Communicating science blogging workshop

I’m so excited! This week, the University of Adelaide is running it’s first ever Communicating Science course as a winter intensive postgraduate course.

I’m going to be giving some lectures, but right now I’m sitting in a computer suite and all our students are being shown how to set up their very first blogs with James Byrne and Mike Seyfang.  These brand new blogs are:

Please be extra nice to them while they take baby steps into the bright, scary, online world!!

Here is a link to James’ prezi

And another useful link is the University of Adelaide’s social media guide, which is found on their social media blog and can be downloaded here

Does ‘getting it wrong’ bring us closer to getting it right?

This morning my twitter feed was swamped with comments from agricultural producers about the new advertisements by Woolworths. The conversation was prompted by a blog post from Lynne Strong on how the advertisements made her feel. As you can see from her blog, Lynne has worked hard to present a very different view of agriculture than that presented in the ads. I’m compiling a collection of tweets using storify which will be added here shortly. The main issue was that the images of farmers and rural life in general was not consistent with the ‘professional and caring’ image that the industry want to portray to consumers. Recently a Senate report on “higher education and skills training to support agriculture and agribusiness in Australia” called for a “re-writing of the agricultural narrative” (p 45). It would seem that Woolworths just didn’t get that memo.

This morning’s conversation reminded me of another recent and spectacular “image fail”. Last week, Science, it’s a girl thing, a campaign to attract girls into the sciences exploded online (as recorded by my friend Mike Seyfang using Storify) and led to a number of articles such as this one in The Conversation by Helen Maynard-Casely and this one in The Punch by Tory Shepard. Again, most of the commentary I saw was from women in science who said the images did not represent them and should be used to promote their profession to others.

Although, in both examples, the people complaining about the campaigns are not the target market, the images of who they are and what they do are being used by someone else to sell something. In the “Science, it’s a girl thing” it is a career in science, something which all people in science, not just women, feel very strongly about. My understanding is that this campaign is now being re-thought.

Of course, Woolworths are trying to move product, which may be the only consideration, but they are doing it by appropriating and perpetuating an image of agriculture that many people, me included, have been trying to change for a number of years. Yes, characters are important in any story, but I’m sure there are other characters that could be included to provide that ‘entertainment’ value that’s arguably needed in advertising.

The difference between the two campaigns is that one was put together for a government agency and it seems, has been withdrawn. The other is for a commercial company, who are, perhaps ironically, a sponsor of the Australian Year of the Farmer. I wonder if there was any consultation with agricultural producers, or consumers for that matter, at all?

Both campaigns strike deeply at people’s individual identities and misrepresent who people are and what drives them. For both groups these identities are hard-forged. I think that’s why they have both made people angry.

However, both campaigns have sparked conversations which I hope will grow into postitive changes. Both have caused the communities to articulate the kinds of images that they do want to portray and to talk about the real barriers to ensuring that young people (of both genders) see agriculture and science as good places to be. I know it’s not possible to please everyone with these kinds of campaigns, but I’m optimistic that with each time we get something wrong, we are closer to getting it right.

Ingredients for learning about food production


One of my favourite cooking utensils is a hand beater that I inherited from my grandmother. All the paint has worn off, but it has a good weight to it and the action still feels smooth. It has a nice sound, and using it reminds me of her and the times I’d help her cook.

I started learning about food from my grandparents. Visiting them and helping to prepare the Sunday roast are among my strongest memories. Both of my parent’s parents had small suburban back yards with vegetables gardens tucked away up the back. Grandpa would take me out to get carrots, zucchinis and chokos. With Gran I’d pick the mint to go into the mint sauce. Poppa would take me get some apple cucumbers if we were having a salad, parsnips for a roast and I remember picking and shelling bags of peas with Grandma. Some even made it to the pot! At Grandma’s we’d also have stewed rhubarb, straight from the garden, with sago for sweets.

Like many people working in agriculture, I was disappointed with the results of the recent survey undertaken by the Primary Industries Education Foundation that showed very low levels of knowledge of food and fibre production in Australian school children. I have followed the development of the Foundation from a Network started in 2004 and programs I’ve worked on feature in the original scoping study published in 2005. But my disappointment was more than general frustration at the survey’s findings. I am only one of a whole bunch of people who have been talking to community groups, the general public, school teachers and school students about agriculture for a decade or so now. So were we wasting our time? I’d like to believe we weren’t.

