River of stories

If you’re interested in random interesting projects, this is me belatedly announcing we’ve now got a website for Tales from the River.

The project has been on a back-burner recently, as I’ve been doing a lot of work on I’m a Scientist’s GM Food event. That’s a bit of a departure for I’m a Scientist so it’s involved a lot of hard work, and a lot of learning.

(I’m really excited, and fascinated, by the GM Food event, by the way. I think it’s got the potential to see some really interesting, joined-up conversations. It’s the first I’m a Scientist event that’s open to all – not just school students – so go and have a browse, or ask a question. It’s intended to be a place for constructive, multi-perspective discussion, something we thought the topic of GM could do with…)

But enough of the I’m a Scientist hard-sell (I’m a real laugh at parties…), Tales from the River is still going ahead. We’ll be doing it in September. Walking all 187 miles of the River Trent, over three weeks, and doing storytelling sessions, followed by discussions and story-sharing, at every stop along the way.

If you are a person, or organisation, based along the route, who’s interested in us doing a session for you, or who can offer us a meal or lodging, then get in touch.


Some facts on getting girls into science

There’s a lot I’d like to say about women and science, but most must wait for another day. After the brouhaha today over that terrible Science, it’s a girl thing video I thought it would be useful to do a quick post with some actual research and facts about women and science.

The first thing to say is that in most areas of science the problem isn’t really getting girls to study it in the first place, but the a leaky pipe after that.

Loads of girls (in the UK*, which is where I’ve looked at the stats for) do science GCSEs, slightly fewer do A Levels, fewer again do a science degree.

Of those who do a science degree, fewer women than men do PhDs. Of those who do PhDs, fewer do post-docs… and so on up the seniority ladder.

It’s not the same in all subjects – biology and medicine-related subjects get plenty of women (at least in the early stages). Physics, computer science and engineering less so.

Here’s a UKRC report on this with all the stats

There is research on the subject issue – why do few girls study physics (despite stereotypes it’s not because they are less able at it) and what can you do that makes them more likely to study physics?

For example this research, found that girls whose science teachers had talked about the under-representation of women in physics, were more likely to go on to study physics.

This extensive research project for the Department of Education has all sorts of useful information and tips. Including the finding that showing how physics could be socially relevant, and to do with people, engaged girls more.

One piece of research suggests that trying to recruit girls by showing very glamorous and feminine role models (as in the video) is counter-productive. Although that research may not be that robust.

So, is that video going to do anything about the leaky pipe problem? Do you think it will encourage a woman who’s a senior researcher to go for that professorship?

Will it encourage someone just completing their PhD to apply for post-docs? Make a university department more likely to recruit a woman for a senior post? Improve university childcare provision or flexible working practices?

It seems intuitively unlikely, doesn’t it?

Some people on twitter were saying the offended people weren’t the target audience. That it was aimed at 11/12 year old girls. Well, leaving aside the problems of promoting short skirts and makeup to pre-pubescent girls, in that case it doesn’t need to get them interested in biology and chemistry, but should concentrate on physics.

I’m thinking Charlie’s Angels dancing round test tubes and lipstick isn’t going to do much to persuade girls in secondary school of the social relevance of physics. It looks a lot to me like the people who commissioned this video have completely ignored all the existing evidence on what the real problem is and what strategies might be used to fix it.

Wouldn’t it be nice if things like this were done with a bit of sensitivity, and with reference to the facts?

Declaration of interest – I developed and still act as a consultant for I’m a Scientist, Get me out of Here! This is a schools science programme where kids interact with real scientists. In my view it does a lot of the things recommended by the DfE report – showing cutting edge science, making it relevant and showing it’s to do with people, bringing students into contact with a range of interesting and realistic role models, etc. I bet the cost of making that shiny video would double I’m a Scientist’s budget for the year…

*Excluding Scotland, who have a different education system.

