Science engagement reflection tool: Language

The language we use around STEM, both verbal and visual, often reinforces the idea that it is for people who aren’t ‘like me’. We know from the science capital research that our communication around STEM has a big impact on perceptions of who does it, who can do it, what they are like and what they do. At the Science Museum Group we have started to reflect on the language we are using to help our visitors see STEM as more inclusive and relevant to them.

When we first started looking at this we were shocked by how easily we all fall into the trap of making STEM seem distant from us. Using our science engagement reflection tool, we began to find ways that we could address this in our work. Here are a few examples:

Social media

When writing a tweet about one of our objects for our @SM_Learn twitter feed we originally wrote it like this:

‘Talking #climatechange? These toys helped scientists learn
about ocean currents by falling off a ship!’

But on reflection, who were these scientists? Why can’t we all learn what they did? And so we changed it to:

tweet

Such a small change but it instantly includes us all in the discovery and makes it feel like something everyone can participate in.

Workshops

We looked at the script for our science communication workshop and found examples of where we might be inadvertently making science seem difficult or inaccessible. For example, one line, in reference to an activity where students take apart a clock said:

‘We wanted you to find out that inside things we might use
every day, there is some hidden intricate science’.

We realised that this line makes science seem inaccessible so we changed it to:

‘You can find science in the things we use every day. Being curious
about how things work is the way scientists and engineers think too.’

This change not only removes the sense that science shouldn’t be seen but also positively reinforces the idea that the students were behaving like a scientist or engineer.

Events

At the National Railway Museum we developed a series of events for a festival called ‘Future Engineers’ that took place in October 2016. An early version of a script read:

‘Engineers are great problem solvers; they make
things work or make things work better.’

However, we wanted to help people recognise that they have and use skills that are also useful in engineering, so our final version became:

‘We asked lots of engineers what skills they use the most and
they said creative problem solving, curiosity and teamwork. Who
thinks they have used one of these engineering skills in the last
week?… Who has turned the brightness down on your phone to save
battery life?… Googled new information?… Played a team sport?’

During the festival when we asked students whether they had used these skills, one or two hands went up but after giving practical, everyday examples, everyone’s hand was in the air.

Visual language

It’s not just about what we say, however, it’s also about what we show and our visual language.

In the slide show presentation for one of our science shows, Danger, High Voltage, we show students images of how renewable energy is harnessed. This is what it looked like:

energy 1

On reflection, we realised that we were missing a great opportunity to make this more inclusive and to demonstrate the diversity of people who work on and are affected by these technologies. So, we changed the slide to this:

energy 2

We are at the beginning of a long process to ensure that all of our content is as welcoming and inclusive as possible, and as open and available to all as we can make it. It relies on each of us within our whole organisation to be mindful and constantly reflect on the work that we produce. Often the changes we are making are small, just using personal pronouns instead of ‘scientists’ or ‘engineers’, removing jargon and unfamiliar terminology and using alternative images to show the diversity of people in STEM. All of these small alterations will hopefully encourage visitors to see STEM as something that is more relevant to them and that they want to engage with more.

Where could you make the language you use in your work more inclusive?

Kate Davis, Learning Resources Coordinator (Science Museum, London)

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