Science? It's a laugh

9th February 2001 at 00:00
There are many ways of putting across science. Douglas Blane talks to presenters of the Edinburgh International Science Festival workshops

One of the strangest things about science communicators - stranger even than the fact that grown men and women are happy to dress up as spacemen and bumblebees and make an exhibition of themselves in the name of education - is how few of them are actually scientists.

One of those few is the celebrated Dr Bunhead, who will be taking his Exploding Energy Show into schools over the next month in the run-up to the Edinburgh International Science Festival in April. With three chemistry degrees, a teaching qualification and a Boy Scouts' sewing badge, he is, he frankly admits, "half-scientist, half-baked".

Dr Bunhead - also known as Tom Pringle - is now a seasoned performer, having appeared on television and at countless school science shows. But initially his entire performing experience consisted of once being the innkeeper in a school nativity play.

"I thought acting was mainly about being heard. Afterwards they said: 'Well done, Tom, that was really loud.' "At first, because I was nervous, I used to hide behind my experiments and try to cram in as many as possible. But I began to learn which parts of the curriculum teachers wanted and what the children's misconceptions about science were. And from watching how they reacted, I developed storytelling techniques and was able to engage the children."

Eva Melrose is neither scientist nor schoolteacher but has worked with children for many years. Formerly a nursery nurse and social worker, she is now a puppeteer and will be using her ventriloquist boy Mikey (pictured) to teach about dental growth and health. in Don't Forget Your Toothbrush.

"You have to know how children think and be able to get down to their level. You have to stimulate their imagination.

"The puppet I use is distinctly odd-looking, but children love him. He looks about their age, so they can relate to him.

"We get the kids up and play games and do experiments, then we take them on a journey with shadow puppets. It's interactive, informative and fun, but it's not all action. I think it's important to get a balance: children need times when they are sitting down, listening and thinking."

Unlike Shakespeare's originals, the group that nowadays performs under the name Rude Mechanicals could never be described as hard-handed men "which never laboured in their minds till now". Neither weavers, carpenters, bellows-menders - nor yet scientists - they are in fact "artistswho like building things". At their Up, Down, Turn Around! workshops and in-service courses, children learn the basic principles of mechanics and technology by making machines from wood.

"Children love it," says Dick Warren. "They build a buggy or a crane, then they take it home and say, 'Look Mum, I made this'."

A good science communicator, they believe, understands how to get into the mind of a child.

"I don't know necessarily that scientists are any less good as communicators," says Mr Warren, "but perhaps any specialist finds it hard to make things simple enough for children to grasp."

Education consultant and former chemistry principal teacher Pat Duchart helps to train the performers for her show, Splash, on water investigations. After watching the rehearsals of others, she says: "I was impressed with the effort that goes into developing, practising and making sure the performers get the science right."

She admits - somewhat ruefully - that youth and acting ability are assets in a science communicator and that scientists are perhaps too inhibited.

"The girls I was training were actors. I provided the information they needed, showed them how to run the workshop, manage their time and do the experiments. But to them that was just part of the preparation. They then had to go away and get into the characters, develop them and find ways of playing off each other to make it entertaining."

No doubt the debate will continue as to whether it is easier to put performing skills into a scientist or science into a performer. There is certainly a place for entertainment generated by extroverts who carry the audience with them on a tide of excitement. But there is also a place for sitting, listening and thinking, for exploring subtler aspects of science that touch a child's mind with the beauty of the natural world.

Given the increasingly negative portrayal of science in the media, perhaps it is time for more scientists to move from behind the scenes to centre stage, without worrying too much that someone will say - as they did of the original Rude Mechanicals - "This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard."

Dr Bunhead thinks it is: "If you get someone who is a scientist and enthusiastic, you can't beat it.

"No matter how enthusiastic anyone else might be, even though the kids will enjoy themselves and be excited, they won't think: 'This is a scientist. That's what I want to be.'" Further information from Edinburgh International Science Festival, tel 0131 555 6626,

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