Entertainment: It’s Natural

Posted on: Friday 05 July 2013 2:59pm by David Ault


An inspirational look at science programmes from various media platforms, enabling children to discover the natural world.

Fantastic session – one of the best so far! Really well put together. Paul Taylor, Gunky Music.

Very good, especially from an animal live camera and technology point of view, with a challenge to think about the story that goes with the pictures. Artem Tutov, Fountain Digital Labs

Top Ten Takeaways:

1. Narrative is a powerful tool to deliver information.
2. Children are naturally inquisitive and are born loving the natural world.
3. We don’t go to the zoo to read labels on cages; we go to look at the animals, enjoy other people’s company and eat ice cream.
4. We are not here to cajole an uninterested audience, but to show our enthusiasm and invite the next generation to be enthusiastic too.
5. Science is storytelling, explaining why our results are the way they are.
6. If you can’t explain it in three sentences, you need to go and do more research.
7. You don’t need to tell children everything; all you need is to tell them enough to get them asking questions.
8. Be honest – don’t show pictures in children’s science books that are photoshopped, fake or exaggerated; and tell funders and backers about progress in your projects.
9. If you want people to try something at home, make sure you’ve already done it at home. If you can’t buy the components in your local supermarket, don’t put it in.
10. “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught.” Baba Dioum

This has to have been my favourite session of the conference, because as a scientist and storyteller myself, the panel inspired me to a tremendous extent. They spoke of the incredible power of narrative, how it can deliver – and has throughout history – information through enjoyment and engagement; they spoke of inspiring children to question rather than filling heads with facts; they spoke of encouraging broad interest rather than narrow categories.

Sai Pathmanathan brought together some amazing luminaries: Sharna Jackson of Tate Kids, who masterminded the Wellcome Trust-supported ‘Wondermind’, learning about neuroscience through Alice in Wonderland; Jonny Keeling of the Children’s Natural History Unit at the BBC; Myles MacLeod of the Brothers MacLeod who has written anarchic cartoons about bioluminescence; and Fran Scott, a ‘Science Translator and Pyrotechnician whose love of science is palpable. Even Nicola Davies, a freelance writer who introduced the session, had a love of the natural world that played out beautifully from her delivery.

Nicola started by encouraging us to teach children biology – that way children can understand their own health and wellbeing. Teaching about photosynthesis allows children to appreciate the balance of ecosystems, and learning about species increases awareness of biodiversity. The messages to inspire science learning were clear – knowledge allows better informed choices, and renewed love of the world around us.

This message was picked up by Jonny Keeling, whose job it is to inspire children to love wildlife. The new Deadly 60 – Pole to Pole has a simple – but not patronising – premise: the series is looking for predators with not just the action hero main man, but the crew as well. This way viewers feel part of the action, and it is directed at a family audience. For younger viewers there’s Andy’s Wild Adventures, featuring total usage of green screen.

For those of my generation, Saturday mornings haven’t been the same since Going Live finished, but Wild is the latest offering from the BBC, a live show in that time slot encouraging participation across the country, and discovery of the country we live in. Jonny wrapped up with a quote from Sir David Attenborough: when asked by a journalist when he started being interested in the natural world, the presenter replied, “When did you stop?”

Sharna Jackson of Tate Kids took us down the rabbit hole to the project she coordinated linking Alice in Wonderland and neuroscience, called Wondermind. She started by quoting Plato: “avoid compulsion and let early education be a manner of amusement. Young children learn by games; compulsory education cannot remain in the soul.” The games created covered a variety of topics, from neuroplasticity from Alice catching the White Rabbit, to Spatial Cognition shining a light on the Cheshire Cat through a maze.

After a fascinating few minutes, she left us with the following checklist:
Assemble a team of experts for all parts of the project.
Keep the core working team to a minimum.
Show funders your work.
Keep the users in mind at all times.
Be prepared to compromise.

Myles MacLeod reminded us that it’s a writer’s job to create narrative, but a writer’s hope to create interesting narrative. The word ‘science’ can create barriers, and is sometimes guilty of disregarding the reasons why people became investigators in the first place. Aristotle described himself as an investigator of the world – not as a scientist or politician or philosopher. Curiosity is breadth as well as detail, and that ‘dumbing down’ happens when producers start with the wrong attitude, such as making a programme for those who don’t like a subject.

Fran Scott has been a scientist as long as she can remember, but was put off at school by the words used, rather than the passion. Children can be put off with simple language, completely missing the point of how fun science can be. How to combat that feeling? Treat science like any other subject, like art or history, rather than as a ‘clever’ subject only.

What shone through the whole session was the need to pass on enthusiasm and curiosity, rather than facts; to engage in different, more dynamic ways, with narrative a powerful vehicle for the young (and not-so-young) mind. I left with my head buzzing with ideas, and the whole room was electrified with the possibilities of science communication. The communicators had done their jobs – we were all engaged and inspired – and asking new questions.

Nicola Davies (Author)

Jonny Keeling (BBC NHU)
Sharna Jackson (Tate Kids)
Myles McLeod (Borthers McLeod)
Fran Scott (Presenter)

Produced by
Sai Pathmanathan, Science Education Consultant.

Executive Producer:
Alison Stewart

Event Reports

David Ault, Storyteller and Astrophysicist – The Mercenary Artist

About the author

David Ault

The Mercenary Artist, Storyteller and Astrophysicist

David is a voice actor and storyteller who has toured the country - and the internet - doing drama and creating all sorts of characters. He is also a scientist, regularly putting out astronomy podcasts, and travelled across North America blogging about the state of science communication on the continent… Read more