Tales from the River

Misty, early-morning photo of Trent-side dwelling at Attenborough

The Trent is a river with stories. It’s seen Celts, Romans and Saxons settle along its banks. When the Vikings invaded, they came in boats along the Trent. Itpowered the mills, and drained the factories, of the industrial revolution.

It’s the river that flows through the town I grew up in.

Rivers are mythic actors in a landscape. They bring things. They take things away. They float boats, and drown children. They can divide two settlements a mile apart, and they can connect two settlements counties away.

It’s just water, flowing along (different water all the time) and yet the river has been there for thousands – maybe millions – of years. Rivers remind me of stories.

I love storytelling as an art form. You create whole worlds using nothing but words and the sound of your voice. It’s the oldest human form of entertainment*. Our ancestors were probably doing it round campfires, in the Lower Pleistocene.

So here’s my crazy idea. I was once interviewing a man from the Environment Agency about leisure facilities along rivers. He told me there are footpaths all the way along the Trent. He said, ‘So now you can walk all the way along the river, from the source to the sea.’

I’ve absolutely no idea what he said in the rest of the conversation. Those words were glowing in my mind.

“…walk all the way along the river, from the source to the sea…”

My mind added the words, ‘telling stories’ at the end. And me looking mythic on a hilltop, with a wizard’s staff and some flowing robes.

The more I’ve thought about it since, the more bones I’ve put on the idea. It would be called Tales from the River. And we all know, a project with a great name can’t lose. It would be about bringing stories to people, bringing people together and bringing a bit of magic to life.

Each stop would bring people together to talk about their river. I’d tell some stories (with a river theme). Then the audience would become just people, they’d tell their own stories. About the river, or other rivers, or about the area. They’d discuss, draw parallels, perhaps learn from each other. They’d experience being heard. We could record stories, and collect a folk history of the Trent.

Scientists studying the river could talk to people who’d lived alongside it their whole lives. Conservation planners could talk to pre-Roman archeaologists. Estate agents talk to art historians. Agriculturists to pub landlords. Who knows what interesting things get started when people from different groups start talking? The key thing is to get people together, fire their imaginations and give them something to do together.

The idea was first just a crazy adventure I wanted to have. Doing something useful and possibly a bit magical at the same time would a bonus. It would be such a fantastic experience, and such an honour to do, that I’m not bothered about getting paid to do it.

But there would be accommodation each night, and food. I’m wondering though if it could be a money-free project? Inns, B+Bs, hotels, or just ordinary people, offer us food and board for the night. In exchange, we do a story session in a place of their choosing.

When I say us, I’ve decided the ideal team would be my long-suffering boyfriend and endearingly quarrelsome parents. Ross is a sound engineer and would do live sound design for storytelling performances. Dad’s a singer-songwriter, Mum’s a person who gets stuff done and both of them are ex-teachers. This gives us a lot of flexibility in what we can do, and would also be hilarious.

I think bed and board in exchange for a performance is nice and traditional, and also simple. I can see it working for a lot of people. A folky type of pub may want to have a storytelling night in their bar. A hotel might want to donate their performance to the local primary school. An ordinary person might want some unusual birthday party entertainment.

I reckon we can be pretty flexible, as long as people have realistic expectations of how polished it’s going to be (not very). There’s got to be at least a few people out there who go, ‘That sounds like a crazy idea, let’s sign up.’

So what do you think? Is it a crazy idea? Good crazy or bad crazy? Have you got ideas of what we could do, people I should contact, stories I should consider? Get in touch and let’s see what happens.

*please don’t write in and argue, sex or music fans, I concede you have a point.

Photo credit: veggiesosage

On the value of being second choice…

I’d like to make an IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: I am considering, after eight years, switching to a different brand of tobacco. Let me tell you how this shocking state of affairs came about…

A couple of weeks ago I was at a friend’s house with a group of people and someone was going to the shop. One guy asked for a packet of Drum Light, which is also the tobacco I smoke.

