Video games where players contribute to scientific research, exhibitions helping to understand the imminent reality: “Falling Walls Engage” awards projects breaking new grounds in science communication and overcoming the boundaries between science and society. We are presenting three of this year's winner projects.
Science communication as a communal approach: Using participatory approaches such as music the initiative "Difu Simo" destigmatizes mental illness in Kilifi County, Kenya. Therefore, it sucessfully engages local actors.
For half his life Changawa, a man living in the rural area of Kilifi County, Kenya, was kept in chains. The reason: He was behaving oddly, wandering off into the woods at night or showing signs of aggression and hallucination. His family was convinced their brother and uncle was cursed – when in fact he was showing signs of schizophrenia.
The proportion of people with mental illness who access mental health care is very low in sub-Saharan Africa. One of the reasons is the stigma surrounding the conditions: “People believe mental illness is caused by witchcraft or sorcery”, Judy Baariu explains. She is a research officer for “Difu Simo”, a mental health awareness campaign that was inspired by Changawa’s story.
About the person
Judy Baariu is a trained nurse currently working as a research officer within the KERMII-Wellcome-Trust research programme in Kilifi, Kenya. She feels passionate about promoting mental health and preventing mental health issues in low resource settings.
Using participatory approaches such as films, art and music, the campaign destigmatizes mental illness and sensitizes the public in Kilifi County. Therefore, it actively invites community members to engage: “In the beginning it was difficult to convince them we have scientific evidence that these conditions can be treated. But as soon as we used community members with lived experiences as speakers we were able to create a huge support system”, says Judy Baariu.
Breaking new grounds in science communcation
“Difu Simo” is one of many projects highlighting how finding innovative ways of science engagement can significantly improve a situation. Therefore, it is one of the 20 winner projects at this year’s “Falling Walls Engage”. The forum, taking place during the yearly Falling Walls Science Summit, awards projects providing unique answers to the following questions: How can we break the wall between science and the public? What spaces and networks can we provide for people to engage in research? And how can we help people realize that science is in fact dealing with issues that affect their everyday life?
The online exhibition season "CONTAGION" invites visitors to explore the phenomenon of transmission of diseases, behaviours and emotions. Here, the Indian artist Ranjit Kandalgaonkar drew the Bombay plague.
How relevant science engagement is for everyone is also highlighted by another one of the winner projects: Just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world in early 2020 Jahnavi Phalkey and her team at the Science Gallery Bengaluru (India) launched their first ever online exhibition-season. Its title: CONTAGION. With 16 interactive exhibits and more than 40 live programs such as workshops and masterclasses it explores the transmission of diseases, behaviors and emotions. “When we decided to do it the pandemic was horrendous”, Jahnavi Phalkey remembers. “So we wanted to provide two things: A place of quiet and rest from the relentless news. And a tool that would help making sense of what was happening.”
About the person
Jahnavi Phalkey was appointed Founding Director of the Science Gallery Bengaluru in 2018. Previously she was faculty at King’s College London. She started her academic career at the University of Heidelberg, following which she was based at Georgia Tech-Lorraine, France, and Imperial College London. Jahnavi was also an external curator to the Science Museum London.
Therefore, the exhibition put things into perspective: To help people distance themselves from the uncertainty of their situation, the exhibiton brought in history – showing that similar crises have been overcome before. On the other hand CONTAGION offered insights into how different things spread, from viruses to laughter, to computer viruses. “We wanted people to use this information and thinking tools to help them understand”, Jahnavi Phalkey explains.
This highlights CONTAGION’s innovative attempt at science engagement: It hands back the responsibility of interpreting research in everyday life to its audience. “As scientists we usually have something to share and think we know what is the best message to be taken to the public”, Jahnavi Phalkey says. “With CONTAGION we say there are layers of interpretation that the audience can build themselves towards finding a message that can actually be useful to them.”
The science behind "Borderlands Science"
In the video game "Borderlands 3" this archade machine leads to a citizen-science-minigame: "Borderlands Science".
In a tetris-like matrix users find certain patterns. In reality they analyze DNA sequences submitted by "The American Gut Project" and help study the human microbiome.
Breaking the wall between science and video games
Engaging with people’s everyday lives is also key for another one of the winner projects: Massively Multiplayer Online Science (MMOS) shows how citizens can have a huge impact on scientific research – by playing video games. “I was always fascinated by citizen science. But it faces some difficulties”, says Attila Szantner, CEO of MMOS. In many cases the tasks participants are being asked to carry out to contribute to citizen science are repetitive and quickly become boring. To solve this problem Szantner and his team came up with an idea: “Video games are masters of engagement. That is why we decided to integrate crowdsourced scientific micro-tasks and major video games as a seamless gaming experience”, he explains. The tasks become part of the game’s narrative, visuals and reward system.
About the person
As CEO and co-founder of MMOS ("Massively Multiplayer Online Science") Attila Szantner built several successful award-winning collaborations between major research institutions and AAA game developers engaging millions of players in citizen science activities and collecting hundreds of millions of player contributions in EVE Online’s "Project Discovery" and "Borderlands Science".
The two flagship projects engage over 3 million participants. One of them is “Borderlands Science”, integrated into “Borderlands 3”: As players approach an old archade machine it leads them to a minigame with a tetris-like matrix where they have to figure out certain patterns. In doing so they get rewards for their character while in reality contributing to “The American Gut Project”, an approach studying the human microbiome. Everytime players move a brick they actually manipulate DNA sequences.
Collaborating with major gaming companies MMOS has included citizen science into several mainstream games – getting multiple million gamers to contribute to scientific research. “By converting a small fraction of the billions of hours we spend with gaming into useful activities in science, we are creating a virtually limitless resource for research and a unique opportunity to engage communities with science”, Attila Szantner says.