Episode 55 – How to get kids excited about science
Welcome to another season of Let’s Talk SciComm! We’re very excited to be back with Season Eight, podcasting about our very favourite topic – science communication.
We’re kicking off the season talking with the brilliant Julia Cleghorn about approaches to getting kids excited about science.
Julia is an extroverted science geek, science communicator, project manager and performer at heart. Her career combines science and the arts to promote engagement and curiosity in science. She has communicated science to kids on TV – as writer, producer and presenter for Network Ten’s Scope; in magazines – as writer for CSIRO’s Double Helix; and on stage – with the Shell Questacon Science Circus.
She currently works at the University of Melbourne as the Manager of STEM Outreach Programs. Her team develops and delivers workshops, shows and mentoring programs to inspire high school students to study STEM. Many programs are equity focused to drive change for low SES, regional and Indigenous students.
Ultimately, her goal is to contribute to a more informed and curious society. She believes the wonder of scientific research and discovery can help people feel alive, and have a better appreciation of the world around them.
You can follow Julia and learn more about her work here:
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team.
I’m Associate Professor Jen Martin and my wonderful co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.
Hello everybody and a very warm welcome to another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm.
We are thrilled to be here and I am thrilled as always to be joined by you Michael.
How are you going?
I’m doing really well Jen, very excited for this episode and today’s guest.
Yeah, well today we have a very, very awesome guest joining us, a wonderful colleague and a very good friend of ours, Julia Cleghorn.
And Julia is currently the manager of STEM outreach programs in the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne where we work. And we’re just so excited you’ve made time for us today Jules. Hi!
Hello there, very very awesome, I like that descriptor.
I might put that on my business card. That’s good.
Well, you would have to put a lot of things on your business card because I’ve had the pleasure of working with you on quite a few different projects.
So we’ve run workshops together on public speaking. We’ve given talks together. We’ve worked really closely on a thing called Job Ready which was a free short course aimed at equipping science students with employability skills.
So we’ve done all those things but you’ve done a million other things. We’ve got a lot to talk about today Jules.
Yeah look, I have done quite a few things and I do find it challenging to describe it in a very succinct way.
So my desire has always been when I’m out and someone’s like “What do you do?” I’m like “How long do you have”? because I could talk all day.
And they say “clearly not long enough”.
But let me have a go at trying to be succinct and I know I won’t capture it all, but you were doing lots of interesting science and science communication work well before you started working at Melbourne Uni.
So you were part of the Shell Questacon Science Circus in Canberra and then you worked for I think nearly seven years as a producer and presenter on Australia’s Channel 10 science TV show for kids which is called Scope and obviously we’re going to talk about that. You’ve written for CSIRO’s Double Helix magazine for kids, you’ve worked as a producer at the ABC, the Australian Broadcast Corporation and even for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.
And then you’ve done a heap of different roles at Melbourne Uni. And look, for me kind of looking at it all, obviously there’s a huge variety of different roles that you’ve done but one really common thread that comes through many of your roles is really getting kids excited and engaged with STEM. And so that is what we particularly want to focus on with you today. But we got to go back to the beginning before we talk about your jobs.
The beginning of time.
Yes, not there.
Yeah let’s go back, we won’t go quite as far back as the big bang.
Oh ok, ok, I’ll go, I’ll go forward. I’ll go forward.
But I’m thinking about you, can you remember a particular experience or time in your childhood when you discovered that you loved science?
And I’m wondering if for you it was in any way connected to your love of sport because I know you are a really passionate and very skilled sports person as well.
Look, I don’t actually think it’s to do with the sport. But I do remember a moment in primary school when liquid nitrogen was first brought to my school and it was poured into a glass beaker and I saw it bubbling away.
And someone said… and well, my assumption was it was hot because only hot things boil but this liquid nitrogen was, was freezing cold and I just, it blew me away.
I think about that quite a bit actually. I don’t know what year I was, probably 4 or 5 but I think that was probably the one moment and it sticks in my mind so much of just being super confused and wanting to know more, I think, you know.