Of course we need to increase awareness of the opportunities that agriculture provides to learn within a whole range of curriculum areas such as science, geography, history, nutrition and health and even design studies. We also need to ensure that excellent resources are provided to give teachers the confidence to present material that they initially may be unfamiliar with, and I’m delighted that the work of the PIEF can continue.

But I don’t think the disconnection of urban Australians with food production is solely a product of a lack of agricultural education in schools. While I (and many others) would like to see more, agriculture has been there. This means that I don’t think we are going to solve the problem with school-based programs alone. I think we need to look further. We need to understand the social and cultural environment in contemporary Australia that led us to this situation and I’m hoping to explore this further in my research.

However I do think there is an obvious contributor to the situation we’re in, based on my own personal experience. I didn’t start learning about food production in school. I learned about it at home, or more correctly, in my grandparents’ homes. Once a generation or two of busy urban Australians lost that connection and understanding, the chain of knowledge was broken. And I think that learning about food production at school will only have a real, enduring impact if it’s supported by what happens at home.

Perhaps I’m impatient, but I don’t want to wait for today’s school children to grow up before our society values food production and all that goes into it. I want to see more programs that involve today’s adults, so that they both teach their children and support what their children are learning at school. Of course, without a curriculum, a classroom and a teacher, programs for adults are a lot tricker to do.

I’ve been thinking for some time that the key to this has to be food. Everyone eats, and food would provide the perfect vehicle for food producers to explain why they do what they do to people from the city. But would only a one-way conversation, which would never really work. The most profound learning experiences are those based on dialogue, exchange, shared learning. I believe it is equally as important for producers to understand consumers as it is the other way around. Last week I came across a journal article that discussed the relatively conservative eating habits of rural Australians and I’m beginning to think that this could be the opportunity for exchange that would be needed. The urbanites would share what they know about preparing the diverse food that makes up modern Australian cuisine and rural food producers could share what they do to produce the foods. Preparing and eating meals together could provide a very powerful way for people to engage and exchange ideas.

So I’ve started to enrol people that excel at turning ideas into something while I let the idea percolate for a while. I think, ultimately, it’s going to have to be up to other people to make this happen. I might have the occasional good idea but I’m not so great on the follow through and I already have more on my plate than I can manage. As long as I get an invite to that inaugural city/country banquet, I’ll be happy!


Bringing story back

One of the things that’s really important to me as a science communicator is telling stories. I certainly didn’t invent the idea of moving towards a more narrative way of describing science, and I know that I’m not the only one that feels that storytelling is key to more engagement in science. In fact, it was this idea in particular which lead to the creation of the #onsci (“on science”) twitter chats that started last year after the Inspiring Australia conference. But now I feel that I’m actually starting to put my ideas into practice and it’s exciting!

Recently an article that I wrote (with Waite scientist Matt Gilliham) was published on Scientific American’s guest blog. It still makes me want to do a happy dance when I think about it. I was really lucky that Matt was prepared to indulge my ideas, both when pitching and writing the story, and that his research had such a good story behind it. I’m also really lucky to be working in science communication right now.

I have actually been working in science communication for more than 10 years in various guises. As recently as 3 years ago, using blogging and other social  media tools as a way to communicate science was not considered by research organisations, at least not the ones I knew about. Almost all of our communications activities were focused on the mainstream media, newspapers in particular, which lead to a formula for writing science. Of course I understand a particular style of writing is needed to catch the attention of someone who only bought the paper to line the budgie cage. But now, with blogs etc, we have intentional, deliberate readers who want to be inspired and amazed, rather than accidental readers who we hope will read enough words to think ‘science is important’ before they turn the page.

I have always been interested in telling stories about science and I didn’t realise how different this was from ‘conventional’ science communication until very recently, when another science communicator was providing some feedback on something I’d written. She gave me some direct feedback on the statements attributed to her organisation, but then she gave me some advice on how the article should have been written; more stress on the impact of the work, especially at the beginning. I hadn’t written to the formula.

My decision to not write to the formula was deliberate. We’ve been taught that science articles should look something like: researchers have solved a problem, what the problem is & why it is important, how they did it (sciencey bit), why this research is important and how the results of the research will be delivered to solve the problem. But not all research is a breakthrough. Most breakthroughs happen because teams of scientists have worked hard for a long time on a small piece in a big puzzle. Often they aren’t exactly sure which puzzle the piece belongs to, and the picture on the front of the box can be absent, wrong or incomplete.

