Why you should consider adding art to your next public engagement event
Over the past few years, there has been an increasing interest in exploring the relationship between Science and the Arts, especially when it comes to public engagement and science communication. Science has gone through a number of “rebrands” over the past few decades; moving past the old-fashioned idea of a “pure science”, it has been established for a long time that the true nature of understanding is obtained through the interconnection of disciplines. Previously this had been represented by the concept of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), however, the addition of Art to this acronym (STEAM) may still rub some purists up the wrong way.
But, at a time when the effectiveness of traditional science communication training has been increasingly brought into question (1), do we need to approach sci-comm and PE in a different way?
The Arts have always somewhat been part of science, you just need to look at the paintings of Da Vinci, or the detailed paintings of birds in old textbooks, but it is only in the past 15 years or so that the STEAM approach has been widely accepted as an effective means of connecting science and research with society. There are many reasons why you might consider adding aspects of Art into your Science communication and public engagement, depending on what you hope to achieve from your public outreach. For the majority of citizens, understanding science does not happen in a vacuum. Most people need some additional context to fully comprehend new concepts in order to link these new ideas to previous experiences and emotions (2). This is why incorporating the Arts can be so effective when communicating a new scientific concept. Facts and figures may impart information; however, they are only marginally effective in changing a person’s opinion on a subject. In fact, simply sharing facts with an audience can sometimes lead to greater levels of polarisation on a topic, amplifying the rift between those with differing opinions (known as the backfire effect) (3). However, if you approach these topics with a more holistic mindset, and are able to start a discussion with your audience there is a much greater likelihood of connecting with your audience, developing a rapport, and concluding feeling that all parties have learnt from the experience, rather than simply the audience being lectured at (4). That is why the subjective nature of the arts and performance is a great gateway for debate and for differing opinions to be discussed without the risk of people feeling personally attacked for having a different viewpoint.
Another way that art can be a useful tool in sci-comm and PE is by incorporating a creative outlet into your outreach activity (5). This can allow the participants to take an active role in their own learning, and with oversight from those running the activity, facilitators can use guided questioning to check that a participant has understood the concept correctly. These sorts of combined activities also help with information retention, as while the knowledge is being processed, the brain is also creating alternative neural pathways with other regions, deeply ingraining this information (2).
The creation of art about a scientific concept can also act as a memory jog for new learners, so when they are reminded of the concept, they remember the piece of art or performance, and this reinforces the information within the minds of the participants. But it’s also important to remember that these arts and crafts activities also should be opportunities for participants to have fun, as well as be a time for introspection and thought. Combining these different types of activities enhances a person’s experience as well as their learning (5).
However, incorporating STEAM into science communication is not just beneficial to those on the receiving side. Collaborating with artists and co-creating a piece of art, or incorporating creativity into how a scientist or communicator presents their work, expands their own understanding and allows for introspection, which may change how they view their own research and how they would approach explaining this information to others (6). Science is but one lens for viewing the world around us; art is another. Both can provide an understanding of the human experience, but a full picture can only really be achieved when both are embraced. This is not to say that either is a prerequisite for the other, but when done effectively, collaborations between science and art can be greater than the sum of their own parts.
However, there is definitely a learning curve when it comes to incorporating STEAM principles into public engagement. For many practitioners who might have very little experience in the arts, they may not feel confident using these alternative methods of engagement, and although there may be organisations that might provide free training or facilitation, often these will be paid services or perhaps are too short on resources to experiment with different types of outreaches. If this is the case but you would still like to try and add some creativity and arts to your next event, we would recommend collaborating with an artist or with science communicators who have experience with these practices. By working together, you can develop an event format that would fit your needs but with the added benefits of STEAM.
For those of you who are now interested in injecting a little STEAM into your future public engagement events, but are not sure where to start, here are some fantastic resources that might just give you the inspiration you need.
Lifeology: Providing free and easy-to-digest online courses on; science and storytelling, how to prepare for a sci-art collaboration, how to improve your science with art, and much more. Lifeology also links researchers who are looking for creative input with artists who are interested in scientific collaboration, with a particular focus on health science.
EUSEA Science Engagement Platform: A list of science engagement tried and tested formats, submitted by the members of the EUSEA network. These include resources on how to conduct science and art events and science dances.
STEAM Summer School: An intensive course with the aim of bringing science communicators from around the world and introducing them to the principles of STEAM, and how to incorporate arts into science public engagement.
1) Rubega, M.A., Burgio, K.R., MacDonald, A.A.M., Oeldorf-Hirsch, A., Capers, R.S. and Wyss, R., 2021. Assessment by Audiences Shows Little Effect of Science Communication Training. Science Communication, 43(2), pp.139–169.
2) Tyng, C.M., Amin, H.U., Saad, M.N. and Malik, A.S., 2017. The influences of emotion on learning and memory. Frontiers in psychology, 8, p.1454.
3) Keohane, J., 2010. How facts backfire. Boston Globe, 11.
4) Zorn, T.E., Roper, J., Weaver, C.K. and Rigby, C., 2012. Influence in science dialogue: Individual attitude changes as a result of dialogue between laypersons and scientists. Public Understanding of Science, 21(7), pp.848–864.
6) Wright, A. and Linney, A., 2006. The art and science of a long-term collaboration. New Constellations: Art, Science and Society, pp.54–60.