And that’s that curiosity that keeps coming out throughout a lot of the work that I do, wanting to know more and wanting to find out more from all the people that I’m working with. And I think that’s what keeps me in this field.
That’s such a cool origin story. I love it! It all comes down to chemistry. Who knew?
Liquid… I mean liquid nitrogen. Is there a better? Is there a cooler demo than liquid nitrogen? I don’t know.
I don’t think so. I think it could probably enhance any situation right?
Porridge and liquid nitrogen? Pints and liquid nitrogen?
Yeah. And sport’s been a big part of my life. But I think drama and performing has also been a huge element of what I’ve loved to do. And I think that’s also been a big part of everything I’ve done throughout my career.
Both sort of drama and science were big parts of my high school and I think when I got to the point of thinking about what I would do and I had to choose one or the other. And I was like I’m not going to choose, thank you very much.
I’m just going to combine them forever more. And I think that’s what’s led me to a lot of the things I’ve done.
Yeah, that’s great when you were able to combine your passions like that.
And I guess there is being fascinated about science and then there is being enthralled by the process of communicating that to others which usually comes a little bit later.
So yeah, curious to ask, how did you discover your passion for science communication?
Great question. So I’d say coming into university… I spoke about you know, doing drama and science in high school and then working out which path I would go down. And in terms of tertiary education, it was science that was focused on at that point.
But pretty early on in my degree I did realise that as much as I loved all my lectures which I did, I was the one at the front, I was the one with my hand up asking all the questions. But I didn’t have that vision of me doing the research or being in the, in the lab or out in the field.
But I did love running out of the classroom and running up to my friends and telling them exactly what I learnt and and saying “How cool is this”? I’ve learnt this new thing and wanting them to know and wanting to get them just as excited as I was.
I have to ask Jules. Do they have a nickname for you? Do your uni friends have a nickname for you?
Well I don’t know so much a nickname but there were definitely strategies in place for my friends to let me know that when I was maybe talking too much or talking too loudly.
So we had like a little symbol that, like that sort of wave they had their hands if they knew that I was talking too loudly in group settings. And I’m like okay, I got it, got it. I’ll readjust my volume.
Which is something those playing at home I did have to do just before this podcast. So it still happens this day. I just don’t have my friends around to tell me anymore.
I’m doing the signal. I’m doing the signal now.
You’re, you’re perfect.
So Jules in your role now that you’re doing at Melbourne Uni, your focus is really on inspiring high school students to study STEM. And I know there’s a particular focus on indigenous students and students in regional areas or those with low socioeconomic backgrounds.
But, you know, your target audience in other jobs has also been kids. I know you probably wouldn’t call high school students kids. But you know what I mean, young adults and kids. So for example, Scope was all about kids.
So what led you from ‘I love talking to my uni friends about what I’ve just heard in my lecture’ to deciding that kids was an audience you really wanted to spend time engaging with?
Yeah I guess there wasn’t a particular choice. But I guess, I guess what led me to that was from doing my science degree and finding the Science Circus. So the Shell Questacon Science Wircus, it’s this science circus..
What’s a Wircus? I’ve never heard of a Wircus!.
So yeah, so this group, it was part of a sort of graduate course in science communication in general. But this was the main field work component in a sense. But there were 15 of us. We travelled around Australia and we had to create these shows and, and go out to these schools.
And I remember very clearly. So my, I really was really unsure what I wanted to do. I knew I loved talking about science, but I didn’t really think this was a field that I could actually go into.
But my Mum actually found this ad in the paper and it said “Do you like?”… They had three questions “Do you like science?”…
“Do you like to communicate?” “Yes again.” And then “Do you like to travel?” And I was like, “Well, yes to all three”. And so I guess that’s what led me to yeah, in, into the Shell Questacon Science Circus.
And that just happened to be to high school students or primary school actually at that time, primary school students. And I guess what kept me there was how much fun you can have with kids?
And I think it’s how much fun… And I mean let’s, that’s not saying that we can’t have fun with adults as well. But I think there’s a particular way to engage kids. And I think there needs to be a big element of fun in there. And I think I liked dressing up and telling fart jokes and that, that seemed to keep the kid inside alive as well.
