Friday, 6 March 2015

Teachers - go forth and demo!

When I talk to scientists who want to write a popular science book rather than a textbook, there are two connected differences I emphasize - narrative and drama. A textbook can be just a collection of facts, but that's anathema to the popular science audience. Narrative steals some of the tools of fiction, both on the small scale and in giving the book as a whole a narrative arc. And drama gives tension and excitement.

Some scientists and historians of science have always complained about the use of drama. 'It wasn't really like that,' they moan. 'It wasn't one person against the world, coming up with a great idea, it was a team effort, building incrementally on other's work.' Well, yes, to a point. But as long as you don't trample on facts, I think an element of drama is essential, and it can usually be found, even if it has to be given slightly more prominence than it really had.

When giving a talk about science, these two factors are equally important - and the opportunity for drama is so much greater, because it's not just in the information, it can be in the way the information is put across. At its most basic, it's about presentation style - not reading from notes in a monotone. But also there's the chance to the demonstrate. If you take a look at this video of my Dice World talk (don't worry, no need to watch it all!):



... the first thing I do is give away a free book. Not a conventional 'demonstration' but something active, rather than just talking. Then from 2:40 to to about 6 minutes I do a little demonstration involving flipping a coin. It doesn't contribute hugely to the information content of the talk, but from feedback, it's something the audience really appreciates. Later on, I get the audience standing up and partaking in an experiment, and when I finish with the Monty Hall problem, I don't just describe it, I run the gameshow. And it really helps.

So if you're a science teacher or technician, you've got something in your armoury that can easily add drama to lessons. Demonstrations aren't always used as much as they once were, partly because of the strictures of the curriculum and partly because of Health and Safety (my brother-in-law, a former head of chemistry did manage to get the building evacuated with one of his better demonstrations). But we forget demonstrations at our peril.

Those nice people at British Science Week have come up with a cunning plan to get more demonstrations happening. They want to make the Thursday of Science Week (19 March) 'Demo Day' when you can pledge to make a demo in return for a prize draw that includes a wifi microscope - can't be bad! And they've got some excellent video resources giving demonstration ideas (don't just show the video, that misses the point). Why not pop over to the Demo Day web page and take a look.

I'll just finish of with a video they made last year called Demo Day, The Movie:



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