Get out of the Bubble

Professors in a hashtag frenzy, post-docs at science slams, and a wealth of university-published glossy magazines: The communication channels for scientific findings are legion. Nevertheless, the perception of scientific findings seems to be dwindling in this age of rapidly produced and increasing disinformation. This is why there was great concern at this year’s European Science Open Forum (ESOF) in Toulouse, France, that science communication was in crisis. Examples presented by the Robert Bosch Stiftung showed how the scientific community could regain access to target groups with little exposure to science, in keeping with the motto: "Get out of the bubble!”

Maximilian Grosser | July 2018
Maximilian Grosser

Practicing for a jaw harp performance: Tamar Levy gives the conference participants an understanding of the physics of sound.

Two tongue depressors, two matches, two elastic bands, and a sheet of paper in-between: That’s all Tamar Levy needs for her little experimental arrangement on the physics of sound. Some 15 conference participants surround the energetic Israeli researcher at ESOF, handling these simple components and initially struggling slightly to replicate this minimalist version of a jaw harp. But only a few minutes later, they demonstrate the success of the experiment with a brief jaw harp performance. Science can be entertaining at times.

The experiment with the tongue depressors and paper is Ms. Levy’s simple approach to science communication, which she has been pursuing for almost ten years at the Davidson Institute of Science Education, part of the world-renowned Weizmann Institute for Science in Reshovot near Tel Aviv. At this prestigious institution for basic research, which counts three Nobel prize laureates among its alumni, the environmental scientist teaches lab work and the fundamentals of scientific thinking – not to students but to high school drop-outs, juvenile offenders, and street kids.

Maximilian Grosser

Building self-esteem, team spirit, and a sense of responsibility: Tamar Levy teaches the fundamentals of scientific thinking to problem children.

Basic research to strengthen self-esteem

“Our approach uses science as a means and tool of personal development,” Ms. Levy briefly describes the objective of her educational program. The problem children must attend 25 sessions with her that each take several hours. In class, they learn about the basics of chemistry or electrical engineering, but also do basic research based on their own interests, all the while building self-esteem, team spirit, and a sense of responsibility. “Connecting the young people’s inquiring minds with their daily lives and experiences is key,” explains Ms. Levy, “because the goal of our classes is for them to develop and produce their own products.” One student, for instance, built a theremin, an electronic musical instrument, while another developed a cosmetic range.

The scheme is a success: Close to 95 percent of the participants in this skills development program graduate from high school – and start their professional careers more successfully than they may have hoped before. “Our intention is not to turn them into scientists. We just want to take them out of their usual environment and their lives where they see no prospects for themselves and their future,” says Ms. Levy.

A lab at summer camp

Science communication must accomplish more than merely giving outsiders an idea of academic thinking, Philipp Burkard believes. The managing director of Science et Cité – Wissenschaft und Gesellschaft im Dialog, a Swiss foundation, pursues a similar approach. “There are tons of science communication formats – hosted in museums or at universities. But who attends them? The professors’ children,” deadpans Mr. Burkard. What he considers more important is to reach out to those who never visit a museum or university.

Maximilian Grosser

The basic principle of their joint program is that everything has to be a lot of fun, says Philipp Burkard.

This is why he and his foundation set out to look for the right partner – and found a provider of summer camps for socially disadvantaged children. The basic principle of their joint program is that everything has to be a lot of fun, as kids don’t want to feel like they are in school during summer break. “We organize playful input to complement hiking, cooking, or soccer, where we deal with, say, time travel, gravity, or hydrology.” The key to success is that at least once, a session must be run by an actual scientist. “The contents of the experiments are not nearly as important. It’s more important for the kids to see who produces knowledge for society – simply because we trust people, not knowledge alone,” stresses Mr. Burkard.

Field research in the neighborhood

Is a playful approach the ideal way for future science communication to reach those who are rarely exposed to science otherwise? And who are these target groups with little exposure to science anyway? These are the questions currently pursued by Science for All, a research project supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung, run by Wissenschaft im Dialog, an initiative of Germany’s scientific community, and based at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). “We want to find a way to better reach trainees, the socially disadvantaged, and Muslims,” explains Ricarda Ziegler, project manager at Wissenschaft im Dialog. “The first thing we have to do is listen: What is their everyday life like? What role does science play, and what role could it play in the future?”

Maximilian Grosser

Ricarda Ziegler explores what the target groups with little exposure to science look like and tries to define the future design of science communication.

Currently, the project is still conducting research at neighborhood organizations and citizen action groups. In workshops and group discussions, the team tries to define the future design of science communication. The exploration phase is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2018. Next is the pilot phase for new formats designed to help build trust in science and research. “What these formats will be is still a big question mark – maybe graffiti workshops, maybe excursions to research institutions,” Ms. Ziegler suggests. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear: Topics must be close to everyday life, the language more accessible, and venues not universities or museums.

But another thing is already clear: Trust in scientific findings is a long way from in crisis. Only the constant chatter on social media and the attacks on scientific findings, such as in climate research, have increased.