I think there was also an element of speaking to young people when they’re still on their journey to discover what they want and what they know and introducing new concepts to them completely fresh.
So when’d we bring a new idea, I guess like I did when I was in grade 4 or 5, whenever that happened, in introducing liquid nitrogen for the first time, you do get to stand in front of them and explain something absolutely for the first time and see their mind blown and see their eyes light up. And I think that’s probably what kept me in it because it is so… It’s fascinating to help them come to these incredible conclusions and have these incredible experiences.
Yeah. And how lucky are those kids that you know, that they get to be treated by that? I would have loved nothing more than someone coming in and dressing up and telling fart jokes and getting me engaged in science in that way.
But it doesn’t always look like that I suppose in school you know. We often hear about the difficulties of STEM at school. And I, maybe there’s a bit of a perception that kids think it, it can be boring or that the coursework can be really difficult.
So yeah, just curious to get your thoughts around that. Obviously you’re very talented at getting kids excited about science. But how do you go about doing that?
Look, I think they’re in the basic nuts and bolts of science communication in general. And I won’t go into them too much because I know this is what this podcast is all about. There’s been seasons all about it.
But I think the fun and engaging element is so important and that’s what we do. I think it’s also going in there and explaining things, but making it super relatable to where they’re up to in their lives.
And because I think they ask great questions and they get straight to the point when they go: ‘But why do I care and why do I want to know this and so be…? And which, which is, which is a challenge in a sense, to be able to make those connections as fast as possible. But it does allow you to create a very clear, concise story very quickly.
I think a big part is also bringing yourself to the presentations and to the classroom as well. ‘Cause I think kids are super perceptive and they, and they want to know a bit more about you. And they, and they ask great questions and they want to understand where you’ve come to and who you are. And I think when you bring your full self they do connect with that. And you have great, you know, discussions and to answer their questions and to engage their curiosity in that way.
Well, how much is it about helping kids to see that science is actually relevant to them?
You know, that science is already in their life. Is, is that a big part of it?
Ohh, it’s huge. And I think that’s the difference between what science can be seen as in schools, where it’s open the textbook and read the thing and do the test and that’s what science is. But I think coming in and realising that science is actually everywhere and showing that and saying “Look outside and look at the trees and the, the environment and look at the buildings and the engineering that comes through that”.
And I think the great achievements I think that we could do is for a kid to walk out of a classroom and to walk along the street and to suddenly go “Ohh, I remember them talking about you know, cement and, or cars or how they work or petrol and how they fuel a car” into sort of, spark those moments or spark those facts in their mind or their experiences they had in the classroom. To make it relevant to them and to realise that, that science is everywhere.
So if it’s about making it relevant to the kids, is there an element of trying to understand what are kids interested in at the moment? What is their reality at the moment? Because I imagine that’s difficult to keep on top of. The stuff that kids are into changes rapidly.
Yeah, I think that’s true. I mean, I could go into a classroom and talk about I don’t know, TikTok or whatever kids are doing these days. And there’s probably some new platform and doing the you know, what was the game? What was the video game that everyone was doing and the, all the dancers?
I don’t know. I’m not cool. So yeah.
I was just thinking Pokemon. You know, for a while that Pokémon was everything but Pokémon’s not everything any more right?
And just to let everyone know on the podcast, I’m actually doing the dance right now. So that’s not actually helping. Anyway, so what I was gonna say though is like, I don’t think it changes a lot because at the end of the day, it’s like I think what’s beautiful about science is like it is the essence of us as people and us living on this planet. And I don’t think that changes.
The amazing things about the animals that are living in the ocean or the way that the weather changes. And that’s always going to be the same, I think. And we’re always going to fart, Michael.
That was what I was thinking too.
That doesn’t change.
That’s exactly what I was thinking. And before when Michael said something about you know, I would have loved it if someone had come in and talk to me all about farts. You realise he was talking about himself last week, like not as, not as a high school student.
It’s also very philosophical, you know. Are farts inherently funny? Or is it just that we learn that they’re funny?
I don’t know. Maybe there’s a, maybe there’s a lesson in there.
