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May 21, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich

Science communication: Bridging theory and practice

On Friday 17 May I was at the Science Communication Conference 2013, organised by the British Science Association. I participated in a session on ‘Bridging theory and practice’ coordinated by Paul Manners, Director of the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement and Helen Featherstone, Project Manager (Public Engagement) for the CATALYST project at Exeter University. Huw James, an experienced science presenter, communicator and engager, and I were there as what Paul called two ‘caricatures’: the practitioner of science communication and the thinker about science communication.

Three types of science communication

Helen kicked off the session with a provocation, that is, a powerpoint slide representing three ways of doing science communication. Currently we have a community of science communicators with a long history of collective and collaborative learning. Alongside this is a diverse group of academics researching the relationships between science and society, plus scientists who communicate. There is a risk of a divide emerging between these three groups, yet each hold valuable expertise and insight. Helen and Paul wanted to find out how learning between all parties can be facilitated and what the barriers may be. The participants in our session were asked to discuss this tripartition and the issues surrounding it and report back to us. After that Huw and I were invited to talk briefly about a typical week in our lives and how science communication of whatever type fitted into it or not. The audience then discussed some more provocative questions, and Huw and I were left alone on the podium for ten minutes.

Rock climbing and scaffolding

Huw works, amongst many other things, with young people on the science of rock climbing; so I asked him how that was done and how or whether he used ‘theory’ in this context. He said that sometimes, after seeing what he did, people would tell him what ‘theory’ that practice would come under. He then went on to explain that when engaging youngsters with the science of rock climbing, he found that they just wanted to climb and not come down once in a while to ‘engage’ with the science. So he had to think about how to structure this engagement better. I jokingly proposed that he might want to put little labels with bits of science at various stages up the climbing wall. He said that’s exactly what they did, and I replied that this reminded me of a theory called ‘scaffolding’. I explained a bit what I thought this metaphorically framed theory meant, i.e. the way adults and children, experts and novices collaborate in learning in such a way that the help or scaffolding provided by the expert is gradually withdrawn and the learner or novice gains independent mastery of a task. I went on to say that this way of thinking about learning also overlaps with Vygotsky’s zones of proximal development. Huw in turn found that this reminded him of a concept he used, namely ‘knowledge progression’, which he then explained to me using a metaphor, and as everybody who reads my blog posts knows, I love a good metaphor. In his own words: “I sum up knowledge progression as the wooden planks of a rope bridge. Each new step is as familiar as the last but also unknown. It’s up to those who have gone before to show the way but without creating the right links and laying the planks of the wood bridge, you cannot go forward, one cannot progress”

So, while participants were engaged in a lively discussion about how and where there were bridges and barriers between the theory and practice of science communication, Huw and I discovered various bridges between theory and practice, which was quite satisfying and, indeed, instructive.

Valleys and ladders

When I got home I continued the learning process, both about science communication and about scaffolding. First of all I learned that I had been slightly wrong when saying to Huw that scaffolding theory was a metaphor invented by Jerome Bruner. I found out that the term had actually been introduced in 1976 in an article co-authored by Bruner, Gail Ross and one of my old Nottingham colleagues, David Wood, with David as the first author. The article was entitled ‘The role of tutoring in problem solving’. I believe some aspects of scaffolding theory could be applied to rethinking public engagement with science and also science communication itself. Thinking that through would however need another blog post.

I also found out that Huw has a nice metaphor for science communication which highlights the plurality of understandings that surround that word, a plurality we should cherish and preserve. In an interview with Julie Gould for Speaking of Science in February this year, he said: “I often describe Science Communication as one of the Welsh Valleys. Whenever anyone says ‘the valleys’ to me, I automatically think of mine. But there are many valleys, and others will think of theirs. Whenever someone says Science Communication to me, I think of Live Shows in Schools and at Festivals. That arm is important to give teachers and parents something they don’t have time, energy and resources to do. We’re an aid to the curriculum, an aid to learning.”

Many shapes and forms and functions of science communication are beginning to blossom. Let us hope they don’t become too disconnected from each other through mutual misunderstanding, divergent languages, politics or prejudice. Let’s keep building bridges and scaffolding and ladders. But most importantly, lets throw the metaphors away at some point and replace them by realities. As Wittgenstein said in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.”

Image: Brigitte in Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

Posted in Science Communication