Science communication and learning are two important areas which are too often neglected by scientists. Once an area of expertise for journalists with a science degree, science communication is an up and coming field with universities offering courses in science communication. Science communication is all about informing wider audiences about science in a way that engages people and, importantly, avoids misconceptions developing. Good science communication will undoubtedly lead to learning, but it will also lead to a love of learning and a love and trust of science and the scientific method. I am lucky to get to see some really great communicators giving inspiring talks as part of my job, but for others not working in scientific fields, often science communication is through media articles, small exhibits or large exhibits at museums. I was in Amsterdam recently and on a rainy day decided to take a small bus-man’s holiday and visit Micropia, a museum of microbiology and probably the first of it’s kind in the world.
I was over awed at Micropia. It blew most other science style museums out of the water. Engaging wider audiences in microbiology is notoriously difficult, yes electron microscopy produces some beautiful pictures but these are rarely exciting enough to engage the general public for a long time. Walking into Micropia was eye opening. Families were fully engaged in microbiology, either chatting to the staff, looking down microscopes or engaging with the vast array of displays. Micropia really has taken science communication to the next level and I just wanted to put down my thoughts as to why it was so good.
I think three things lead to the outstanding communication and engagement: Passionate staff; a variety of technologies and displays; and well considered topics.
Like most museums you can explore in a self-directed fashion to which ever exhibit takes your fancy. However, unlike most museums the staff are not there to keep a watchful eye on you and sit in the corner like a statue, the staff are real scientists! For anyone this is pretty exciting, but for children it must be incredibly cool, how often do they get to interact with real life scientists? By far the best thing about having these scientists is their knowledge and passion for everything at the exhibit. The staff are incredible, wandering over to different groups to share fun stories and facts, showing people how to use equipment all tailored to the individual’s knowledge base. For me, this is what really set this exhibition apart from others I have been to. I don’t for one minute think that scientists will always be the best communicators of science, but the passion of the Micropia staff was certainly infectious (Pun intended).
A variety of technologies and displays
Advances in technology have undoubtedly allow more and more access to the microbial world, but they do not always give a useful platform for engaging audiences. Micropia uses a range of technology to give audiences a diverse range of displays and ways of interacting with the microbial world. Often I see new technologies used which engages audiences, but they are more engaged with the technology that the topic! But I don’t think that this is what was happening. People were equally attracted to the modern technology, the motion detection and kiss-o-meter, as they were to the ant colonies, bacterial plates and food left to grow a range of beautiful fungi. I think what a lot of scientists, including me, often forget is that some of the things we take for granted are the most fascinating to others.
One brilliant use of technology are the touch screen displays attached to each microscope. These allow groups to see what one person is viewing through the microscope, and contain videos and information on the organism being viewed. The effect this had on the dynamics of the groups was clear, families and groups could watch the microbes in real time altogether, get excited about finding something under the microscope together, chat together and learn together.
I have to say the most addictive attraction was the collection of microbe stamps. Each display has one or two stamps which you print onto your visitor’s card, we had a small competition to see who could collect the most and who could remember the most at the end!
Choice of Topic
Some topics in science probably don’t lend themselves to engaging wider audiences who don’t know much about the field. However, what I will not do after visiting Micropia is dismiss a topic as uninspiring/ unengaging before giving it a fair chance. Micropia have done a fantastic job identifying the microbial phenomena which might most fascinate audiences. Some of these topics relate to the everyday, such as fungi growing on food or how many microbes are passed when your kiss! Some topics capture imaginations like luminescent bacteria and water bears being able to survive crazy-extreme environments. The other important aspect of choosing the right topic is matching a communication method. The technologies match the topic well, it would be easy to have pictures or an interactive video of bacterial grown from the TV remote (Or flicker if you are not posh!), but instead there is an actual plate which was more engaging.
Overall, Micropia is an elegant lesson in science communication and engaging wider audiences in learning about science. learning. I would encourage anyone to go along and be truly inspired by some very cool microbiology.