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GeoSciences Column: Improving together – science writing and football

GeoSciences Column: Improving together – science writing and football

Writing is something that those pursuing a career in academia are expected to be good at. It is a requirement of the job, yet it is a skill few get any formal training in and simply rely on the old saying that practice makes perfect. But what if there is another way? Mathew Stiller-Reeve is a co-founder of ClimateSnack, a writing group organization, which aims to tackle the problem. In today’s post Mathew considers how the workings of a football team might reflect the successes of the writing groups that started in the ClimateSnack project.

The premise behind the ClimateSnack project is simple: We need to improve our writing in science. But many young researchers do not have access to good training initiatives, especially not continuous ones. So, maybe we should just mobilize ourselves; we can mobilize ourselves by starting writing groups and working together to improve. In ClimateSnack, early career scientists (ECS) start writing groups at their home institute. Participants write short popular science articles (usually 400-500 words), read them aloud, get feedback, and publish online. Several ClimateSnack writing groups sprouted up all over the world, however, only a few truly blossomed. What made some groups work and some not? We analyzed the answer to this question in our new paper. The style of a peer-review paper didn’t allow us to make fancy, lengthy analogies. But on GeoLog, I feel safe using football as an analogy to explain the workings of a writing group, and maybe infuse some of my own personal opinions too.

Football is a team sport, but you can play football completely alone and still become an expert. You can see this when you watch football freestylers (like Indi Cowie in the video) do their incredible tricks. Most of these tricksters likely play football with a whole team, but they don’t have to. The same applies to science writing and communication. You can become an expert in these skills by yourself, and some people prefer this. But for ECS’s who like to work together, ClimateSnack would give them the opportunity to improve as part of a team: a writing group.

But what was needed for the teams to work successfully? And what did we learn from the teams that disbanded after a few training sessions?

Successful football teams have good leadership, and in particular good captains. Good captains bring out the best in their players, encourage them when things get hard and manage conflict. These elements were reflected in the ClimateSnack writing groups. The strong leaders guided the groups and encouraged participants to contribute in sensitive ways. However, strong leaders don’t stick around forever. Just as other football clubs often buy captains, writing group leaders also moved on; they finished PhDs and got jobs far, far away. New captains needed to be found, but this was always a challenge.

Can the workings of a football team reflect the successes of the writing groups that started in the ClimateSnack project? Credit: Syaza , distributed via gify.

Can the workings of a football team reflect the successes of the writing groups that started in the ClimateSnack project? Credit: Syaza , distributed via gify.

I am absolutely not saying that the leaders of the disbanded other groups were poor captains! Even a potentially good captain cannot lead a team if he/she doesn’t know the rules of the game. If the rules are not clear then the whole team cannot play properly together. They need to know where the goal is; they need to understand the game’s objectives. And this is where the ClimateSnack management team (where I am most to blame!) was shortsighted. We failed to properly communicate the objectives and aims of a ClimateSnack writing group and the writing process we suggested.

Even if a football team knows the rules and has a good captain, they won’t get far if morale is low, or if the players haven’t got time to train or turn up for matches. We noticed that a lot of the motivation within writing groups was linked to socializing. Just as some amateur football teams might go to the pub after training, one successful writing group planned their meetings just before the Department coffee break so everyone could socialize after the hard work was done.

What other elements need to be in place for a football team to work?

The right number of players is an absolute necessity. Most people have seen how a football team struggles after a couple of players have been sent off. You may have also heard about players going to other clubs if they don’t get to play enough matches. The ClimateSnack group meetings also faced challenges with the number of participants. One group had so many participants to start with that it became difficult to manage. It is difficult for everyone to get something out of a peer feedback discussion if too many are involved.  In this instance, participants lost interest and numbers decreased steadily and finally to a level where too few attended and the group disbanded. In our Bergen group, we always find that the best discussions happen with 4-6 people at the meetings. If we get far more than this in the future, then we will likely split into smaller discussion groups which work more effectively.

Effective writing groups demand some kind of time commitment from the participants. Good writing requires practice, just like football. Football players often train several times a week. With ClimateSnack, we did not have the luxury of asking the members for this level of commitment. Students are already under pressure from a variety of different sources. They need to complete mandatory courses, collect data, attend conferences, and work as teaching assistants. People who play football have a passion for the game and make time for it. Unfortunately, few young researchers have a passion for writing (cards on the table: I was exactly the same. It took a lot of time before I started enjoying writing). Therefore, something voluntary like a writing group will often fall by the wayside when to-do lists are being compiled.