And look, quietly, I think that every adult presentation could include some more fart jokes too. But… I just don’t know whether we’d allow that, you know.
Why not? Yeah, why? Why do we allow ourselves to get out of touch with our you know, with that type of humour?
I know. I can’t believe how many times I said fart in this podcast so far. Oh dear.
So while we’re on the really big topics like farts, I do actually have a, sort of a big important question for you, Jules. And that is: Like when I think about the state of the world, I think about the fact that there’s some really, really big problems going on in the world right now.
And we know that science has at least part of the answers to those problems. And so what that means is that we need the absolute smartest brains in the world working in STEM. And half of those smartest brains ever belong to girls and to women. But we know that girls aren’t participating in STEM to the same degree as boys. And we just need them to.
There was an article I saw just last week talking about in Queensland, about the fact that only one third of physics and specialist maths enrollments are girls, even though for years and years and years, the government, the education department has been doing everything they can to increase girls’ involvement in STEM subjects at school.
What’s your experience? What do you think we need to do to support more girls to get into STEM? And are you thinking at all about gender when you’re kind of preparing, you know, to go into schools? I think it’s such a vexed area, but it’s so important, right? We need to get girls into STEM. And then, of course we need to do all these other things to provide safe and supportive and kind environments in which women can stay in STEM and, and flourish.
But I’m really thinking about the start of the pipeline. What do you think needs to be done to get more girls in?
Yeah. Look, I think it’s a huge challenge and something we are focusing on … There’s a number of programs that are focused on women. There’s also indigenous. Like there’s a lot of I guess, minorities in there that we do want to be focusing on.
For women in particular, I think for a lot of the programs that we’ve been running, a huge element of them are having role models for them. And I think it really does come back to that you know ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’, is I guess one of the ways that we’re tackling that problem.
Because I think there’s a little bit of effect I think, when you only see maybe the boys in the class doing the maths. And you know, when people think about mathematicians, they think maybe it’s, it’s a man standing in a blackboard and doing the, doing the formulas and everything. So having a role model is a huge part to trying to bridge that gap, and that’s a, that’s a big part of what we’re trying to do.
Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more. I had an experience not that long ago of being in a Grade 2 classroom and talking about having been in Antarctica and talking about what it’s like to be a scientist.
And at the end I had this really gorgeous little girl come up to me and she just said without any pretence, “I didn’t know girls could be scientists”. And that kind of broke my heart.
And I think it’s also about yeah, the role models are important. It’s also giving them space. And so when everyone’s got their hand up and every single boy wants to answer the question, you go and you sit there with, with the girls and be like, “What about you guys? What do you think?”
And also with language. I mean, I use the word “guys” a lot. And I find that it’s not gendered, but I think it still is something is quite gendered. I mean, it’s so difficult. It’s something that’s you know, so ingrained in things that we do. But giving them space to answer questions and to participate a lot more I think will help them discover their own passions. ‘Cause it’s not something that they, I think generally don’t want to do or might not want to do, but it’s like I don’t know yet because I haven’t had a chance to try it.
I also, on that topic as well I remember talking to someone about some conferences as well, I guess in terms of giving you know, women space in this area. I think there was some, a study done where if at a number of talks at a conference and if a man asked the first question, the majority of the questions following that were always going to be men.
But if the, if a woman was the first person to put their well, the first person to ask the question, then the question for the rest of the time would have been 50/50 split between both genders. Which is incredible too. And so I guess that goes back to both points of, of giving space, but then allowing that, to have that role model. Because this, a woman puts her hand up and asks the question, and then every other woman in the audience be like “Oh. I guess I can do that too. Let’s do it. I’ll join you.”
Yeah, I think that active encouragement is so important. And I’ve seen that research as well. So now whenever I MC events and it’s my job to pick who gets to ask questions. I always actively chose a woman to ask the first question. I think it’s really important.
Yep, Yep. I tell my facilitators to do the same thing. To know that leads to 50/50. That’s what we’re, that’s what we’re aiming for.
