One of the benefits of studying at Imperial in London is that the city is a hub for so much science communication. The faculty’s well connected and we get excellent guest speakers each week. The most interesting and inspirational so far (in my humble opinion) came this week, from Beau Lotto (of Lottolab). His work focuses on the science of perception, which is specialised in its technical study but also universal in its experience.
It’s the universality of perception that makes Beau’s work great for public presentation. He can demonstrate real perception experiments and illusions with any audience, tying them in with his research projects and ideas. However, it wasn’t his prowess as a purveyor of perception tricks that piqued my interest. I was fascinated with his work merging public engagement, education and outreach.
The work shot to fame just before Christmas when the academic journal Biology Letters published a paper, written in kids-speak, by a class of 8-10 year old students, about perception and foraging in bees. The paper is worth a read – it’s jargon-free, and the abstract places it in a more familiar academic context.
The concept of facilitating groups of the public (in this case school children, which is probably the most functional type of group for this activity) in doing real scientific work is immensely exciting for me. While I worked for Waterwatch on the Gold Coast, taking students out to waterways and getting them to collect real data which was collated into a monitoring database, I was continually amazed at how enthusiastic they were.
A key ingredient, I think, was that their hands-on stuff was given a purpose and a context. We explained that the data wasn’t just going to sit on their worksheets and get marked by a teacher, but used for years to come in decision-making about the waterways. We also explained why it’s good to know all of the information we were collecting, and tried to make it relevant to their lives. They were also able to get the results in real-time, though I don’t think a delayed reward (as in the case of the Blackawton Bees study, which took a while) would be an obstacle to the success of such a program.
Unfortunately Waterwatch wasn’t quite funded and organised to a level where it could reach its full potential, but it was a great learning experience. I often wondered who was having more fun, me or the students. Apparently, Beau’s going to be working on some new projects in London at the Science Museum, and I’m very keen to see if I can get involved!