Sing Song Physics: is songwriting an effective way to engage the public with research?
Catchy songs are great way to make a message ‘stick’, but can we use song to enthuse young people about science? Michaela Livingstone-Banks (MPLS PE Facilitator) shares what she learnt from this University Seed Funded project that explored exactly this.
In short: yes. You can watch one of the resulting videos below and watch all of them here.
At a Glance
At three local events this summer, 537 local residents worked with songwriter Jonny Berliner and researchers in Physics to create three brand new songs based on current physics research at the University, covering distant galaxies, planetary science and particle physics. A new engagement format was developed that introduced young people to the Department’s science and research using intriguing and illuminating hands-on activities and demos presented by researchers, before they were invited to help Jonny write songs that were then performed at the end of the day – including closing the Roar Stage at Cowley Road Carnival. The songs were shared online, credited to the residents of Oxford, reaching over 90,000 people to date. Young people had the chance to see and hear science as never-before, meet researchers face-to-face and explore fascinating science projects. The project found that crowd-generated song-writing is an effective way of introducing young people and their influencers to science and involving them; and songwriting was an activity that they particularly enjoyed. The project also served as a way to develop and reinforce the participating researchers’ communication and engagement skills.
Read on for details of what we did and what we learnt.
After trying out the Musical Abstracts project for the Curiosity Carnival, Michaela Livingstone-Banks and songwriter Jonny Berliner pondered whether instead of writing and performing songs to the public, there might be a way to use songwriting itself as a way of engaging the public in research. (You can watch a presentation from Jonny about Musical Abstracts here).
If you've ever had the misfortune of having an 'ear worm' then you'll know that song can certainly be an entertaining way of getting a message stuck, but so what? Would people run a mile if they were asked to help write a song? Could we learn anything about what sorts of ideas people form about a research topic? Could song be a way of familiarising with the language of science, and be a positive, enjoyable and creative way for people to have a new experience of science?
When the 2017/18 University Seed Fund opened for applications we thought we'd take a chance and put in an application to pilot this idea, with the support and encouragement from Prof Chris Lintott in Physics. Three plucky researchers from the department of Physics came forward to be involved: Nathan Adams, Neil Bowles and Donal Hill.
We sought £4009 in funding:
i) To develop a workshop activity that introduces young people and their influencers to contemporary research topics in physics, that allows them to explore the topics to:
- Increase their awareness of contemporary science research;
- Increase or reinforce their enjoyment of science;
- Increase their awareness of the opportunities to explore science further e.g. through Zooniverse, Oxford Sparks, etc.
ii) To provide an opportunity for young people and influencers to interact with a variety of scientists to increase awareness of who researchers are and what they do.
iii) To create a format that allows exchange of ideas between young people and researchers that will highlight appealing concepts and accessible language – to develop communication and engagement skills of researchers.
Fantastically, we were successful!
What did we do?
The format itself involved introducing a research topic via a 'traditional' hands-on activity or demo, followed by inviting them to work with Jonny to explore what they'd learnt to create a song, or specifically to contribute a verse, hook or line for the chorus.
We worked with each researcher to figure out what sort of information about their research project they would like to convey, and then worked through ideas to develop up an activity.
We also created a postcard so that participants could write down their song lyrics to take away. On the back there were links to more information.
We piloted the format at the Museum of Natural History during a Super Science Saturday event before each researcher then took their activity to one of three events:
- Templars Square Shopping Centre
- Harwell Family Fun Day
- Cowley Road Carnival
The songs were then performed at the end of the day and captured for posterity by recording videos of them to share on social media.
We used a variety of ways to evaluate against our objectives, some of which were more successful than others.
What we achieved
- 1 workshop format developed
- 3x hands-on activities developed (1 for each research project)
- 1 postcard with links to more info and space to write your lyrics
- 4 events attended
- 3 songs written and videos recorded for each
- 15m of physics bunting made
- 537 people engaged in person*
- ~230 at pilot (MNH) (see reflections)
- 60 at Templars Square
- 200 at Harwell Family Fun Day
- 47 at Cowley Road Carnival
- 90,966 people reached online** - of these 27,831 were specifically video views (£300 paid promotion enabled us to specifically target Oxford residents – more than Oxford Sparks has previously spent on a single campaign, but less than other University Events)
- 1,279 people engaged online***
We didn’t formally collect information on demographics, however from observation, for the most part it was young people engaging (~7-13 years old based on those interviewed), sometimes supported by adults, except for at Cowley Road Carnival where the majority of those attending and engaging were adults.
