Space Science, they rang me before I could even get back on the motorway! From there I headed to Science Made Simple where I learnt a lot about the Dos and Don’ts of Sci Comm and how to manage projects and write shows.

I definitely think that route was right for me, but a masters route may be right for the next person, some people do it mainly because it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge for them, and a challenge for the higher education system.

Why do you do it?

Honestly I do it to inspire people. Most of the things I do in a professional capacity is because I’m just an ordinary guy but I can do some amazing things. And the truth is that every ordinary people can do amazing things, everyone is special, the only difference is a mental blockade that stops people pushing harder for what they want. People regularly say “I can’t do that” when they really mean “well, I can’t really be bothered to do that”. Especially this new generation, there are so many that aren’t problem solvers. Would love to inspire more of them to be patient and achieve what they love.

Why do you think science communication is important?

Science Communication isn’t the only kind of communication thats important. People today need to be more informed on every level, about everything. Unfortunately, SO much goes on in the world today, its tough for someone to know everything.

I often describe Science Communication as one of the Welsh Valleys. Whenever anyone says “the valleys” to me, I automatically think of mine. But there are many valleys, and others will think of theirs. Whenever someone says Science Communication to me, I think of Live Shows in Schools and at Festivals. That arm is important to give teachers and parents something they don’t have time, energy and resources to do. We’re an aid to the curriculum, an aid to learning.

What do you love about your job?

I really enjoy the variety in it. Show Writing, Presenting, Script Writing, Travelling, Facilitating etc. It takes me all over the world, talking about stuff I love to talk about, that’s really exciting to me. But it also allows me to come back home too. And not just a house, to my home. A job that does all that and that you love, has to make you happy!

What has been your favourite project?

My favourite so far was one that actually didn’t get off the ground! Last year I put a team together to travel across the world for the Venus Transit. The project looked into the history and science of the transit and was going to use the CREST Awards to allow schools to interact with the field team, driving across the planet, and download science data from them. The schools would then compare their own data with the field team and schools across the world with the British Council Connecting Classrooms scheme to get a scientific map of the world. We would then live stream the Venus Transit back to the UK too. It was only a funding issue that stopped this from happening but I loved the idea of it, so much in fact I started a whole project based on the idea!

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

Wow, do I! My company recently split into 4 main projects specialising in 4 areas. HuwJames.Com is just me, my face that gets used and abused for TV, radio and training of people like FameLabbers and the likes. At the moment I’m filming Live Experiments along with a great cast for the new HeadSqueeze channel headed up by James May. 

My biggest project up until now and the one Ive run for the longest and most known for is Science Junkie. We’ve recently announced that the Science Junkie project has done its time and will be splitting into 2 brands, mine of which will be Education Extreme. For Education Extreme we’ll be running the Extreme Sports Show from Science Junkie, a new Science Rocks event looking at the Science of Rock Climbing, and a whole host of new shows! Our new shows range from an Extreme Sports Water Edition I’m writing with freelance science communicator Julie Gould. An Extreme Sports Reloaded Show that looks at the science of Slacklining, Cliff Diving and many others. And we have other shows and workshops that should keep our extreme sports fans busy all day long!

Next up we have Anturus (Welsh for Adventurous). In this project we’ll be off on adventures and expeditions around the world and relaying all the information back to UK schools. I already mentioned the Venus Transit Expedition I set up last year that failed to get funding. It’s proper tough to get funding for expeditions nowadays but we think this project has real legs to it. The idea is that we design CREST Awards (run by the British Science Association) that link in to current trips we’re on. The CREST Awards let the school students collate data from the field team, collect their own data in their environment, and compare it to the field team and others world wide using collaborative projects like Connecting Classrooms (British Council). The last remaining explorers are the Field Scientists we owe so much to, this is a way of bringing their ideas to the classroom. We’ve got a trip to Scotland lined up for February so we should be launching our first CREST Awards soon after!

Finally, On-Show. This is a project where we put STEM and STEM Engagement on show. This is a production project which creates STEM shows for use in festivals and schools that look at STEM subjects and the processes behind them. And try to help up and coming STEM Engagers with training and courses to develop skills and techniques for speaking in public and writing and producing STEM shows. Run by myself and Rob Wix, there’ll be lots of exciting things coming out of this project, we’re working on a new Roadshow for Bosch at the moment as well as a few other ideas too. One of the most exciting things for me is the STEM Engager Quality Mark we’re developing, a way for Science Communicators to get recognition for their skills in the area.

So yes, lots of exciting things going on and thats just a few of them! You can get to all of the above stuff at www.totheblue.co.uk to find out more, or drop me a line with the contact bit on that page. I LOVE working with driven people and the Science Communication world has an abundance of them!

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

The main tip is to believe in yourself. Self Confidence is key. Not only in yourself but in the material you’re speaking about or conveying, and the opinions that you have. Science Communication as an industry can sometimes be a lonely world, mainly because it’s a small(ish) industry and two people very rarely share exactly the same ideology toward the industry or subjects but if you believe in yourself, others will to!

You can follow Huw on Twitter at @huwmjames or visit his website to find out what he’s up to. 


Guest post by Wendy Saddler: E is for…?

Wendy Saddler is the director of Science Made Simple and Engineering Explained, companies that provides shows, workshops and more all geared towards communicating science and engineering.

Engineering-explained-science-communicationE is for engineering, engagement, and a few other ‘E’s’ besides…

I attended a fascinating event at the Royal Academy of Engineeringabout how engineering engagement and science engagement compare.

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-KhaliliMiodownikRoberts 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!