Why we need to communicate STEM

Posted by Laura O'Dea on 09 May 2018

Engineers often come across as aloof geniuses; unapproachable, a bit boring and surely ready to have a good laugh at our silly science related questions.

It’s an unfortunate paradox because, in truth, studying science and engineering is the perfect antidote to arrogance. Measurements are always plagued with uncertainties and conclusions made with caution. The limits of our minds and tools is a constant source of doubt. Yet still, in spite of all these doubts, a career in STEM can lead to awesome new inventions which often become essential to our daily lives. Designing sensors to detect diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s in their early stages; developing efficient solar cells to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels; or attempting to smash the world land-speed record with the BLOODHOUND Supersonic Car – these are all examples of how engineering can have real world impact and be used to improve our everyday lives.

However, the stereotypical image of a ‘standoff-ish’ engineer is not completely unfounded. It is often difficult to tell our stories to people from a non-STEM background without leaving them feeling intimidated and overwhelmed by the language used. This is why it is absolutely vital that STEM professionals hone their communication skills. To challenge ourselves to convey the true potential of science and engineering without the crutch of PowerPoint slides filled with technical jargon (and often unintelligible formulae). This year, 2018, is the Year of Engineering in the UK, and presents a perfect opportunity for STEM professionals to show off the fruits of their labour to inspire a new audience and demonstrate how their work can improve lives.

A career in research

I have been lucky enough to be given the opportunity to pursue a PhD, funded by an EPSRC doctoral training grant, and work towards making something novel that will benefit other people in the world. Working as part of the Complex Fluids Research Group at Swansea University, my research, which is based in the Centre for Nanohealth focusses on analysing the mechanical properties of blood as it changes from a liquid to a solid to form a blood clot. My work aims to develop a technique to identify features of the coagulation process that indicate a person’s susceptibility to thromboembolic diseases such as stroke. The doctoral training programme has given me the chance to develop other skills too. I get to work as a demonstrator in undergraduate classes, volunteer for outreach programmes such as Soapbox Science and the Swansea Science Festival, and take part in Famelab – a unique competition aimed at engaging people without a background in STEM  with some interesting science and engineering discoveries in an entertaining 3-minute pitch.

This has been an incredible challenge for me, to explain concepts and ideas that I know a lot about given only a prop of my choice and basic everyday language, but as Einstein said “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”.

Benefits of communicating STEM

It is important that STEM professionals take part in communicative outreach programmes that attract a diverse audience. Our purpose is often to design things with the aim of improving some aspect of peoples’ lives. We develop solutions to the world’s most pressing issues like minimising negative environmental impacts, generating sustainable energy resources and improving healthcare. This is a field that requires a diverse and conscientious workforce that can fully understand the scope of these problems and devise creative solutions to address them. According to a 2016 report by the Royal Academy of Engineering, 94% of the UK engineering workforce is white and 91% male, which could narrow scope and lead to inherent bias. Variety is needed to breathe life into the field, and thrust engineering in the UK into a new, exciting time. We have the power to bring about this change if we are able to reach out and speak to engineers of the future in ways that they can understand to allow them to share our excitement.

 

Author

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Laura O'Dea
Job title: PhD Student
Section / Team: Complex Fluids Research Group
Organisation: Swansea University

Laura is currently undertaking a PhD with the Complex Fluids Research Group at Swansea University, in the area of rheology and microfluidics. She is passionate about science communication and has recently competed in the UK final of Famelab 2018, a communications competition where competitors are challenges to break down science, engineering and technology concepts into brief presentations.