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Professor Mark Hodson

Good story telling inspires all ages

I view what I do as story telling more than anything else. Therefore, I go along – mostly to schools at present – and tell environmental stories such as how earthworms evolved to cope with contaminated metals or how we can remediate contaminated soil. I tell stories that I think will grip people’s imagination. - Professor Mark Hodson, University of Reading

“If you look at a lot of decision makers in the world, they don’t have a scientific background,” says Professor Mark Hodson, Director of Research in the School of Human and Environmental Sciences, University of Reading. “So I believe it’s important to get science into the public domain as much as possible.”

With that aim in mind, Professor Hodson took up a three year STFC funded Science in Society Fellowship in 2011. His plans include a series of activities designed to increase public understanding and appreciation of environmental science. In particular, he aims to raise the profile of the Oxfordshire-based Diamond synchrotron facility, home to UK’s biggest and most expensive scientific machine.

Synchrotons consist of particle accelerators (like a mini version of the Hadron collider in Switzerland) which fire electrons around a circle close to the speed of light. The intense light given off as the electron beam is steered around the circle can be used by scientists to look at samples of soils, rocks, water, and biological material at incredibly high levels of detail.

As part of his Fellowship, Professor Hodson is explaining to a variety of audiences how scientists can use synchrotrons to answer a wealth of questions relevant to climate change and the health of people and the planet. However, whether it is speaking to schoolchildren or adults, he is certain that simply telling stories about the synchrotron and how it is used in environmental science is the best way to both inspire and inform the public.

“I view what I do as story telling more than anything else,” Professor Hodson points out. “So I go along – mostly to schools at present – and tell environmental stories such as how earthworms evolved to cope with contaminated metals or how we can remediate contaminated soil. I tell stories that I think will grip people’s imagination.”

Top Tip:
If you are interested in doing public engagement but nervous or unsure then it is dead easy to dip your toe in the water. Most universities have outreach officers and there is also the STEM network. So speak first to your outreach officer. Schools are very keen to have ‘real’ scientists visit them. It is very easy to have a go at public engagement and see whether or not it is for you.

Story telling works particularly well in keeping schoolchildren interested and engaged. His recent experience working with more than 700 children in a wide variety of schools has left Professor Hodson with clear views on what works best in a school setting.

“Although most of my visits are to GCSE and A Level students, if you really want to inspire children to take up science then you need to reach them at primary age,” he says. “Then, I can do all sorts of fun, hands-on activities like digging up their playing fields looking for earthworms and tramping mud back into the classroom. That’s the sort of experience that can inspire our young scientists of the future.”

For older children many subject choices have already been made. Moreover GCSE and A Level teachers are under a lot of pressure and do not have much spare time in their lessons. “So what’s important in schools is making sure you can relate your stories - in some broad way – to the curriculum that teachers have to follow,” he explains.

Using language students can understand, as well as ensuring some degree of audience participation is also key to a successful school event. “Getting some participation going inevitably leads to a bit of noise,” he warns, “but it’s important not to get involved in crowd control and go with the flow. Excited school children can be more talkative than other types of audience, and in my experience teachers are very good at keeping this to an acceptable level.”

Having earthworms, a topic that fascinates many, as a particular area of expertise means Professor Hodson rarely encounters much difficulty gaining the attention of all ages as well as the media. “Earthworms are pretty much an easy sell,” he says. “Blue earthworms, see-through earthworms, yellow tailed earthworms – people are really fascinated by weird looking earthworms and the strange facts that surround them.”

Not surprisingly then his ongoing work with Pete Kille and John Morgan at Cardiff University into how earthworms can evolve to tolerate high levels of pollution has generated large amounts of media, including radio and TV – attention. The experience opened his eyes to the way the media works. “I’ve learned that journalists are really receptive to interesting science stories,” he points out. “Journalists need copy so if you are willing to contact them and tell them the story then they are very grateful. But you have to be flexible, for live media work in particular you have to be able to respond to very tight deadlines which can change on the day.”

Professor Hodson’s advice on how to make more impact through the media is simple: just get your name onto the media lists and build up your contacts from there. Registering with an organisation such as the Science Media Centre is a good first step.

Institution:University of Reading
Funding council:STFC

Professor Hodson’s web page

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