Monday, March 29, 2010

Science exhibit design class

Designing, building, prototyping, testing and evaluating an exhibit is an intense challenge to do in 6 weeks. It is also an apt description of our exhibits course. The course is taught by Alan Nursall who has over 25 years of science programming and exhibit design experience among other things. People familiar with Daily Planet may recognize Alan from the "Alan Nursall Experience" segments.

All of us in the class are now finalizing our projects and getting them ready to be showcased at Science North. We have a small budget and a small amount of time to complete this task. Most of us have been able to scrounge up materials from our own houses or from various areas of the science centre. The guys in our Tech shop are also great. They have built many exhibits over the years and their experience has really helped us figure out what is "doable" and what isn't. We wouldn't be able to do this without the help of all the staff here at Science North - THANKS GUYS!

I'm working on a Shadowgraphing exhibit (Top left picture). You can use shadows to visualize movements in fluids (gases, liquids). Just think about the last time you saw heat waves coming from a barbecue. In my exhibit, a heat source will warm up the water. By shining a light through the aquarium you can project shadows of warm and cold water. Light bends differently when it goes from warm to cold water and vice versa, producing dark and light areas on a whiteboard. What is really interesting to me is that this technique is used to visualize flow around ballistic and aircraft designs. Visitors will be able to place objects in the tank to see this.

Merissa's exhibit involves "brain shortcuts" (right). Think about the last time you reached for coins in your pocket. How do you know which coins are which with your fingers? Well, we've learned it through experience and it helps that each coin is designed to be recognized through touch. For example, dimes are small and thin with ridges and pennies are small with no ridges. From what I understand, the brain makes shortcuts for recognizing the coins. How does this translate though when we try identifying American and British coins? Merissa's exhibit allows people to explore it by putting their hands in boxes of coins.

These pictures are from last week when we were testing the science behind each of our exhibits. Our final exhibits are in the process of being constructed. Stay tuned to be dazzled....

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

New Science Communication Website!

Our brand new website is up! This has been the product of my graduate research assistantship over the past several months. It looks great and you should check it out.

We only have a few spots left for next years program, so apply soon! Deadline is March 30th, 2010. Check out our brand new, awesome looking website for more information (

- Justin

Monday, March 8, 2010

Things have been moving so quickly in this program that we seem to run out of time to write blogs!

Justin updated you a while ago about visiting the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo. This was just one of the great experiences we had while we explored the world of Science Communication in Southern Ontario. We also had the opportunity visit the set of Daily Planet (and we even met Jay Ingram!), the Ontario Science Centre (and Body Worlds), and the Royal Ontario Museum. We also got a special one-on-one with Pat Senson, a Science Journalist. It was a lot to cram into 3 days, but it was worth it!

We had a blast and wanted to thank everyone who accommodated us while we were visiting these various locations, Pat Senson for taking the time out of his busy schedule to come meet us, and Chantal, Dave, and Carey for organizing such a great trip for us!

We were all excited to visit CTV Studios!

And now onto more news! After a busy (and somewhat relaxing) reading week, we’re back at school and we’ve started a new term in the Science Communication program. Things couldn’t be more different for us!

First of all, we’ve had to say goodbye to two of our classmates, Mylene and Iara, who were here on an exchange from France. They are now completing their internships so that they can receive their Masters in Science Communication. Iara is back in France for her internship and Mylene is now in Montreal! We had a little going away party for them before they left to let them know how much we loved having them in our class. We miss you guys already!

The Science Communication students - together for one last time before Mylene and Iara head off for their internships. (Don't ask about James and Kevin's hair...)

Also, now that we’ve begun the practice portion of the program, we are now doing more hands-on work in the areas of our choice! We had the option of choosing from the following list of courses: Live Programming, Exhibits, Mass Media, and Information Technology. Because we all have different Science Communication interests and talents, we have all chosen different variations of these courses! These courses are a great opportunity for us to practice the things that we spent the first half of the year learning.

I decided to experiment with my teaching skills in the Live Programming course and to challenge my creative side in the Exhibits course.

For part of the live programming course, we must observe and deliver two different school programs at Science North. I spent the day on Friday observing different staff members deliver school programs in different areas of Science North. They are all so enthusiastic and good at their jobs. You could really tell that the students who were visiting were having a good time (and learning!). Hopefully when it comes time for me to deliver a school program, I will be as great as the Science North staff were!

In Exhibits, I have been trying to create an exhibit that engages visitors in a chemistry-related topic. This is something that is difficult to do in science centres – it’s hard to take a subject like chemistry, that sometimes requires lots of assistance, and create an exhibit that can be easily manipulated by visitors.

I think we’ve already learned a few important things in this class:
  1. There is a lot of work that goes into creating exhibits. If someone can walk up to an exhibit, know what to do right away, and take something away from it, then it was an effective exhibit. Being able to make an exhibit like this is not as easy as it looks!
  2. The initial idea won’t be the final idea. I’m two weeks into the course and have already changed my exhibit idea at least 3 times.
  3. Getting input from others is extremely helpful when creating an exhibit. An important practice that we have been using is something like a “sharing circle,” where we describe our idea and receive feedback from classmates. We’ve also been working in pairs and noticing that it’s a great idea to bounce ideas off of others.

The only downside to me choosing these two awesome courses is that I now spend less time with classmates who have chosen other options! We’ve all become so close throughout the first 6 months of the course that it’s kind of strange not being all together in the boardroom – I guess we will just have to rely on our social lives to keep us all connected before we head off to our internships in April!