A football team celebrates together after scoring a goal!

A football team celebrates together after scoring a goal! ( Lewes Ladies 2 BHA 1 4 May 2014. 645 , credit: James Boyes distributed via a href=” https://www.flickr.com/”> flickr).

Some ClimateSnack teams started scoring goals! ClimateSnack participants have published over 100 articles online, some of which articles have appeared in newspapers here in Norway. Many participants feel that their writing has improved. Some participants have even started receiving better peer reviews for their scientific publications. Other participants have also used their new network to organize science communication workshops. Even if many writing groups didn’t find a footing, for some people the concept worked really well. And many people have made good friends!

Just like with many football teams, they are more likely to score more goals if they have generous sponsors. Football clubs need to buy kits, pay for pitch maintenance and travel to play other teams. A writing group project like ClimateSnack ideally needs some funding to let new ideas flourish and allow different groups to interact and learn from each other. The ClimateSnack founders had big ambitions to create an international online community where ECS would interact and peer-review each other’s articles across borders. We secured some funding to update the website, but never to implement the kind of things needed to properly promote an international community.

Despite the challanges we encountered, we have seen that writing groups can be a really effective way to learn writing skills together (like ours in Bergen in the photo). Maybe they are so effective that universities should consider implementing them in curricula for all students at all levels. With this in mind, I’ll indulge with a final football-related analogy. When I was a child, we had to play football at school. I didn’t like it! However, now I appreciate that I got fit and healthier, and I learned skills that I could apply to other sports in the process. You see the link to learning basic writing skills?

Indeed, if you think about it, I could have applied the football team analogy to any aspect of research education: We can learn anything alone, but it can be more enjoyable and rewarding if we learn together. However, I think the analogy works well with communication. After all, this is the part of the research process where we really have to put ourselves out there, we have to receive feedback, debate our results, and defend our conclusions, often in open forums. These are all elements at the forefront of writing group dynamics.

Read more about the highs and lows of our ClimateSnack project in our paper in the recent HESS/NHESS special issue on Effective Science Communication and Education in Hydrology and Natural Hazards.

By Mathew Stiller-Reeve, co-founder of ClimateSnack and researcher at Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, Bergen, Norway

Reference

Stiller-Reeve, M. A., Heuzé, C., Ball, W. T., White, R. H., Messori, G., van der Wiel, K., Medhaug, I., Eckes, A. H., O’Callaghan, A., Newland, M. J., Williams, S. R., Kasoar, M., Wittmeier, H. E., and Kumer, V.: Improving together: better science writing through peer learning, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 20, 2965-2973, doi:10.5194/hess-20-2965-2016, 2016.

Going deeper underground – why do we want to know how rocks behave?

Going deeper underground – why do we want to know how rocks behave?

Imagine you find yourself standing atop a wooden box in the middle of your home town, on a rainy weekend day, with the sole aim of talking to passersby about your research work. It can be a rather daunting prospect! How do you decide what the take-home message of your work is: which single nugget of information do you want members of the public to take away after having spoken to you? Even more important still, how are you going to grab their attention in the first place? After all, they’ll be going about their business and not expecting to see you there, on top of your box, least of all talk to you about your work! But if you fancy the challenge, then read on, as Stephanie Zihms, the ECS Representative of the Earth Magnetism and Rock Physics Division, describes her experience doing just that!

Now in its 6th year Soapbox Science is spreading and I was selected to take part in the 1st Edinburgh event on July 24th on The Mound. The weather was typically Scottish but it didn’t seem to bother the crowds and it definitely did not dampen the enthusiasm of the 12 speakers.

I have done a range of different outreach events but I was particularly drawn to Soapbox Science because it specifically promotes female scientists and their work. It was great to meet the other scientists and to see the range of soapbox “performances” as well as the variety of props utilised to showcase each research topic.

Photo taken at the Soapbox Science event courtesy of Sarah Caldwell (smcneem)

Photo taken at the Soapbox Science event courtesy of Sarah Caldwell (smcneem)

The scary thing for this type of event is that you don’t know who might stop, listen & ask questions since we were standing on The Mound in Edinburgh – this also means that your  material has to be accessible and engaging to a wide audience.

Here is what I did to explain my research in geomechanics: Going deeper underground – why do we want to know how rocks behave?

