Friday, January 17, 2014

Engagement vs education

I recently sent out an email alert to my colleagues at the University of Sydney School of Physics as an update of what's happening outreach-wise over the holidays and coming up. Among the events and news, were these two items: 

Astronomers collaborate with Artists to create a dance piece called AM I that is being premiered at the Sydney Festival. From all accounts, the show is extremely good! 
Academics from the School of Physics made some comments about the HSC physics syllabus that is being criticised as 'too arty' and the Board of Studies published in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 4. It's an interesting and thought provoking read. 

So, am I allowed to smile at a physics bulletin which starts by advertising a dance piece generated in consultation with the physics department and then highlights an article which criticises the change of HSC physics from a mathematics to an 'arts' subject:)? 

I was a little bit surprised when a response was sent back to me about the update that read: 

I took the comment as a bit of tongue-in-cheek fun, but I also saw an opportunity to start a conversation. This is a conversation I've been thinking about a while and would like to begin writing more about. For me, this was a great way to start! 

My response:   

You are of course allowed to smile, and after you mentioned it, I smiled too! And thanks for the different perspective!  

Physics will never be an arts subject, Science and arts work in very different ways and there are of course interesting overlaps. I see a distinction however, in collaboration and education. the news of Astronomers working with artists is all about awareness and the article about HSC is about education. 
Collaboration with the arts is in order to make people aware of the science, not understand the science. I see it as the ‘warm fuzzies.’ People who see that dance piece will walk away from it with a warm fuzzy feeling about astronomy and black holes to some degree, rather than being scared by the term. 

Whereas the HSC is more than awareness, it’s about education and understanding. The audience and objectives are different. I would hope that a student in the HSC can describe with some depth, use some equations, interpret graphs, make observations around the concept of black holes etc, that is, use the scientific method learnt from the HSC. I would not expect them to be able to dance a black hole, nor would I expect someone who has seen the dance piece top describe a black hole in any depth from only seeing that presentation.

Have you seen a program called dance your PhD? This is similar concept. Apart from being a bit of fun, it is a communication exercise, not designed to educate, but for awareness. In a way, any media article for example are similar. They are designed for awareness have a similar point, even some radio and tv shows, science centres for example. There are also many examples that blur the lines between engagement and education (Like the program I run, Kickstart)

To go for an extreme comparison...I’m sure you’d be able to tell the difference between playing the game Operation, and a medical degree!  

Now get involved  

What are your thoughts about public awareness of science vs public understanding if science. the next step is figuring out how to tackle public involvement in science, that is, getting people enrolled at uni, or TAFE, orin online courses, or reading science books or blogs etc. getting people to learn science themselves. 

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