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It really has been far too long since my last post, but thanks to some prodding from the local Sciblogs community (God bless them!) I’ll try and summarise why Just So Science has been so quiet since last year. And I wish I could say it’s because I’ve been putting my nose to the grindstone and focussing on my PhD work – but it’s really not!

In it’s simplest form, I guess you could say I’ve been testing a hypothesis of mine that emerged from the Transit of Venus forum in the middle of last year. For anyone not at the forum, one of the take home messages from Sir Peter Gluckman (echoing the words of Sir Paul Callaghan) was that

If we want to see a change in the science environment it’s up to individuals to take action, and that one of the good things about New Zealand is that it’s one of the few places where individuals can have a significant impact on national attitudes towards science” (yes I’m paraphrasing a little)

My hypothesis is that this is wrong.*

However, as with all hypothesis, there’s no consensus without any data – so I set up generating some. Firstly, after reading the Geek Manifesto (also recommended by Sir Peter Gluckman at the ToV forum), I set the bounds for my experiment (the Wellington region) and the metrics I was going to test: public science education and evaluation, engaging with politicians, talking to industry and working with local science groups. My equivalent of a literature review was to locate and meet the existing science groups in Wellington, from well known groups like Wellington nerd nite to newcomers such as the Wellington Makerspace and the Wellington Branch of the Royal Society. (By the way there are HEAPS and you can view my current list, which is still incomplete, here)

I won’t go into detail now, but here’s the latest progress in each:

Engaging science/tech industry

This has been by far the easiest nut to crack. Working with Chiasma WGTN we brought together over 200 graduates and representatives from Wellington technology industry together at Synapse in August of 2012 and will expand on that this year. We helped place a handful of students, and have arranged site visits to GNS, Kiwistar optics, Glycosyn with several more planned for this year. We have been overwhelmed by the amount of support and encouragement from Wellington’s science companies – their openness and willingness to talk to us even in harsh economic times is amazing!

Public science education

Partnering with a Wellington education startup, Chalkle, we worked together to create and run a series of science workshops for the public. So far we have run Spacecamp, Astronomy, Introductory Biology, Astrophysics and more with Intro Electronics, Critical thinking and the Maths of Gambling and Risk coming up soon. Attendance is a solid 20 people per class (although we had over 100 for Spacecamp!) and we’re committed to keep the costs as low as possible ($5-$10 per person) to ensure this system is sustainable. We’re also developing resources for child-focussed outreach with Chalkle Whanau, building water rockets and running a kid’s spacecamp. I estimate that we’ve taught a class to at least a quarter of Chalkle’s 1000+ members so far – with more indicating interest every day. We’re also working with the Wellington Makerspace to allow us to more effectively work in low decile areas. Just performing these is not enough however – we must show efficacy, but that’s easier said than done. We are developing an evaluation toolkit to allow us to asses how well we’re doing – but it’s still a while away from completion.

Local science groups

Wellington is graced with both Science Express at Te Papa and Cafe Scientifique in Lower Hutt (back at Wholly Bagels for 2013!) on the first and last Thursday of every month (respectively) from February to November. They typically attract around 80 locals each per talk. These overseen by the Wellington Branch of the Royal Society and organisation which was in need of a little ‘shaking up’. As of late 2012 I assumed presidency of the Branch and have assembled a team of Wellington science ‘do-ers’ to act as a ‘Skunkworks‘ to develop and test new ideas for the region. Their job is not only to promote science and technology, but to also ‘inspire’ the public with spectacular examples of ‘citizen science’.

Engaging with politicians

I haven’t had much success with this particular channel – however there are signs this may be changing. It may be an artefact of the current political science environment, or the possibility that I’m just doing it wrong!

So where does my hypothesis sit now? In my mind it’s still very much up in the air. In New Zealand it’s remarkably easy to start something new with a hiss and a bang – the real challenges lies in making it stick and that is by no means certain. Looking at the numbers above, we’re still a long way off reaching even 1% of the population of Greater Wellington region. There’s still much much more I would like to try – specifically addressing Maori and Pacific engagement in science and technology – but I’m determined to get some concrete evidence behind us first, else we run the risk of wasting people’s time unless we can prove our efficacy.

Well done if you’ve got this far through the post! It’s long and rather narcissistic (apologies!) and likely an exercise in naivete – but that’s no reason not to try it – as always, comments, ideas and criticisms welcome!

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*Yes I fully appreciate that contradicting Sir Paul and Sir Peter is not the wisest of moves, however I trust that as scientists they would appreciate the need for this hypothesis as motivation to gather evidence.