In part 2, we cover step 3, 4 and 5, which describe how we generated the poster with suggestions for things people should know about science.
Step 3: Proposing session at SciBarCamp opening night
We started out SciBarCamp with an empty schedule, and on Friday night everyone was free to suggest a topic by filling out a form and putting it up on one of the boards that were spread out across the room. People milled about, talked to each other, read all the proposals, and marked which ones they liked, or left comments and suggestions on the forms.
Looking at proposed talks on Friday night
Because some people had already read my proposal on the wiki, or saw the blog posts about it, they asked me about it that night, and I could point them to the appropriate form.
Any votes were only for the sake of scheduling talks in the appropriate rooms, because there was enough room in the schedule to give everyone who wanted to lead a session the chance to do so.
Step 4: Presented introduction on Saturday
I actually wanted to just put up a blank poster on Saturday, and talk about it on Sunday, but found out on Saturday morning that I had an entire big time slot that I didn’t need, so I ended up giving most of my time away and only talked for about ten minutes to introduce what I wanted to do.
In this short introduction I mentioned that even though my topic was called “Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Science”, I didn’t actually have a list of these ten things, because I can’t decide that by myself. It’s something that’s easier thought about with a big group of people. I also gave some background on why I thought this was an important topic: I often spend time with people outside of science, and many of these people are very smart, and I tend to assume that they know at least some very basic things, but then find out that many people don’t know what a gene is, or that breeding is a form of genetic manipulation too. So what should everyone know about science? Should they know these facts? Or should they know something about how research is carried out or communicated?
I brought a big blank sheet of paper with the title “What Should Everyone Know About Science?” and invited everyone to contribute to the poster with suggestions over the weekend.
Step 5: The poster with suggestions
On Saturday afternoon, people had a chance to leave their thoughts on the poster, leave a mark at statements they agreed with or counter those they didn’t agree with. It was fun to see people gather round it and read and think together, or wait for people to leave and write something down by themselves.
Poster in progress, with Nature Network Sharpies clipped on
Why did I collect opinions this way? In verbal group discussions (and online as well) not every voice is equally loud. Some people have no problem sharing their views, and others are more subdued. Some people don’t feel like typing a comment on a blog, or don’t like raising their hand in public. Writing one sentence on a poster is a lot less scary, and by giving everyone a chance to write one sentence (or “second” it) it remained somewhat balanced between participants: you can’t see who wrote it, so the quietest person and the loudest person’s statements are of equal value on the poster with suggestions.
People’s backgrounds aren’t taken into account either. You can’t tell by looking at the poster which statements were written by professional scientists and which statement was written by a fifteen-year old. You might say that that’s a bad thing: doesn’t a professional scientist know better? I don’t think so: by rule of thumb the general public has the same level of scientific literacy as someone in grade 9 or 10. Popular science articles are aimed at this level. It’s much easier for a fifteen year old to gauge whether something is at a grade 9 or 10 level than for someone who has been submerged in their own specialty for years.
Remember, this is about what everyone should know, and most people haven’t studied science after high school. A large group of SciBarCamp participants were artists with a high interest in science. (Of course they’re interested in science, why else would they even be there?) They also know more about science than the average Joe, because they’re the ones that actually read all those popular science articles that others might line the bird cage with.
Everyone who was at SciBarCamp was more scientifically literate than most people, but not all to the same extent or in the same area of science. This variation is also a benefit: by talking to new people you suddenly find out that they don’t know as much as you thought about a certain topic. That’s eye-opening. That means that there are probably many others who don’t understand it either.
I’m a huge fan of scientific outreach for this reason: it’s not just scientists teaching the public, it’s also scientists learning what the public knows or not, and finding out where the knowledge gaps are.
I wanted to use the poster as a foundation for further discussion, so I signed up for a longer time slot on Sunday, and took the poster with suggestions home to summarize what people wrote on it. In retrospect, that was something I should have done differently, but more on that later.