The Case of the Vanishing Elf

By Elf Eldridge 05/02/2013

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!


*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.

0 Responses to “The Case of the Vanishing Elf”

  • I’ll agree with your * and add it’s a strength of science to refute rather than having an over-reliance on confirmation.

    I don’t see the situation as being the case where a few scientists inspire the general public, but hopefully more that people become aware that science is everywhere all around us all the time, that it’s not scary or intimidating & that it can be appreciated on many different levels. I think we all start off naturally experimenting with our environment, somewhere along the way that gets lost.

  • Hi Elf,
    So, what exactly were you teaching people re astrophysics (which, of course, is not the same as astronomy) in your Chalkle sessions? What kind of people come and what are their backgrounds?

    • @Melanie – Yes i full appreciate that astrophysics is different than astronomy 🙂 I took the introductory class (classes are about 1.5 – 2 hours) and we discussed star life cycles, the dominant forces in space, dark matter and dark energy, open and globular clusters and the Drake equation (my full notes here: although I didn’t get anywhere close to completing it). The ‘intro’ classes are very much teasers – introducing attendees to what the topic has to offer rather than giving deeper understanding. I’m doing a PhD in physics, and I base much of my knowledge of the notes of Dennis Sullivan’s 400 level astrophysics class from VUW. For the ‘Next Step’ class I realised I was getting a little out of my depth, so I co-opted Frank Andrews to talk a little about galaxy formation and the overall structure of the universe, I did a bunch of spectra demonstrations, doppler shift demos and got in a local to talk a little about VLF, radioastronomy and the SKA.
      There’s a huge amount of public interest in the topic and currently I’m trying to evaluate whether there is sufficient interest to run a more in depth series about the marvels of the night skies in which I would pull in some of the VUW academics and students if they were open to it.

  • Hi Elf, thanks for the background, as you know I am an astrophysicist at VUW and I think it’s great that you’re promoting astronomy. I’d like to point out to your readers that if they want to go further with astronomy there are first year astro courses which can be taken at many NZ universities (VUW, Canterbury, Auckland etc) which cover similar topics over an entire semester. Members of the public can take the first year courses as stand alone courses if that’s all they want to do and for the last few years we had many people do just that.

    In the VUW astro course you get to look at real data from a radio telescope and work with my PhD students on trying to identify new radio galaxies. I’m not actually teaching that course this year (having a break after 16 years of teaching astronomy and also astrophysics in universities) so it might not have this topic in this year, but I’m sure it will have other interesting stuff, particularly the sections taught by our young and enthusiastic post doctoral fellows. If people want to go on VUW, Canterbury and Auckland also offer 2nd year courses which have some astronomy and finally there are courses in astrophysics such as the 400 level course you mention taught by Denis and I. Though, as you know, you do need a degree in Physics to get into that one.

    As an SKA Board member it’s always nice to hear about the public’s enthusiasm for the project. We are working through just exactly how NZ will engage with the SKA in the short, medium and long term and public support will be crucial if we are to continue being part of this mega-science project.

    Anyway, I hope your Chalke sessions are successful and am pleased to hear of the great interest in astronomy in NZ. It would be great if some of your audience want to go on with the topic.