Communicating science through the web

24 September 2019

Do you remember the last time when you spent a whole day without attempting to access the Internet?

You are not alone if you don’t. The Internet is playing an increasingly important role in every corner of our daily life, and it’s at the core of modern communication.

When all kinds of information are only a click away, they need to know how to make their stories appeal.

CPAS has run an intensive course Science Communication and the Web since 2012. It provides both the undergraduates and postgraduates with the theories and techniques for communicating science on the web. The student will learn to write for the web, use analytics and build web products such as video and podcast.

Evolution of storytelling online

Science information can be conveyed through a variety of media formats such as blogs, podcasts and videos. As novel platforms emerge on the Internet, new trends and content preferences of consumers take shape. Alongside the changes in the web is the evolution of the course.

“One huge shift in recent years has been the development of ever-better smartphones, which have allowed easy engagement with different platforms, and the production of high-quality video so much easier”, course convener Dr Will Grant explained.

“Yet the underlying principles — know your audience, know your goal — have remained the same throughout.”

During the five-day course in July 2019, Dr Grant invited seven experts to talk about how to create science content in different formats. Covering fields from freelancing to science comics drawing, they shared their own experiences and advice with the students.

“I loved learning from the many experts in various fields from all around the world!” recalled undergraduate Sasha Whittle. “I learned so much from listening to their journeys and what they discovered along the way.”

In every class, the students had the opportunity to make prototypes of web products using materials and tools at hand. During the practical sessions, they spent a short time making a short video, recording a fraction of a podcast episode, or drawing an infographic and showcased the product with their classmates. Using knowledge learnt in the course, the students exchanged critical evaluation about the products they made.

Students demonstrating their science comics.

Throughout the course, a question was raised again and again: what is a story? After the lecturer and all the guests shared their opinions, the students were asked to give their answers through building their own web presence.

Creating web presence from scratch

As Dr Grant noted, it’s always vital for science communicators to know their audience.

Student Sasha Whittle. Credit: Sasha Whittle

A student at a gold and silversmithing workshop, Sasha Whittle knows what kinds of information metalsmiths long for but have difficulty finding. She was determined to make the science relevant to metalsmithing accessible and useful for metalsmiths. So for her main project, Sasha made a series of makes science-based infographics called “Your Local Alchemist”.

The website of Your Local Alchemist.

Sasha’s infographics covered knowledge in materials science such as annealing. She built a website for the infographics and relevant information and promoted them on photo-sharing social network Instagram.

“From all the talks we heard and the quick content building activities, I learnt the importance of learning by doing,” she said.

“Have a clear understanding of what topic you are communicating and to who.

“From that point, everything such as the tone, style, web platform all falls into place, then you just have to make it happen!”

Samples of Sasha’s infographics.

Luke Hillsley, who is majoring in marine science, chose to build a video series on YouTube that combines science and entertainment. Named “Would That Shit Really Happen?”(WTSRH), the series focuses on exposing inaccurate science in sci-fi movies and showing the real science behind the scenes.

“Since I was little, I've loved the ocean and the earth and so it just made sense to investigate films that I had enjoyed in the past on these topics,” Luke explained.

Luke and his father enjoying the sea. Credit: Luke Hillsley

He used knowledge learned from the Research School of Earth Sciences to explain why it’s impossible for a car to drive through a flow of lava as in Dante's Peak or for a shark to swim backwards as in Deep Blue Sea.

Turning the science into videos wasn’t easy. “There were two main challenges: finding the right film footage and trying to capture it, and learning the ‘ins and outs’ of iMovie,” said Luke.

Screenshot of one of the videos in WTSRH, in which Luke explained the morphology of sharks.

After immersing himself in online tutorials in video-editing, Luke began to craft his videos with the advice he heard during the course.

“For me, the most useful content I learned was from Vanessa Hill, of the popular YouTube channel BrainCraft. She was incredibly insightful during the Skype call we made with her,” Luke said. “She gave us some really great tips, and I used these tips to produce my videos.”

Brooke Mills and her bearded dragon. Credit: Brooke Mills

Undergraduate and bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps) owner undergraduate Brooke Mills noticed that, despite their local popularity, there was a lack of information on caring for bearded dragons in Australia.

“This means bearded dragons are often going to homes that aren’t fully prepared for the work and costs involve.” Brooke said. She decided to build a website “that has everything new owners need to know” to fill the knowledge gap.

Brooke Mills’ website about bearded dragon husbandry.

The actual website, Bearded Dragon H&C, reflects the ambition Brooke had in mind. It covers a wide range of information on bearded dragon husbandry including vivarium setup, recipe selection, common illnesses and detailed care advice. She also incorporated first aid guidelines and local vet resources on the website in case of emergencies.

“I would like to think that this website is a great resource for beginners who decide to keep bearded dragons or people who just need a website with all the information in one place,” Brooke said.

“When I started keeping bearded dragons, I wish this resource existed!” She intended to continue updating the website regularly.

The website includes categorised guidelines for bearded dragon keepers in Australia.

Dr Grant expressed his excitement to see the students’ creation. “There are always so many engaging, creative, passionate and funny projects delivered!” he remarked.

Science Communication and the Web will run again in July 2020. What impressive web presences will there be? We will find out next year.

This article written by CPAS student Calo Huang.