As conferences switch to online formats, the science communication community is rapidly developing innovative ways to engage the public at virtual events. The experience of the STEAM summer school gave some insight into how online and hybrid SciComm events might be organised in the future.
By Fiona McLoone, Ian Martin, Laura Bell, & Joseph Roche, Science Gallery Dublin
Fiona and Ian, who previously wrote on the QUEST blog about how Science Gallery Dublin reacted to the pandemic are back with another post. As well as working on an academic writing handbook for museum communications as part of the QUEST project, and undertaking master’s degrees in science communication, Fiona and Ian also found time to participate in a virtual STEAM Summer (Winter) School.
The STEAM summer school is a unique science communication initiative that provides professional development for participants using a flipped classroom approach. For the past few years, participants from a range of science communication professions have engaged in an online multimedia course in science communication theory before participating in an intense ten-day practice-oriented school that has been held in Germany, Greece, and Malta.
This approach means that science communication students, researchers, and professionals can engage with new ideas from the research before experimenting with those concepts in a supportive environment focused on peer-learning. This is of particular interest to researchers in the QUEST project, as the findings from the project indicated a fragmented field with significant gaps between research and practice (Check out Deliverable 1.1 from the project, a summary report of European Science Communication today).
While the flipped classroom approach worked well with an in-person summer school, the COVID-19 global pandemic caused the STEAM school to change its format. Here, Fiona and Ian share their novel experience with Laura and Joseph.
How did the School work during the pandemic?
This year, the programme was an intensive five day experience dedicated to developing, marketing, and delivering a unique SciCom event targeted to an online audience. A group of 14 international students from around the world including educators, researchers and science enthusiasts took part in this virtual school experiment!
Each day was dedicated to a key element of science communication, mixing theory with practical skills. Some interesting themes explored during the week included understanding audience inclusivity, getting innovative with modes of delivery – such as theatre and digital engagement – and trialing different forms of reflective practice. Despite being hosted entirely over Zoom, the experience was far from one-dimensional, incorporating a range of activities including script writing, performance, lectures, and whiteboard co-creation sessions.
From the very beginning, we were all working towards developing our event, ‘Swipe Right for Science’, which was the conclusion of our digital STEAM experience. The event consisted of an online treasure hunt for teenagers aimed at presenting the science of waves and communication through superhero narratives and video standup. Despite the rush to deliver an event in just two weeks, between multiple Zoom sessions and utter chaos on the co-working platform Slack, the team managed to create an one-hour long family-friendly experience. Being given the creative licence to experiment with a new event format was a definite highlight of the experience for us.
Describe your experience of the STEAM Digital School: what was most rewarding?
The most rewarding aspect of the school for us was developing our newfound passion for innovative ways to engage the public with science online. Another impactful element of the week was learning about the use of improvisation in science communication: that is, the use of comedy to frame science in a fun and accessible manner which may spark curiosity in those who perceive science isn’t ‘for them’. Our confidence in using comedy as a communication tool has been boosted by the School’s workshops. We now realise that messing up standup and laughing it off makes the comedic delivery funnier and even more memorable!
What was most challenging?
The most challenging part was the screen fatigue, spending long periods of time in front of the computer was a definite test for our attention spans but a challenge that we would accept again in a heartbeat!
What do you think about the future of virtual formats in STEAM and science communication?
We think virtual formats for science communication are here to stay during and post-pandemic. While you can’t fully recreate the in-person atmosphere, we feel that a positive attitude from attendees can fill that physical void. With additional interactive platforms coming onstream, such as MURAL (a visual digital workspace) and people becoming more familiar with online platforms, we think the space between online and offline formats is narrowing. If 14 people from all over the world can design an online event in less than two weeks, then maybe virtual formatted events are easier to pull off than you think and are here for the long term!
Overall, do you think your STEAM experience has influenced you as a science communicator?
We were interested in attending the STEAM summer school because we thought it would be a great way to complement the master’s in Science Communication we are currently doing, in addition to letting us experience first-hand the incredible work which was done to transition the School into the digital world. We were intrigued to see how the experience would work – the questions at the forefront of our minds were: What do we gain and what do we lose when physical science communication courses go virtual? Are in-person interactions the reason why the School was so impactful in the past?
After attending the digital School, we can assure you that it’s not the physical closeness to the people that matters, rather it’s the willingness to engage, collaborate, and learn together that’s important. We met people from across four different continents, all from the comfort of our own homes, and were privileged to learn new and creative ways of communicating science, not only from experts in the field but also from our fellow participants. All expectations were surpassed for the week and we would strongly encourage anyone to sign up for future STEAM School weeks.
The STEAM experience has definitely influenced us as science communicators; not only have we connected with a new network of inspiring people but we also got the chance to immerse ourselves in an aspect of digital engagement which we never knew existed!
UPDATE: The paper “Science Communication Through STEAM: Professional Development and Flipped Classrooms in the Digital Age” has been published in the journal Science Communication.