Canadian chemist wins science communications prize

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Among chemists and engineers, it’s a common refrain: we need to get out there and engage with the public.  We need to show people what we really do and why we do it. We need to teach them that science isn’t scary.  As it happens, Science Isn’t Scary is the exact title of an initiative started last fall by a Canadian chemist named Steve Maguire.  And now that his self-produced video has won a major science communication award — Alan Alda’s “Flame Challenge” — Maguire is poised to gain a lot of momentum.

Alda, the American actor who for years hosted Scientific American Frontiers and now runs his eponymous Centre for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, started the Flame Challenge in 2012. It’s based around a simple idea: can you explain, in language an 11-year-old would be able to understand, the answer to a basic science question like “what is a flame?” The contest is judged by (who else?) ordinary classrooms of 11-year-old students, and the winner is presented with a trophy at the World Science Festival in New York City each spring.

This year’s question was: what is time? Maguire, a PhD candidate in Prof. Tom Baker’s group at the University of Ottawa, opted for a simple, direct approach. His five-minute video consists almost entirely of him talking to a camera; no animations, no mood music and no special effects. “I remember being 11, and if there was one thing I didn’t like, it was being talked down to,” says Maguire. “The approach I took was not to condescend, but just talk to them like they were my peers.  And it seems to have worked.”

That said, Maguire admits to being an “incorrigible ham,” who has acted in numerous student plays and, once, a car dealership commercial in his native Kelowna. His video is peppered with witty asides to the students, which was surely part of its appeal. “For me, it was going to be very difficult to not make it funny, but I think throwing in a little bit of humour helps keep people’s attention,” says Maguire, who honed his skills as a science performer by delivering dozens of chemistry magic shows for schools in the Ottawa area through his work with the outreach organization Let’s Talk Science.

So far, Science Isn’t Scary has produced half a dozen videos that tackle everyday science questions, from why the sky is blue to what soap is made of. Maguire would love for it to someday become his full-time job, but in the meantime he’s focusing on writing up his thesis (it concerns iron-based catalysts that could help transform agricultural waste and other biomass into fuels) and looking for teaching jobs.  Wherever he ends up, he clearly believes that changing chemistry’s image will always require reaching out to the next generation. “I think the average 11-year-old is actually smarter than the average grown-up,” he says. “Nobody’s told them yet that they can’t learn this stuff, so they’re a lot more open to new ideas.”

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