*Engagement was counted as each individual who spoke to a researcher for at least 30 seconds.
**Online reach was counted as number of views, impressions or equivalent across Oxford Sparks social media channels on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook.
***Online engagement was counted as any interaction on any post, e.g., Likes, clicks, retweets, comments, or equivalent on Oxford Sparks social media channels on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook.
All metrics were as of 6 Aug 2018.
Outcomes for the public
Awareness and understanding
When interviewed, most participants said that the research topic was either entirely new or that they'd only done a little in school before
A reflection from Jonny on the contributions to songs was, “there was clear evidence of learning”.
A reflection from a researcher was, “the songs show that the general story behind the research was being conveyed very well (the main questions being asked and why/how we're doing it), some of the more detailed components were lost.”
Whilst we couldn’t accurately interpret the results of the mood wall where participants were asked to place a sticker on a musical scale (because they made pictures instead), ‘enjoyment’ was mentioned by 14/15 of those interviewed. This was both the science/the hands-on activity (n=7) and/or the songwriting in particular (n=11). Those who expanded on their answer mentioned how ‘enraptured’ their children were, or that they had spent a lot of time on the activity, imaginations being fired up, and being creative. One young respondent stated that the songwriting was particularly good as they felt a sense of ownership. Another adult reported that their daughter loves anything to do with music and thought she’d enjoyed it based on the time she spent doing the activity.
Observations from the day and based on photos taken was that young people were particularly engaged whilst adults tended to stand back. Children were thoughtful about their contributions, and occasionally worked as a team. Children were surprisingly keen to write down their lyrics and take them away– sometimes with the help of an adult. Many adults took photos of their children’s contributions on the whiteboard, though none shared these via the hashtag on Twitter.
As a proxy of engagement and enjoyment, we observed that, especially at Templars Square, participants were willing to engage with the activity for significant periods of time – around 20 minutes.
Inspiration – wishing to seek out more information
13/15 respondents said that they wished to seek out more information. Some were more enthusiastic than others in their responses. Of the two that said they didn’t want to, 1 said that they’d learnt everything they could, and there couldn’t be any more left, the other was simply not interested in finding out more.
For each participant we provided a postcard that they could write their lyrics onto. On the back, there were unique trackable links to further information for each project. There was only 1 follow-up based on this, generally supporting the fact that conversions from offline (in-person) to online engagement is challenging. Because the webpages for each of the projects are externally managed we cannot look to see if anyone followed up directly, or simply used a search engine to find information. Two of the adult respondents were especially keen to discuss further opportunities for their children – including activities at home. The Oxford Sparks ‘Just Add Imagination’ booklet was provided to everyone who wanted it, and many people were noted to show some level of enthusiasm and eagerness to take a look when back home.
Outcomes for researchers
Development of communication and engagement skills
Researchers learnt new things about how to carry out engagement:
- “It definitely gave me a good experience of trying to engage effectively with people in a more challenging environment.”
- “Good engagement and the hands on demos were clearly important at capturing people’s attention and adding to the verbal descriptions of the science.”
- “The event I participated in had a lower age range of kids than was expected so some adaptations were required on the day. This should have been something thought of before, so for future events I'd plan to make sure that the activities were suitable to multiple audiences or a least more easily adaptable.”
- “[It] provided great insight into how I should plan larger scaled activities in the future.”
- “Plan the activity in such a way that knowledge is built up from the easiest/basic things first. That way the first few minutes can be consistent with everyone you speak to and the conversation can naturally flow depending on how fast they grasp the concepts.”
- “[the experience] was useful for refining science concepts into smaller, concise chunks.”
Jonny noted that researchers improved what information they were delivering and how they delivered it as the day wore on. This was evidenced by young people arriving at the song writing station more prepared, and having covered more of the research topic discussed (researchers becoming more concise and effective in their presentations/demo).
