Rhys Charles says that Wales must commit to making TV programmes about STEM subjects.

July 28th, 2014

Is there enough money to make science based TV programmes? Can we afford not to make them?

TV plays a crucial role in creating an interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) matters with young kids. Presenting science to the young was a recurring theme in the 2014 Science and the Assembly meeting on STEM education in Wales in May this year. It was also discussed in Angela Graham’s earlier article for ClickonWales on science on TV. It is evident that in order to draw more people towards STEM education and careers in STEM you have to establish that interest at a young age.

I am among the postgrads at the Centre of Advanced Training for Engineering Doctorates (COATED) in Swansea University. As a condition of the funding awarded to us by the Welsh European Funding Office (WEFO), we have an obligation to carry out outreach activities in order to engage youngsters with science and nurture their interests in the hope that they too will be encouraged to pursue education and a career related to STEM. However most of the children that we meet are probably already interested in STEM, or at least have parents who are encouraging them in such a direction. TV has the chance to reach a much wider base of young people and generate an interest in STEM at an early stage in their lives, which will ultimately result in more children seeking to attend outreach events and activities and ultimately encourage more people into STEM careers.

For this reason, science on TV (and other popular media platforms) must play a role in achieving the desired outcomes from outreach. There must therefore be a case to use some of the funding for outreach to deliver quality science programming, or to allow those obligated to perform outreach by their funding bodies to fulfil this obligation by assisting in the creation and delivery of quality science programming at no cost.

It is clear to me that there is a problem with the perception of science as a career. Many of the crucial roles for STEM graduates in society do not involve the stereotypical white coat / stuck in a lab / test tube style science. TV is the ideal platform to help deliver the message that there are many other very important careers possible to STEM graduates than these and to dispel this illusion that higher education in STEM subjects relegates you to a career in a dark lab.

For example, although I have a background in chemistry, much of my role is outside of the lab based in the electronic waste recycling industry. I wear a high vis. jacket and steel toe caps as often as a white coat these days. My role is to identify value in the enormous quantities of electronic waste being generated, and help to determine effective ways of recovering value. This involves climbing through skips of all sorts of cool things such as  Playstations, computers, fighter jet simulators, phones, TVs and then tearing them apart or smashing them up, often digesting components in acid and eventually recovering precious metals including gold. This allows my work to optimise waste management strategies, elevate pressures of future resource security to the EU and reduce the environmental burden of the electronics industry on the planet. I think that TV must play a vital role in getting across the fundamental importance of an understanding of science and maths in all kinds of crucial jobs throughout society.

At the Science on TV in Wales event in May, BBC Cymru Wales Commissioner, Elis Owen made it very clear that TV looks for great ideas and strong stories and maybe scientists have to learn how to communicate their passions. We need a means to ‘meet’ and learn each other’s language. A website where scientists could put forward their ideas for science stories, and people involved in programming could look over them and engage in discussion about how to tell the story in an appealing way for TV audiences would be a helpful.

This idea that in order to make good viewing the science must take the form of a story is questionable to me. This suggests that extremely elegant and wonderfully interesting science depicting beauty in the universe, which cannot so easily be conveyed as a story will be withheld from TV in favour of more crude and less interesting science when this can more easily conveyed as a story. Is it not also slightly insulting to the general TV viewing population to presume that beautiful interesting science for what it is will not pique their interest if not told as a story?

Really great science programmes may be the key to nurturing seeds of interests in the nation’s youth, resulting in the development of inquisitive minds drawn towards STEM through passionate interest. Furthermore they may be the only hope of attracting the numbers to STEM education necessary to safeguard our future economy and the environment. However the kinds of science programmes which will achieve this must be truly great and capture the imagination. Such programmes will surely involve collaboration between passionate STEM professionals who have the ability to get the magic of science across to others and great programme makers able to translate the magic via TV to the masses.

I am happy that May’s Science on TV in Wales event has stimulated dialogue between these two groups and look forward to being involved in similar future events and the first-class science programmes which will hopefully be produced.

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Rhys Charles is doing an Industry Sponsored EngD in Electronic Waste Recycling Processes at Swansea University

5 Responses to:“TV and the future of Science in Wales”

  1. John R Walker says:

    Same response I gave to Angela Graham!

    I don’t care where my TV science comes from or which channel I watch it on – the idea that it needs to come from Wales is illogical. But, then, Wales is starting to look like the world capital of illogical which may be why it struggles to attract top class scientists and struggles to build a STEM-based modern industrial base…

    But I can see plenty of science-based kids leaving for Unis in England and I would struggle to think of any who came back!

    I’m amazed that dissolving electronics in acid to recover precious metals and rare earths still qualifies as research? It’s been operating commercially for years and there are even people on eBay doing it!

    But out of date lectures and out of date research was why I walked out of the BSc course I came to Wales to study 30 years ago…

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  2. Kevin Pascoe says:

    Rhys as an engineer myself I agree we need to do all we can to promote STEM based careers and the wider STEM profile. Its worth noting that there is a lot good work already happening though. The Open University already invests heavily in BBC co-productions to contribute to the STEM agenda. In addition to the eight series of Bang Goes the Theory, and global phenomna such as Frozen Planet and Coast, there will shortly be Richard Hammond’s Wildest Weather and you may recently have seen I bought a Rainforest (plus the list of other TV programmes below). All will attract a wide audience (from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions) and have serious educational underpinnings and free web based educational resources to extend interest in particular STEM themes. Critically the OU is using social media and MOOCs to reach those (particularly younger people) to whom TV isn’t the primary engagement channel. The OU is also involved in STEM stalwart Radio4′s Inside Science, plus the Bottom Line.

    So yes we obviously need more, but lets not forget there is quite a bit going on already!

    Pain Pus and Poison – with associated biomedical content
    An Hour To Save Your Life with associated biomedical content
    The Wonder of Dogs – with embedded genetic content
    Light and Dark – linkages between light and breakthrough discoveries in sience
    Stargazing – introducing astronomy
    Made in Britain – highlight key British manufacturing achievements
    Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity
    Airport Live
    Don’t Panic: the Truth About Population

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  3. R.Tredwyn. says:

    There are things about Wales that frustrate me, not least it’s inadequate, ossified politics. But I stay because it is, taken altogether, a lovely country with friendly people and a good place to live. But John R Walker seems to find no redeeming features at all after 30 years. He shows a steady scorn for all things Welsh. Which does raise the obvious question…..

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  4. Chris Jones says:

    Much as one might applaud the sentiments expressed by the author I can’t help but think there is a fundamental ‘disconnect’ here. Firstly, why should ‘Wales’ commit to this? What does he mean by Wales? As a country? As an educational system? As a government? As a people? How can you mobilise that through the medium of TV?
    Teaching the scientific ‘disciplines’ mentioned to the upcoming generation is surely the responsibility of the teaching profession . The marvelous TV programmes by the OU and others are tools and resources for them to use.
    I sometimes wonder if it’s true that inventions and ‘new’ science originate first in fantasy or science fiction novels/film. Remember Captain Kirk’s ‘communicator’ in Star Trek? There must be myriad examples of ideas being dreamed up in fiction first and their appearance in applied science second. So, if you want to ‘excite’ youngsters about science get them to read Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury and watch the erm..Terminator trilogy and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!. That will work infinitely better than some educational or governmental scheme. You need to stimulate the ‘Hey, I can do that (better)!’ mentality.

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  5. Natalie Harries says:

    Great article- I especially like the idea about having ‘a website where scientists could put forward their ideas for science stories, and people involved in programming could look over them and engage in discussion about how to tell the story in an appealing way’.

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