Yeah, it’s really interesting. So it’s about role models, but it’s also about the way that STEM is delivered in the classroom. And I guess teachers love nothing more than students who are putting up their hand to answer questions. And so I can see it would be very easy just to go, “Yep. Yep, Yep”. And it takes a little bit of extra I suppose, thought to maybe make it a bit more equitable. Yeah, No. That’s, that’s really interesting.
And I suppose the you know, the other element that you bring into your insight around how to get kids excited about science is the, the performance role of presenting to them. And I know you’re an accomplished, an accomplished actor and improv performer, being on TV for years. And I’ve seen your show reel on LinkedIn. Very impressive. Love the, the variety of different situations you were in there.
So yeah, just love, love you to tell us a bit more about how performance can engage kids. And why is that special compared to maybe other types of science communication that we might talk about?
Great question. I mean there’s so many things. There’s… There’s a list of so many things. I think the biggest thing that I always say about performance is for people to be themselves. As long as they’re passionate about and interested in what they’re talking about.
When that genuinely comes across, they could be quiet and shy and retiring, which I think is I guess, the opposite of what the stereotype might be. But once they have that passion, people wanna listen. And it’s so engaging. And I, I guess coming back to the question in terms of performance, I guess tapping into that, it’s easy to share that passion.
And I think there’s something really beautiful about us as human beings and that sort of slightly untangible, intangible. Hmm, don’t know, I’ll find out. The, the anti-tangible thing that, that sense about who’s being genuine and who’s talking about their passions and who’s talking about and who’s not. So yeah, so, so I think anyone can be a presenter and I think anyone can, can do a performance, I guess science communication in a performative way. It’s just yeah, it’s tapping into those really, really key things.
Hmm. Yeah, I think it’s a really good point because maybe the term performance you know is a bit of a loaded term. And maybe it kind of brings up this idea of being false. You know, that you’re putting on a performance, whereas actually what you’re saying is the best performances are when the presenter is just genuinely connecting with themselves and why they’re interested in this topic. And then, you know, sharing that in whatever way that looks like. So yeah, I think that’s, that’s great advice.
Yeah, and there’s always extra things there that you know, to build the confidence more and there’s definitely warm ups to do, to bring your best self. You know, you can have a low day and you can have a a more energetic day, but there’s definitely some great techniques to go into some performance to be able to tap into that.
And I know in in anyone’s work there, there are some boring elements and there are some interesting elements. And I think even when, when telling a story about something you’re passionate about, I think there can be some lulls in, in how you’re telling that story.
But I always say to presenters, if you start to get bored when you’re telling it the audience is going to get bored as well. So mix it up because sometimes you, you can see they’re passionate about it. But it’s about saying it in a way where that can come across as clearly as possible.
Yeah. Yeah. And I love that idea of you know, warming the audience up to it.
And I guess warm ups are important. Cooldowns are also important. We have cooled down on this podcast.
I’ve heard about your segues, Michael.
That was cool.
I know. So my next question is, yeah, on a scale of 1 to 10, how good was that segue?
I haven’t even made it yet.
Excellent. I love it. I love it.
I haven’t made it yet.
I haven’t made the segue yet.
But we know cooldowns are important. Yeah so, as you know, on the podcast we do like to have a bit of a cool down and we have some quick questions that we like to ask at the end.
First question that I’d love to ask is: If you had to pick an alternative career to what you’re doing now, what would it be?
Look, it’ll have to be some sort of acting, presenting, which I guess in a sense I did a little bit of.
But right now I’m definitely focusing a lot more of the program you know, development, delivery, presenting, coaching I guess in a sense.
But I, I do love being on stage. That’s something I’m very passionate about so I’d love to do a lot more of that.
There is still time, Jules. There is still time.
Second question: What is your proudest professional moment?
Yeah, this is a tough one, Jen.
You know me. It’s all about the tough questions.
Yeah, that’s a tough-y.
I think, I think being asked to produce Scope quite young. I was surprised and overwhelmed and I was very proud of that, that I’d done a lot of work and I’d really worked in TV only for sort of two or so years when… But I had the background of the science and I think I, I guess, I guess warmed to the you know, to the work that we were doing. And so I was sort of elevated to that responsibility. I guess that was quite proud.