Do we really want to know how the story ends at the beginning? I’m interested in telling the kinds of stories that meander; that describe surprise, creativity, discovery and disappointment

Although it’s only one post, I feel like I’ve finally made a start. I hope it’s the first of many!

Dear Sir David

This post was first published on the Letters to Sir David Attenborough blog set up by my ASC pals @upulie and @ScientistMags.

Dear Sir David

Everyone has a collection of Very Special Things. These are the precious things, the first things into the car when a bushfire looms along with the kids and the pets. Keepsakes like negatives, lost teeth and Nanna’s china. On my list of Very Special Things, somewhere near my great-grandmother’s Queen Victoria mourning handkerchief from 1901 and the lock of hair from my son’s first hair cut, is my copy of the Trials of Life, autographed by you.

I was in third year at Uni in Sydney when the book and TV series came out; studying a unit on animal behaviour as part of my agricultural science degree so the timing was perfect. You were doing a signing at the ABC Shop in the Queen Victoria Building and it’s still the only book signing I’ve ever been to. I thought I’d got there pretty early, but the queue already snaked around the building, giving me plenty of time to rehearse my ‘speech’. I wanted to tell you how you’d been an inspiration for a generation of people like me, growing up in regional Australia in the Time Before Internet. You brought amazing images of the beauty and diversity of nature into our homes, our lounge rooms, giving us a window into our very own world. Watching your TV programs was a family ritual and I couldn’t help but be fascinated by it all. I wanted to tell you that my love of science and desire to become a scientist was influenced by you. I wanted to say something profound and funny so that you might remember me out of the millions of people who queued up for your autograph. In the end, I was so nervous and awestruck that I’m not sure that I spoke at all, but I do remember that you smiled at me as you closed the cover of the book and pushed it towards me.

The book has always had pride of place on my book shelf. The dust cover has bite marks in it after a mouse plague in Queensland and maybe one day I’ll buy another copy so I can swap it over. Like the book I’m probably a little worse for wear now too. I didn’t make it as a scientist, but my fascination with living things has never left me. When I was trying to work out what else to do with my life, I remembered how hearing the rich, descriptive narrative of the story of life on this planet made me feel and the next step became obvious. I haven’t done anything profound or inspiring like you, but I have made a living talking to people about how amazing the living world is. And you showed me that was possible.

So now that I have the opportunity to talk to you again, all I really want to say is …

Thank you, Sir David.


A room full of friends I’d never met

Last week I went to the Australian Science Communicators conference in Sydney. I’ve been to lots of work-related conferences before, but this one felt very different. Perhaps it was because I was presenting my own research, rather than someone elses, for the first time in a long time. But I think the main reason was because I was attending a conference full of friends that I’d never actually met.

Through Twitter, I’ve been lucky enough to have had conversations with a number of people either doing, researching or just interested in science communication in Australia. Some of them I’ve been talking to as long as I’ve been on Twitter, just over a year now, without ever meeting them in person. Although we do talk about science and science communication, for example during #onsci chats, we also talk about music and concerts, tv shows and books, holidays, birthdays, work, families and children. It was amazing and humbling to be greeted as a long lost friend by people I admire.

There’s already a number of links to blogs and other highlights from the conference. The inspiring call to arms to communicate science better by Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb (here) is an important read for anyone interested in science and society.

There’s also live blogging by Kylie Sturgess (here is a link to her post on ‘Science and Social Media’) and a more reflective piece (here) by the Director of the RiAus, Dr Paul Willis. There are probably others I’ve missed. Some of the sessions also have Storify summaries, for example the session on ‘The Consultancy Game‘ compiled by Sarah Keenihan.

For me there are a few things that have stayed with me since returning home.

The first is that there seems to be a paradigm shift in the way we are thinking about evaluating and researching science communication activities. Several years ago I was a science communicator, with a science background, working on a program that had been devised by a scientist. I quickly realised that the complex way science is supported, ignored or used by society is not a scientific phenomenon. It is a social one, and there are a growing number of people who are using approaches from social science and other disciplines to investigate how people engage with scientific issues. I look forward to learning more from them.