We all had another drink, and after a bit the kind shopper returned with a packet of Cutters Choice for the guy. He explained that the shop was out of Drum Light, he hoped the substitution was OK. The guy said something interesting in response. He said, ‘Don’t worry, that’s my second favourite brand anyway.’

For some reason this stuck in my head. I remember thinking, ‘I’ve never thought to have an official “second favourite brand” of tobacco before’.

As it happened, a few days later I was in a shop, buying tobacco and in a hurry to get somewhere. I asked for a packet of Drum Light, but they were out.  Now usually I’d leave the shop without buying anything. But I was in a hurry and the ‘second favourite brand’ echoed in my head.  Without thinking I ordered a packet of Cutters Choice instead.

It turned out this Cutters Choice was alright. It was a bit less dry than my usual brand, and tasted OK. By random chance, the next time I tried to buy tobacco they were out of Drum Light again. This time I didn’t hesitate, ‘Cutters Choice then please’.

By the time I finished THAT packet, I’d been smoking Cutters Choice for four days. When I bought my next pack of Drum Light, it seemed a bit dry. I started wondering if actually Cutters Choice was nicer. When I finished that packet I bought another Cutters Choice to test it out some more.

I have been smoking Drum Light for about eight years. I worked out I’ve bought and smoked about 1,500 packets of it in that time (yeah, yeah, I know). But now, all of a sudden,  I am most of the way to switching to a different brand. All triggered by the ‘my second fave tobacco’ aside.

It was *easy* for me to put Cutters Choice in my ‘second fave tobacco’ category, as I’d not thought of having one before. The category was empty, nothing needed to be displaced. Whereas if someone had gone head-on and told me I shouldn’t smoke Drum Light any more, but switch to Cutters Choice because it’s moister, they’d have met resistance. ‘I already have a favourite brand and that’s what I smoke.’

Just being exposed to the IDEA of a second favourite brand was all it took really. After that it was easy to adopt one, try it and find that I liked it. My main brand has been gently edged out. It didn’t seem like a big deal.

If part of your job involves getting people to try something new, I guess you can see where I’m going with this. We’ll often get nowhere trying to persuade people they want to abandon what they are doing already. You’re going head on with their existing thinking. It may be much more effective to go sideways and suggest your product as a second choice.

For my part, I know, of course, that there are people of peerless taste and discernment who already consider I’m a Scientist to be the best science engagement programme in the world. And I’d like those people to carry on as they are.

But there are other people who start from the position that face-to-face events are preferable, or that I’m a Scientist is too much fun for students to be learning much. To those people I say, why not consider I’m a Scientist as your second favourite engagement activity? Let it be your back up if the shop is out of science shows. What harm can it do? You might find you like it.

Au revoir I’m a Scientist, hello other stuff

Hi, you may know me as @imascientist, or maybe you’ve just come here by accident looking for information about major roads in Syria (in which case apologies). If the former, you may be wondering, what’s going on with Soph and the new blog and everything?

Well, after four years of slog, the I’m a Scientist project is now at a stage where there’s mainly a lot of admin to do and less of the crunchy stuff that floats my boat. I’ve started to find it frustrating, and also, it’s not the best use of the project’s resources. So Shane and I worked out a solution.

I’m still producing I’m a Scientist, but now only part-time. The wonderful Rosie Schultz is working full-time, doing all the admin stuff, probably far better than I ever did. And being young, and the world being an unfair place, she’s cheaper. So it all works out.

I always thought that the big strength of Gallomanor, when it came to running I’m a Scientist, was that we had a foot in the sci comm world, but also a foot in other fields, like online political engagement. I’m still a biologist at heart, and I don’t think good ideas come from nowhere: They come from cross-fertilisation.

I’m now free to spend the rest of my time getting involved in other things. Hopefully this will reinvigorate my work on I’m a Scientist. And also stop me stabbing Shane in an argument over whose turn it is to make tea. If you’ve got an idea for a collaboration, get in touch!