- Sarah :)

P.S. This is the first blog that I have written and posted on my own! (Well... I did need a little help from Justin! But still, it's pretty exciting!)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Late last month, Benjamin D Santer, one of the scientists under attack in the "Climategate" affair, wrote a thorough and reasoned rebuttal as a guest contributor on In the comments responding to his article, many were very supportive as would be expected. What was a bit surprising was that many contributors observed that climate scientists were losing the debate and climate science was losing credibility just because of this kind of reasoned argument.

For example, FishOutOfWater wrote:

"You need to read George Lakoff’s work on framing a political argument. You should never repeat a derogatory allegation in an effort to refute it. Repeating the allegation reinforces it.

"The attacks on climate scientists are political, not scientific. Attempts to respond to political attacks by a scientific approach will not be successful in the public arena. The public in the U.K. is losing trust in climate scientists because scientists are responding in a way that reinforces the negative framing of the attackers."

Framing the argument. Scientists are reluctant to appear to be making their case with anything other than pure reason but Dr Santer is naive if he thinks that is even what he is doing. The whole passage is written as a response to an article, a story by Fred Pierce in the Guardian. He has accepted and implicitly reinforced the framing of the argument presented there. He has already lost.

George Lakoff has studied the framing of debates for many years and strongly advocates the analysis of basic 'stories' as a way to understand how people understand and accept persuasive arguments. For example he interprets the deep split between liberal and conservative values in Amercian politics as based on two distinct family metaphors: conservatives believe in a strict authoritarian father figure who imposes tough discipline to raise responsible offspring who, once they have proven themselves, deserve to be free of interference to lead their lives as they wish. Liberals prefer a more conciliatory and cooperative view of parenting with all involved in decision making and all continuing to be responsible for each other throughout life. The problem for liberals, as Lakoff describes it, is that they attempt to persuade with reason (listening, Dr Santer?) while conservatives, beginning in the era of Ronald Regan, have consciously taken control of the discourse and succeeded in having the p0litical debate framed in their terms. Barack Obama won by refusing to be drawn into the conservative frame, instead creating his own framing vision. Lakoff says he has struggled since his election because he has fallen back into the of liberal habit of arguing by reason.

Lakoff looks for the powerful framing stories in the primitive human brain, in the cognitive foundations of our metaphors. For example, he wrote with Raphael Nunez a cognitive history of the development of mathematics.

So what is a climate scientist to do? What is the right frame? Mostly, the climate change community, when they have seized control, have framed the issue as apocalyptic: "Mitigate or disaster follows. Adaptation will be needed. An inconvenient truth." Not attractive. Distasteful.

If you've been reading along looking for the BIG BREAKTHROUGH frame, sorry to disappoint. But we had better find one soon or climate change will get the opportunity to make its own case. And it will be persuasive, if inconvenient and maybe apocalyptic.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Don't be such a scientist...

Don't be so cerebral, don't be so literal minded, don't be such a poor story teller, don't be unlikable and don't be such a scientist. That pretty much sums up Randy Olson's book Don't be such a scientist: Talking substance in an age of style, since I just named all the chapters. The book is meant to be a guide for scientists floundering through the process of communicating with the public.

The book opens with the trials and tribulations of our plucky hero Randy Olson, a tenured marine biologist trying to break into the world of Hollywood. Throughout the book we get glimpses of his life and the lessons he has learned about science communication. He goes through the pitfalls of communicating as a scientist and what to things to avoid.

Olson spent about 15 years as a university professor and it shows. A lot of the book felt like being in a university course with a long-winded professor that tells more than a few, mostly related anecdotes before getting to the point.

That being said, Olson does have many good points. As scientists we tend to be overly critical of things because that is what we are trained to do. When reading a paper or listening to a presentation, we try to poke holes in peoples arguments or methods. As he puts it, we start with a "no" rather than a "yes". However starting with a "no" and being the skeptic puts a gap between you and the public. It is like being the kid who doesn't believe in Santa Claus and ruins it for the rest.

The book has some good analogies like the "Four organs of connecting to a mass audience". Basically you have the head, the heart, the gut, and the sex organs. Scientists and people who think too much tend to communicate from the head. The public however, tends to communicate more from the rest of the organs. Olson states that to communicate to the broadest audience we have to "move the process out of the head, into the heart with sincerity, into the gut with humour, and into the lower organs for sex appeal". (Sounds like rhetorical analysis).

For all the "Dont's" he has in the book, there are not a whole lot of "Do". His main suggestion is to be Carl Sagan, one of the greatest science communicators so far. Many people are critical of the book for the same reason.

The point of the book as he puts it, is not to teach you to be a mass communicator. (You should join our program if that's what you are interested in.) The book is meant as a lesson to help scientists "rethink [their] style of reach a larger audience". I think if Olson prefaced the book with this statement, the book would have gotten better reviews with the scientific community.

I enjoyed this book. I didn't agree with everything in it, but the good points really stuck with me. Life is too short to make every mistake in science communication. Read the book and learn from Olson's experiences. Take away the messages that can help you be a better communicator.

As a last note, what is the deal with all these marine biologists becoming science communicators? Randy Olson was a marine biology professor at the University of New Hampshire, Sheril Kirshenbaum completed her thesis on sea cucumbers. I guess we just like to talk...