How to effectively engage the public about science by taking to the stage?
Helena González is a standup comedian involved with a 20 scientists-strong group of like-minded entertainers, called Big Van Science and based in Barcelona, Spain. On stage, she shares many of the stories portraying life as a scientist and using material based on her own scientific findings, including some anecdotes dating back to the days she did her PhD in Genetics and Cancer Biology.
Since 2015, she has been involved in implementing participatory educational activities of an EU-funded project called PERFORM. The role of Big Van in this project is to explore a creative, participatory educational process on science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) through the use of scenic arts with secondary school students. They analyse how such science-arts educational approach contributes to foster girls’ and boys’ motivations towards science learning and strengthen the transversal competencies they will need for STEM careers and jobs.
Could you explain how you use science in your shows with Big Van?
Science is the content of the monologues, is the most important point of focus in our shows. We talk about science, but also about ethics and the challenges surrounding scientific practice. In short, we tell science stories through stand-up comedy shows. For instance, my own lab work, which was related to the development of the CRISPR/Cas9 technique, raises a lot of ethical concerns. During the shows, I explain why it is important that people know about this technique. I also make a point of explaining the actual possibilities opened by this approach, as my Big Van colleagues and myself do not believe in a world ruled by X-Men.
What motivated you to use science as inspiration for your shows?
At Big Van, we are scientists and we love to communicate what we do. Everyone in the group has a degree in science. And most of us also have a PhD. For years, we have been getting inspiration from the rigorous, methodological activities from our labs and turning them into stories suitable for a broad audience. And we do so because we believe that scientific culture should be as relevant as any other type of culture, like literature or history, for instance. This is the only way to fight pseudoscience and the “post-truth era”: raising the ability to do critical thinking among citizens.
Do you find some areas of science easier to communicate about? Do you avoid others?
Some topics interest people per se, like genetic modification, nutrition, neurobiology… things that can be directly related to their daily lives. But we also talk about maths, quantum physics or the Higgs Boson. And we have developed a way to find the most engaging story behind these topics, stories about discoveries, the life of scientists… so we just go ahead and do it!
Who is typically attending your shows?
We perform a lot for teenagers but not exclusively. We also perform in theatres for the general public. We do shows in scientific congresses, festivals, pubs. In such cases, people get very engaged.
How effective is this type of engagement with the public?
This format is really effective. We started the company in late 2013. In less than four years, we have already reached more than 400,000 people who have attended our shows. What is more, we are taking part in two European projects focusing on developing scientific vocations in young people. So far, our activities have been assessed for effectiveness in a very positive way, as they can help to counter negative stereotypes related to scientists. Our shows can contribute to create new scientific vocations among young people and to raise awareness of the societal challenges that science is facing.
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