Engaging with Engagement

I have been silent for an inexcusably long time but I hope that you will excuse me anyway, because I have faith that all you readers are lovely forgiving people like that. There have been 3 reasons for my protracted silence: writing/editing my thesis (don’t ask!), giving Open Studies lectures (which I hope to blog about in future) and a postgraduate engagement conference which just finished today.

EwE chocolate goodies

Me guarding all the tasty EwE prizes to be won by the best engagers. Sheep themed chocolate, of course.

Engaging with Engagement, or EwE as I like to call it*, had the aim of bringing together postgraduates from all over Scotland and teaching them techniques for communicating their research to the public. I was inspired to run a conference like this after attending one myself in Manchester last May, where I was introduced to engagement methods that I had never considered before. I still think that very few postgraduates would even think about making a short video of themselves talking about their research, let alone be brave enough to implement it and put it online.

Solar flare

Example of a solar flare

And yet communicating what we’re researching is more important than ever, what with all the science/maths in the news, in politics and in business. Many of the presentations at the conference were relevant to stuff that was in the papers this very week: for example, understanding solar flares that will disrupt satellite communications and controlling epidemics on the 10th anniversary of the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Other talks were about the latest cancer research, how to prevent disasters like the wobbling London Millennium Bridge, how Google finds the most relevant search results, how to predict option prices, and how to exploit symmetries to explain modern physics.

I’m really proud of all the participants for having been able to communicate their research so clearly to me after just an hour and a half of training.  Talking about maths is a really difficult task. It’s easy to pitch the explanation too simply (dumbing down) or too complicatedly (using loads of jargon). Some of the delegates, when asked about their research two days ago, would have started a sentence with “let D be a differential operator”, or would have simply given up and said “oh, I do some kind of geometry that I don’t want to tell you about”.

Maths busking

How many maths buskers does it take to serve lunch?

I have to attribute a lot of the conference’s success to the brilliant people we had come along to be our mentors.  The world’s only stand-up mathematician, Matt Parker, came along to teach people how to perform maths busking.  Bestselling author and broadcaster Rob Eastaway helped people improve their speaking skills and showed off his own with a wonderful public lecture in the evening. Writer-in-residence at the Genomics Forum Pippa Goldschmidt led a fun session about putting maths into fiction stories, while EUSci editors Frank Dondelinger and Kirsten Shuler taught people to write an engaging non-fiction article. Finally, video-making experts Vidiowiki let people loose with cameras and expertise to make 3-minute videos about their research. If anyone else out there is thinking of planning some similar workshops, I cannot recommend these guys (and gals!) highly enough.

Making a video

Taking advantage of the beautiful ICMS building (a converted church) to make a video

What I hope most of all is that our postgraduates have come away with a new enthusiasm for doing public engagement. As they say: Where there’s a will, there’s a way! In this economic climate, funding for science and maths outreach is becoming harder and harder to find, despite its growing importance. But if the mathematical community care enough about doing it then we will succeed!

Given a few years of the kind of engagement I’ve seen this week, there is a danger of me meeting someone at a party or on the bus, being asked what I do for a living, and on saying that I’m a mathematician, having the other person look very excited and saying “Tell me more!”

[Picture credits go to Madeleine Shepherd – see her Flickr account for more photos.]

*I suspect there may be some participants who still haven’t realised the hidden sheep-based secret in the title.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by lns on February 25, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    You may already have seen this… http://abstrusegoose.com/253



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