I opted for a big PVC banner showing different heights & depths. With help from the audience I added a picture to each line to show what it represented. I used this banner to set the scene for the type of work I do. I’m a researcher in geomechanics – I want to understand why rocks deform the way they do and what part or component of the rock controls the deformation. The rocks I work with are related to a very deep oil field that lies under 2km of ocean and 5km of rocks. It would take me ~1 hour to run this. At this depth the pressure squeezing the rocks is very high – each square meter of rock experiences the pressure of 16 African elephants per km of depth. So at 5km depths that is 80 African Elephants per square meter.

Under these high pressures the slightest change in conditions e.g. through oil production affects the rocks and changes the distribution of this pressure onto the rocks. I want to understand how different rocks respond to these changes. I do this by collecting rock samples that are easy to get to e.g. from quarries. But they have to be similar to the ones found in the oil field of interest – we call this an analogue (or think of it as a sibling).

Rock sample before it is placed into the Hoek Cell. Image Credit: Stephanie Zihms

Rock sample before it is placed into the Hoek Cell. Image Credit: Stephanie Zihms

In the lab at Heriot-Watt University I have an apparatus that lets me deform rocks under different conditions. The sample, usually a core sample (seeimage above) gets placed into a rubber sleeve before being placed into a stainless steel cell called a Hoek Cell. The space between the rubber sleeve and stainless stell cell is filled with oil that can be pressurised. That way the rock samples can be placed under different pressures that mimic the conditions at different depths. After this initial pressurisation the rock is squeezed in a press until it deforms. When the readings pass a peak value it indicates that the rock sample can’t withstand the squeeze pressure any longer and the test is stopped.

Unfortunatley we can’t see what happens to the rock during the squeezing process but we measure the sample before and after testing – we can also take a x-ray images of the entire sample. We do this with the sample before it is deformed and then again afterwards. This technique lets us see inside the rock – similar to having a x-ray in hospital to see if a bone is broken or not.

Using special computer software we can then look at different parts of the rock’s inside – I am particularly interested in the fractures that formed during the deformation and I’m working on ways to relate these observed features to the rock type, grain size and pore shape.

Why is this important? As I mentioned above I look at rocks related to an oil field – and the response of the rocks to oil production could hinder or help extraction. Oil companies are very interested in predicting the rock response to ensure it does not have a negative impact on oil production.

3D reconstruction of the rock sample using the x-ray images. Image Credit: Stephanie Zihms

3D reconstruction of the rock sample using the x-ray images. Image Credit: Stephanie Zihms

Additionally this research is also relevant to other areas: for example geothermal energy. One method of generating geothermal energy is by pumping water into a rock that is hotter than the surface to increase the water temperature. When this water then reaches the surface it can be used to generate electricity. Adding water into the rock also changes the pressure conditions. Another field is Carbon Capture & Storage – If we want to store CO2 securely and long-term into the subsurface e.g. in a disused gas field – understanding how rocks respond to changes in conditions firstly by removal of gas & secondly by filling the rocks with CO2 is important.

By Stephanie Zihms, Postdoctoral researcher and ECS Representative of the Earth Magnetism and Rock Physics Division.

This post was published under the original title:Going deeper underground – My Soapbox Science Edinburgh contribution, on Stephanie Zihms’ personal blog.

My film is ready, now what?

My film is ready, now what?

It’s no secret that at EGU we believe using film as a medium to communicate science and engage the public with research is a great tool! So much so that we organise an annual competition for early career scientists (ECS) to produce a three-minute video to share their research with the general public, as well as publishing film how-to-guides on our blog and organising film-making workshops at our General Assembly (GA).

The film-making workshops of 2014 and 2015 focused on how to make a film: from producing the script right through to aspects of editing and post-production. This year, the workshop was delivered by Stefan Ruissen, an online & cross media specialist, and centred on how scientists can raise the profile of their film work. In today’s post, we highlight some of the main points from the workshop and share Stefan’s slides with you too.

The fact that rich-media and video has grown to form an integral part of conveying a message, be it a news story, a funny meme, or capturing moments of our everyday life should not be underestimated. Harnessing the growing popularity of video when it comes to helping you tell the narrative of your research is crucial!

Video and social media

Social media channels mean that the possibilities to communicate and share the film you invested so much time in creating have multiplied. An important take-home message from the 2014 workshop was knowing your audience: whom are you producing the film for and what message do you want them to take away from it?

Knowing your audience is vitally important when getting your work out there too– where is the most likely place you’ll find your audience: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, via a blog? Spend some time trying to work this out, both in the planning stages of film-making and once your video is ready.

Social media generates opportunities to share your film with a broad audience. Identify which channels are the best ones to reach your audience and tap into your existing networks for maximum impact.

Social media generates opportunities to share your film with a broad audience. Identify which channels are the best ones to reach your audience and tap into your existing networks for maximum impact.

