So you think science isn’t sexy?

The FameLab contest encourages enthusiastic young scientists to entertain and inform lay audiences about their fields – all within 3 minutes.

By AKIN AYAJI
April 23, 2010 17:37
No. 18 bus.

NFamelab Eilam Gross 311. (photo credit: NSivan Shachor)

The concept of making science interesting, but still relevant, was not new to Roey Tzezana. “I’d already taught science to first- to sixth-graders,” he explains. Tzezana, 30, is a doctoral candidate in the field of nanotechnology at Haifa’s Technion Institute of Technology. But participating in the inaugural edition of the FameLab Science Communication competition opened up new possibilities.

After reading about the competition in a newspaper, he decided to take part. “It seemed intriguing: I think it’s important to introduce new ideas in science education to the lay public.”

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He came second in the national competition, which was satisfying in itself; but the experience of taking part, and the possibilities that it opened up, left a lasting impact. “The enthusiasm, the energy… FameLab introduced me to other people who care passionately about these concepts: we knew that we wanted to share the excitement of science with the public.”

FameLab is a product of the UK’s prestigious Cheltenham Science Festival. It was introduced to Israel in 2007, and is currently organized by the HEMDA Center for Science Education, in partnership with the British Council and with the support of the Bloomfield Science Museum in Jerusalem, The Technion in Haifa and with corporate sponsorship from Israeli pharmaceutical company Teva.

Based in Tel Aviv, HEMDA is the main institution for science education in Tel Aviv, providing classes for 1,100 students from 16 high schools across the city in physics, chemistry and computational sciences at high-school matriculation level. Students take their classes in these subjects at the center, taking advantage of the center’s fully equipped classrooms and its highly trained faculty.

HEMDA’s primary objective is to promote science across the community, a remit it interprets broadly: Since 2005, it has convened a range of activities in general science education at the center, open to the general public and forming part of the “Science Culture at HEMDA” project. 

Dr. Eitan Krein, chair of the Science Culture project, explains that there is an urgent need to promote the role of science in public discourse. One path to this is by demystifying and democratizing the inherent principles of scientific knowledge and research.

“There is a lot of misinformation, lots of… strange ideas about science in the public sphere today,” Krein says. Part of the problem, he observes, lies with the manner in which scientific knowledge is shared.

“There is a lack of interest in science journalism among the media today. Journalists believe that the public is not interested, and they themselves do not seem to have much interest in changing this.” But the challenge, he acknowledges, isn’t merely one of superficial journalism. “Many scientists are not very good at explaining their work and research in an accessible manner,” he notes.

FameLab began in the United Kingdom in 2005, and since then has spread through the world, introduced to an international audience in partnership with the British Council. Between 2007 and 2009, the competition ran in nine countries in South East Europe – including Israel – with the winners of each national competition traveling to the UK to take part in the FameLab International finals. This year, the competition extends further, with local competitions taking place for the first time in Hong Kong, Brazil and Egypt.

FameLab offers young scientists the opportunity to share the most recent scientific discoveries as well as useful scientific knowledge with a non-professional audience in short, engaging and epistemologically sound presentations. Open to postgraduate students, scientists, researchers and anyone working in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine, contestants make a three-minute presentation on a scientific topic of their choice in front of a jury and audience.

Contestants are not allowed to use PowerPoint presentations or posters; any props used must be capable of being set up and demonstrated within the allotted time. The accessibility of the presentation is crucial: the key is for the presenters to strike a balance between delivering entertaining, informative talks without sacrificing content or scientific accuracy.

“FameLab in Israel has helped the British Council reach new and exciting audiences – young science communicators who are passionate about their subject and equally passionate to share their knowledge with others,” says Caron Sethill, assistant director of British Council Israel. “The competition has introduced young Israeli scientists to an international network, and through this network they have organized international events which we have been delighted to support.”

This year, three preliminary heats for FameLab took place at the Technion in Haifa, Bloomfield Science Museum in Jerusalem and at HEMDA’s Tel Aviv headquarters. Ahead of the finals, the nine finalists from the three heats will take part in a two-day science communication workshop, organized by the British Council and run by Malcolm Love, a broadcaster and lecturer in science communication at universities in the UK. Love originally trained as a Baptist minister; this seems apt, given the enthusiasm, perhaps bordering on evangelical zeal, with which participants in the contest and masterclasses have taken up the cause of science communication.

“Before FameLab, I thought that I was all alone; but there I found like-minded individuals,” observes Roey Tzezana. He describes the experience of taking part in the workshop that preceded the first FameLab final in Israel as something of a revelation. “We all knew that it was too important to end here.”

From the experience emerged Science for Everyone (mada al ketzeh hamazleg – which can be translated as “science in a nutshell”), a collective of likeminded, science-minded communicators “who seek to bring science to everyone,” according to its Web site. 

“We are young, enthusiastic, you could even say sexy,” Tzezana jokes. “But seriously, when we go on stage, our audience is often between 200 and 300 16- to 18-year-olds. Science is not their natural entertainment; they are more into [television program] The Bachelor. We try to bring another perspective to science education. We want to make it something that they can relate to, we want to break the stereotypes.”

Science For Everyone performs (“We don’t put on lectures, we put on shows”) at festivals, conferences, schools, colleges, homes for the elderly, “pretty much anywhere we can find an audience,” Tzezana says.

The collective, however, tries to focus on two discrete age ranges – 15 to 18, and 20 to 30. “[Those in the first range] “are at an age where they are beginning to think about what they will do beyond high school; the second is looking to begin building a career,” Tzezana explains.

The ultimate intention is to promote the communication of ideas in science without diminishing or trivializing the form or content. “We want to strike a balance between the message and the means of communication,” Tzezana says, stressing that they are not trying to “dumb down” scientific content.

“Formal science is the most important thing – it is what I do, after all,” he says. “But the layman needs to know the stories behind the science, how it changes the world.”

And how better to do that than by ensuring that science can be engaged with by everyone? Tzezana is only too happy to acknowledge Famelab’s influence.

“Most of us met each other for the first time during the competition – so thanks a lot, British Council!”

HEMDA’S Krein hopes that, with time, FameLab will be part of a societal change that will inform the public’s engagement with science in general.

“The ambition is that... we will be able to engender a long-term cultural change in the popular perception of science – the reporting, the communication and ultimately the engagement with science – in Israel.”

For its part, the British Council is pleased that the competition has, in four years, already had a positive impact. “ It has been a privilege for us to work with Israel’s up and coming science communicators and with the HEMDA Center, our FameLab partners in Israel,” Sethill says.

The last word lies with Science for Everyone. Its last appearance, at the Olamot Science Fiction and Fantasy Conference in Tel Aviv last month, featured a stage show called “Science and Magic,” including optical illusions, body mechanics, astronomy and an exploration of the scientific principles that make some paranormal phenomena seem possible.

“People are clamoring that they want to hear more about science on prime-time television, on the news…” Tzezana observes. So what is their ultimate audience? He thinks for a moment. “You know how there is usually half-time entertainment during big soccer and basketball games, a dance troupe or a celebrity singer or a contest? We would love to be that entertainment.”

The finals of FameLab 2010 take place at HEMDA, Tel Aviv on May 5. http://www.britishcouncil.org/israel-support-science2-beautiful-science-famelab-competition.htm Science For Everyone - http://israelscience.weebly.com/


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