Right now though I do feel like it’s transitioned a lot more to the small stuff. You know, it’s seeing a classroom that’s just super motivated and super moved by a presentation that I have worked hard with the presenter group to develop. And you know when it happens and people leave the classroom and they’re like “I never really thought about this, but maybe, maybe I do want to be a scientist now”. And you’re just like, “Oh my god, it’s so incredible.”
And in similar way the presenters that I work with as well. Like they develop so much confidence through being in front of an audience and presenting demos and and stories from them as well. And I can see the things that they take away from these programs and, and doing a wrap up with them and seeing them become quite emotional about the things that they’ve learned that, that really is the something that I’m proud of each time that happens.
OK. Second last question.
Ohh so many.
Is there a topic in science that you are really curious about but you just haven’t had the chance to learn anything about yet? Despite all of your years of exploring different topics?
Yeah. Look, human behaviour. I mean, psychology I’m interested in. But just also general human behaviour, I think is fascinating. And I guess this actually comes into some of my interest in sport. And you know, I think physically, sport is fascinating. But I think also like mentally and the way that a group of athletes can work together and how momentum can shift in a game is so endlessly fascinating. And what the tipping points can be. So it might be a bit yeah, I think, I think I’ve always been I guess, human focused or human centered in a lot of the science. Like I studied physiology and neuroscience and anatomy. And and so I guess I’m, I’m a bit more of the anti-tangible part of the, the human condition now I guess.
Yeah, oh that’s great. I love how we’ve introduced a new word as well on the podcast. You heard it here first folks.
And you know, that new word plus a lot of great advice I think means that you know, there’s there’s a lot of valuable stuff in there.
For the last question, I would love to know: Out of all of that valuable stuff, what would be your very top tip for engaging kids in STEM?
I know the answer, the answer’s going to be fart jokes.
Fart jokes. It’s a good one. It’s a good one, Jen.
Look, be yourself. I think that’s my ultimate tip for communication in general. The kids are perceptive, if not more perceptive. And they’ll know when you’re talking passionately and, and talking from the heart. And I think when you do that, you can really connect and and tell a great story.
So be yourself. Don’t try and be anyone else or do anything else. Do, yeah, do or be anything else when you’re genuinely standing up in front of people and talking from the heart, that’s, that’s, that’s when a lot of meaning comes.
It’s where the magic happens.
Yeah. And I’ve heard a lot of scientists who’ve gone out and communicated to kids, maybe done a classroom talk or something like that. They often talk about how it maybe helped them reconnect with the why of what they’re doing in the first place, because you, you have to be in touch with that to be passionate and get kids excited in STEM.
Absolutely. Oh look, I mean there’s yeah, we didn’t get into this at all and I would have loved to have talked about the like the, the benefits of being able to put together a presentation for kids because you do have to think about it succinctly. And it’s something that I learnt again when I was working on Scope where I worked with so many academics.
And you’d read their bios and learn so much about what they did. But then, sometimes you’d ask the direct question about where it started or why they do it and it would be quite challenging for them. And so you know, I’d be asking multiple questions and, and then sort of sit back and try and create a three sentence introduction to what their, what their segment on the show would be.
And then they’d be like “Oh, that actually is good, you know. And so, and so it, it’s helping them to tell their own story. And I think that’s such a, a huge benefit to doing this sort of work. Science communication, but to kids in general is how much you take away from the experience as much as, is kids can as well in terms of learning about your work.
Absolutely. Well Jules, we, we have taken away so much from this conversation today.
I feel like I’ve known you for many years. But I’ve really learned some new and, and really insightful things today.
And I’m just so glad that you are yourself, because we love you the way you are.
Ahh, Thanks Jen.
Thank you for, thank you for having your passion with us and your experience. And we can’t wait to see you on stage, whatever context that ends up being in. We’ll be there cheering in the, in the audience won’t we, Michael?
Indeed, thanks to you both and thanks for all the work you do.
This podcast is great. So looking forward to more.
Thanks for listening and thanks also to our wonderful production team, Stephanie Wong and Steven Tang for making these episodes happen behind the scenes. And thanks also to you, our listeners, for your support.
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