And while social media generates so many opportunities to share your film, how people are consuming content online is also changing. In the past users would actively search for content they wanted to read about or watch; now a day, most content arrives at people’s doorsteps through algorithms curated by social media channels. This means that, not only is it important to get your film ‘out there’, you’ve also got to get it noticed.

So, once you’ve identified the best platforms to use, post the content and don’t forget to engage with your audience! Be sure to start a conversation and be part of it. You will most passionately tell your story, so use every opportunity to drum up further interest in your film.

Tips

  • Get noticed in on-line searches: When planning your film, think carefully about the title and once it is finished, invest time in preparing a description text and key words
  • Be prepared: Have a set of promotional materials to hand, inc. a film summary, stills from your video and a short trailer
  • YouTube: simply uploading your video is not enough. Social media 101 says your film should come complete with description, a link to further information/the film page (if available) and don’t forget a catchy preview image to hook viewers
  • Twitter: exploit your existing network, or spend time building links with relevant peers and organisations who can further your work. The same is true for hashtags – reach a bigger audience by tapping into # and using mentions
  • Facebook: Combine all your posts with stills or a trailer of your film (that’s where that preparation of promo materials comes in handy!)
  • Ask your audience: Put yourself in the shoes of your audience, how would you find new science related content? If you aren’t sure, speak to your audience, they’ll likely give you a few pointers!

Making your video isn’t the half of it: while there is no doubt that you should concentrate your efforts on planning, shooting and editing your video, save some energy to develop a strategy which will allow you to disseminate your film work effectively. For more details on how to best achieve this, why not take a look at Stefan’s presentation?

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

This blog post is based on the presentation by Stefan Ruissen at the Short Course: Scientists must film! (SC47) which took place at the 2016 EGU General Assembly in Vienna. The full presentation can be accessed here.

Revamping the EGU blog network: call for bloggers

Revamping the EGU blog network: call for bloggers

The EGU blog network is getting a make-over! Since 2013 the network blogs have enjoyed thought-provoking and engaging contributions by Simon Redfern, Dan Schillereff and Laura Roberts, Jon Tennant, as well as Will Morgan on a range of topics: from the workings of the inner Earth, through to geomorphology, palaeontology and air quality. However, the individual circumstances of the bloggers now mean that it is no longer viable for them to regularly update their blogs. As such, it is with sadness that we announce that we are saying goodbye to Atom’s Eye on the Planet, Geology Jenga, Green Tea and Velociraptors and Polluting the Internet. From the EGU, we thank Simon, Dan, Laura, Jon and Will for contributing excellent content to the blogs and wish them the very best of luck for the future.

To complete the make-over, we’d like to find new blogs to take the place of the departing network blogs. If you are an Earth, planetary or space researcher (a PhD student, an early career scientist, or a more established one) with a passion for communicating your work, we’d like to hear from you!

We currently feature blogs in international development (Geology for Global Development), geochemistry (GeoSphere), volcanology, (VolcanincDegassing) and geopolicy (Four Degrees). We’d love to receive blog proposals from fields within the Earth, planetary and space sciences we don’t yet feature. The network aims at fostering a diverse community of geoscience bloggers, sharing accurate information about geoscientific research in a language understandable not only to fellow scientists but also to the broader public. You, as an expert in your own research area, are in a better position than we are to share recent development in your area of research.

The benefits: apart from your site gaining exposure by having its posts listed on the front page of the EGU website, we will also share highlights of your work on our social media channels (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Instagram) and advertise the blog network at our General Assembly, which has over 12,000 attendees. And, of course, you’ll get to join a great community of bloggers!

With the exception of VolcanicDegassing, the network blogs are authored by early career researchers. In this call for bloggers we are particularly keen to add diversity to the network, and particularly welcome applications from more established scientists.

Having an existing blog is not a requirement for application. However, if you don’t have a blog already, we’d like you to have at least some experience of writing for a broader audience, be it as a guest blogger, or contributing to outlets such as The Conversation, for instance. In this case, let us know what you’d like your blog to be called, what topics you would cover, and link to articles you’ve published in the past.

If you’d like your blog (or blog idea) to be considered for our network, fill out this form by 8th August.

Please note that only blogs in English will be considered, as this is the EGU working language, and the language of the blog network. We particularly encourage applications from all European countries, not just English-speaking countries, but bloggers from outside Europe can also apply.

Feel free to contact the EGU Communications Officer Laura Roberts if you have any questions. In the meantime – happy blogging!

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