The second is the connection between science and art. One of the highlights of the conference for me was the ‘Science as Art’ exhibition organised by Kate Paterson (and I’ll be ordering a t-shirt with the people’s choice winning image ‘Descent of Chicken’  by James Hutson ASAP). But as the connection between art and science came up from time to time it started to feel like a ‘new thing’ and I started to wonder when the connection was lost. For me, there has always been art in science (think botany), art in science communication (think diagrams and illustration), art inspired by science (think Escher) and of course science IN art (think pigment chemistry, conservation and new tools and techniques). Perhaps what we need to be doing is promoting (and supporting) science more broadly as a creative and cultural activity.

Thirdly, perhaps there was a missed opportunity to look closely at some of the emerging science-based issues and to use our collective expertise to devise ways of engaging the community. The last session I went to was on the ‘War on Science’ where we critiqued some science communication issues and it struck me that the collective experience within the ASC is phenomenal.

Finally, I’ve seen how Twitter can become intergrated into the fabric of a conference – not just to connect people BEFORE the conference, but also during and after. During the conference several tweeps broadcast highlights to their networks, allowing people within ‘our community’ who could not be there in person to participate. Others used Twitter to reflect, pose questions or provide links to examples which could be followed up at a later date. Of course there was some ‘back of the classroom’ stuff, but that all added to the conference experience. Several people started tweeting at the conference and the conversations are continuing still, a week later, on the conference hashtag #ASC2012. I have become amazed at how Twitter can be used as a platform for ‘communities of practice’.

All in all it was an inspiring and fulfilling event, perhaps best summed up by this tweet by @upulie:

… and what could be better than that!

Look at our tomatoes!

As you’ve probably gathered, I’m not one to miss an opportunity for some agricultural science, whether it’s at work, social occaisons or at home. Recently an opportunity presented itself so I thought I’d share.

During the summer school holidays, Boy persuaded me to get some of those ‘kitchen garden’ kits from a popular retailer. They come in a plastic cup with two pellets of compressed coconut fibre and a packet of seeds. We bought tomatoes (a dwarf variety), chillies, coriander and chives. Being a good little scientist, I encouraged Boy to follow the instructions to the letter, and we planted all the seeds in the cups. I didn’t count how many there were, but there were way more than we needed and the instuctions said that you could thin them out afterwards (and you never know what the germination percentage is going to be like with these things).

Within a couple of weeks we had cups full of seedlings, so it was back to the shop to get some potting mix. I filled a few pots with the cheap potting mix I bought but still didn’t have enough, so I mixed the soil from some old pots I wasn’t using with composty soil from the bottom of the compost bin.  I had mixed success with some of the other plants, but one of the pots of tomato seedlings just went off!

The tomatoes in the two pots were transplanted at the same time. The pot on the left is the cheap potting mix and the pot on the right is the compost mixture. Yes, there are actually some seedings in the pot on the left!

Admittedly the cheap potting mix had the consistency of shredded bark, but I didn’t expect it to be that bad. I also didn’t expect my compost to be that good, although I’ve been using the same bin for years, adding unused fruit/veg (naughty!), scraps & peels and the dirty bedding from our  two guinea pigs.

I asked Boy what he thought was happening.

He suggested that there could be more nutrients that the tomatoes needed in the compost mix and also thought that there could be bigger air spaces in the commercial potting mix which let the water through too quickly. He also thought that the tomato roots might find it easier to get through the compost mix.

While all of these are valid hypothesis, I didn’t really have the equipment to test them at home. What I did have was a pH testing kit. Doesn’t everyone? These kits aren’t expensive and are available at most places where you buy garden stuff. Although Boy didn’t mention pH as a possibility, I thought it was worth a try. I had done some pH stuff with Boy before (the old red-cabbage indicator trick – I still have the photos somewhere) so when I mentioned that I thought we should see how acid or alkaline the soils were, he knew basically what I was talking about.

So we put a small sample of the soils on a white tile, added the indicator and then the white powder to make the colour show up. There was quickly an obvious difference according to the colour chart, but we needed to wait a couple of minutes to read the result, so we decided to look up what soil pH tomatoes liked.

According to a site we found, tomatoes do best at the slightly acidic pH of 5.8-6.8.

To our surprise, the potting mix (the lower sample in the picture) has a pH closer to 8 or even 9. No wonder our tomatoes weren’t happy!

We’ve now transplanted the seedlings from the potting mix into another mixture of old soil and compost to see if they’ll recover. And I’ll definitely be mixing the new potting mix with compost and checking the pH before I use it again.