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(Or Action, then explanation?)

Maribor is named as European ‘City of Culture’ for 2012. Slovenia’s second largest city Maribor, home to roughly 100,000 people, is set on the Drava river and features the mix of older (including baroque) and modern buildings typical of this part of Europe. It’s also got an active cafe and bar scene, like most university towns.

As part of this celebration of Moribor, local towns have been hosting a series of events. Looking their brochure of events, Tuesday featured two science communication events from local the university.* Dr. Edvard Kobal was offering ‘something chemical’** at ‘The House of Science, Experimental Centre’, off
Glavni trg (Glavni Square). Later in the day was presentation of local research.

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Wandering around to Glavni trg on the Monday evening (and riddling out the local shop numbering scheme to find the place), the ‘Experimental Centre’ proved to be a shop converted into workshop with equipment set up for kids to try their hand (see first photo). I’ll let you guess what the experiments do, if you can make the equipment out well enough from my hasty photos taken through the shop front.

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Dr. Kobal’s presentation proved to be an intimate workshop on the chemistry of dye pigments, a coterie of student clustered around a table.*** While waiting a graduate student (?) who spoke fluent English kindly filled me in, showing me around the experiments they had assembled for kids. As the event was 2 hours long, I left to get some practical things done. As you can see from the photographs below when I returned a few minutes before the close they were a happy lot.

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As readers here know I like to ruminate on things and if Dr. Kobal can forgive my criticism–the stuff of science, as it were, observing his presentation had me thinking that topics involving activities might be started by simply doing one, with no explanation, drawing the need for explanation from demonstrations rather than the ‘introductory lecture’ that most academics I guess instinctively lean to. As scientist we have an instinct to want to lay out the background first as might be done for formal study. Some non-science audiences might be better approached by ‘teasing’ the audience with elements that introduce the need for the background.

In seems to me that this isn’t just true for oral presentations or interactive workshops but can be applied to writing, too – one of my prompts for thinking this is from part of what I wonder might have helped J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter books be successful.

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I’ll have to keep this explanation short but the gist is that when she introduced a new character*** she had them simply start doing whatever they were to do with no introduction or description: that came later. (I’d like to think that she chose times when the narrative pace naturally slowed to effectively go back and flesh-in characters.) It makes sense. New characters often occur in action and you don’t want to hold up the pace or ‘foretell’ their involvement.

Similarly, you might start a workshop on pigments by simply starting to make a brightly coloured example with no introduction or words at all – just start doing it. Stagemanship I guess. Think of magicians, the stage kind not the Harry Potter kind. Of course they never explain how it works! – in that sense they have it easy!

In this general way you might carry a presentation forward by leading the audience, ’buying’ their interest with stuff you then can offer to explain.

Whatever my rumination, it was great to see science communication elsewhere – a feeling a little endeavours all over the world.

Footnotes

* I should add that I didn’t go to Maribor see these events; I only learnt of them once I arrived.

** I write ’something chemical’ as that’s all I could make out from the brochure!

*** and possibly (magical) devices, etc., too – but I can’t recall now.

Other articles on Code for life:

Banished from science writing. Words, that is.

When the abstract or conclusions aren’t accurate or enough

What should be taught in science communication courses?

Communicating complex and post-normal science to the policy maker and the public — lessons from New Zealand

Temperature-induced hearing loss