Researchers increased their confidence to engage
“I had periods of uncertainty regarding the difficulty of the topic being pitched but the end result shows this wasn't as big a concern as I had originally thought.”
Researchers learnt about and enjoyed using new ways to engage (through song) and could see themselves doing it again:
- “Writing songs with Jonny has shown me how effective music and song are as engagement tools, both for a young and older audience. I will certainly be carrying this forward into further public engagement work.”
- “It was a great joy to participate in this experimental set up”
What we learned
First and foremost: that the strength of this activity lies in the partnership between experts; the researchers on the one hand, and Jonny Berliner’s skills as an educator and songwriter on the other.
Is song an effective mechanism to engage young people and families with Physics?
We found that young people enjoyed the song writing activity, it was a creative way to continue an engagement on a topic. Young people were willing to engage with the whole activity, even if they were incidental visitors (e.g., at Templars Square) rather than because they were specifically visiting a science event. The song contributions showed clear signs that the participants had engaged with the activities and taken on board information and were able to recall things that they had previously had little or no awareness of. We're not so sure if they then thought about, talked about or sought further information. For completeness, full detail is below, some of which you may or may not find obvious - but it bears repeating.
Location – somewhere with incidental traffic that isn’t loud and distracting is best
Templars Square was where the highest quality engagement took place – almost every person counted (out of 60) went through the whole activity, and spent around 20 minutes participating in the activity – despite the fact that they had not planned to attend, and were simply out on a shopping trip. However, Cowley Carnival was too loud and whilst there was high foot-fall we did not manage to speak to many people - though it was enough to create a song. Harwell Family Fun Day saw high numbers of people interested in the science, but many opted not to engage with songwriting.
Those likely wanting to interact will be relatively young (i.e., not adults).
In all cases, whilst some adults did engage with researchers, the vast majority of those who chose to interact via the hands-on activities and take part in the song writing portion of the activity were children (~7-13 years old, based on those interviewed).
Hands-on activities need to be interactive, concise and clear, and reflect the content of the song you wish to write.
The amount of information that most people will retain about something can be reasonably limited, so as with planning any hands-on activity it should be clear what the main messages are. These should be based on what you think a song should cover from beginning to end, to enable a reasonable song to be written at the end of the day. You shouldn’t expect one person to be able to write the whole song. The process of developing ideas, practising, testing and tweaking before an event – all the while with the desired song in mind – is important, and requires appropriate support. Initial ‘opener’ should be kept relatively short, and be well formed (and ideally rehearsed).
Continuity from science activity to song writing.
We found after comparing the asteroids (playdough) and Lyman-break activities (looking through filters at imagery) that it might ease the song writing process if people could take something physical with them from the activity to the song writing part of the activity, that they could physically hold and play with to aid their thinking and recall.
Expectations for depth of detail that can be achieved in song
The depth of detail you can expect to be able to deliver as an activity that will translate into a song, through a relatively limited one-off engagement, might not cover the entirety of a story you want to convey through the song. This is especially so for areas of research that are unknown, or that go into quite specific detail or technical aspects.
The British Summer can surprise you - Plan for different weather conditions – including very hot and sunny weather
We hadn’t made alternative plans in terms of the activities we delivered in regards to very hot weather. This was particularly stark at Cowley Road Carnival, where the dry ice evaporated and the sun made it difficult to see laptop/tablet screens (which had been dimmed to save battery), despite being under cover. We had considered wet weather and had procured shelter, but had not made alternative plans for very hot weather.
We are convinced that this approach is successful and effective for providing a new and creative experience for young people, that they enjoy doing, and at least in the short term, go away more aware of, and with more knowledge about things they didn't know before.
Clearly this is a treasure trove of interesting further questions such as: could it be done as a workshop? What specifically does the songwriting contribute in terms of reinforcing learning or enjoyment, compared to hands-on activities alone? Do some topics lend themselves to this treatment more than others? How could we enhance the likelihood that people continue their engagement beyond the activity?
We're doing this activity again: this time bases on Bacteria at If-Oxford in October 2018 and plan to get our heads together to scheme the next phase.
If you would like to find out more about how we did this project or to express interest in taking part in the future, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.