Author: James Sumner – University of Manchester, United Kingdom

Science communication policy innovations often define themselves in opposition to discredited past approaches, a classic example being the deficit-to-dialogue shift. Nonetheless, it’s sometimes worth exploring whether today’s practitioners can usefully learn anything from the educators and popularisers of past generations. I address the possibilities through a case study of my experience developing Electric Dreams, a public engagement project which grew out of collaborations between the University of Manchester’s taught graduate programmes in science communication and the contemporary history of science and technology. Chiefly addressing family audiences at public events, we evoke the public science and technology of the 1980s through interaction with original computer hardware, electronic toys, TV and radio equipment, posters and books.

Creating and refining Electric Dreams revealed limitations, but also opportunities in the approach. The hardware itself, for instance, is often inconvenient to transport and maintain, yet it also has features – large size, low speed, limited features – which can be advantageous when the aim is to communicate underlying principles. Similarly, while some of the cultural baggage of 1980s popular science proved inappropriate or unengaging, we had some success in reviving demonstrations from the BBC TV series Take Nobody’s Word For It (1987-1990), whose kitchen-science approach turned out to provide an engaging blend of the easily assimilated and the unexpected. We also sourced and presented items that usefully demonstrated the long-term development of current advocacy priorities such as women-in-STEM and environmental sustainability. My presentation analyses the techniques used, their successes and the difficulties encountered, to suggest how they might be transferred to other historically informed public engagement projects.

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Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Time