Author: Rhian Salmon

Rhian is a senior lecturer in the Science in Context group at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She carries out research about communication by scientists.

Reflections on SCIE 311: Science Communication

Between July – October 2015, Rebecca and I had the genuine pleasure of teaching a topic that we both love, to a class of fantastic, enthusiastic students. This was the first time either of us had taught Science Communication as a formal University course, and we while we had bold ambitions, we weren’t sure what the students would make of it.. or produce. To our great delight, they particularly enjoyed the classes on history and science communication theory – and even asked for more of those in the feedback! In addition, we were privileged to be able to invite fantastic artists, educators, scientists, writers, and journalists to talk with the class about their work. Many thanks to everyone who joined us.

Our class was offered both as a 15-point, credit-bearing 300-level undergraduate course, and also through Continuing Education (not for credit). In total, we had 21 students, including employees from NIWA, the Ministry of Primary Industries, Pew Charitable Tusts, the Department of Conservation, and the Royal Society of New Zealand, as well as more ‘traditional’ students from both science and non-science disciplines.

For the practical component of the course, the students first worked on a written assignment each – of the type that might appear in a long-form magazine (such as this piece by one of our students). Using a “workshopping” process adapted from the International Institute of Modern Letters, they shared their draft ideas and work, gave each other feedback, and had an opportunity to improve their work prior to submission. It was wonderful to not only see all the work improve, but also to listen to the creative, thoughtful, and constructive conversations within the workshop groups.

Much of the students’ work is now on display – both online and in physical locations. You can get an idea of the diversity of the work from the following examples:

A song, by Matapuku Robati (more info on this can be found here)

An expedition blog, by Amelia Conell

Wanted  Chemical Elements by Jessica Siacci
featuring Hydrogen, Fluorine, Chlorine, and Osmium (click on the links to fully appreciate them, and their associated text)


an oil painting by Kate Calcott that explored changes in forests over time in New Zealand

picture of painting in location

picture of Kate Calcott’s painting in location

a poster by Kelly MacLeod about microbes

What Are Microbes and How do We Identify Them?

and an educational website for computer science students and app developed by Pauline Kelly.

There was also a poster by Erroll Gibson that’s currently on the wall of the Cotton building at Victoria University of Wellington, and an “i-beacon” hidden behind one of the paintings in the same building, with associated content developed by Vicky Pruditsch. In addition, several assignments with great potential  are still being worked on so that they can be made available in an ‘authentic’ environment. This includes videos, apps, events, spoken word performance, and a game.

All assignments were also accompanied by a critical reflection that explored what they were hoping to achieve, and how they felt this work compared to their goals and aspirations.

HeLa play: Henrietta Lacks comes to New Zealand

helaThe University of Otago, Wellington, in partnership with the Science in Context group at Victoria University of Wellington, the British Council of New Zealand and Made in Scotland, is delighted to be hosting and sponsoring a theatrical performance of HeLa, an internationally award-winning one person play currently being toured through New Zealand.

Coming all the way from the UK, this solo show by Adura Onashile takes as its inspiration the true life story of Henrietta Lacks and the extraordinary life of the HeLa cell line. HeLa is an all-consuming story, intertwining genetic identity, social responsibility and current ethical debates about human tissue research and ownership …

In 1951 Henrietta Lacks walked into the coloured section of the John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore with a pain in her abdomen. A biopsy revealed a cancer that would kill her just months later. A cell sample taken without her permission was used as the raw material for some of the most important scientific discoveries of the past 100 years.
HeLa is an engaging exploration of the vast scientific progress made possible by the cells of one, unknown woman.

Adura Onashile is a writer and charismatic performer with diverse experience in political, verbatim, site-specific and physical theatre. She has worked with companies including the National theatre of Scotland, National Theatre, Urban Theatre Projects, Australia’s foremost site specific company, Chicago Shakespeare Company, St Anne’s Warehouse, The LIFT festival, The Clod Ensemble, The Belarus Free Theatre and Vox Motus. Adura has toured internationally with both the Foreign Commonwealth Office and the British Council.

“…a shocking slice of shamefully hidden history … theatrically bold in the telling, with Onashile’s heart-rending performance at its centre.” [The Herald]

“The fusion of video, music, monologue and physicality makes HeLa a feast for all the senses. This extraordinary, true story is treated with delicacy and astuteness …” [The Peoples Review]

This production was designed to be presented in a Medical School lecture theatre environment, so we are delighted to be hosting this only Wellington performance of the show in the Nordmeyer Lecture Theatre at the University of Otago, Wellington in Newtown. This will be a one night only performance on Thursday 16 October at 7pm, so make sure you book now as tickets will sell fast.  Bookings can be made online only at Please note that tickets are non-refundable, but are transferable to another person.

HeLa is also showing in Christchurch (October 9, 10) and Auckland (October 21 – 25).

download flyer

Art, Science, and Theatre: three events coming up

Rebecca and I are excited to be involved with three upcoming events that explore the relationship between art and science, and public engagement with science.

On Saturday, October 11th, we’re both taking part in Breaking Ice: art-science symposium, part of NZ IceFest in Christchurch.
In this one day public symposium, 15 leading artists, scientists and designers will explore new ways of working together to create innovative solutions to urgent issues related to the environment, human health, and climate change.

On Tuesday, October 14th, 6pm, we are collaborating with Massey University College of Creative Arts and the Royal Society of New Zealand “At Six” events:
Re-integrating Art, Design and Science for a Future World
Featuring: special guests David Buckland, Natalie Jerimijenko, and Frances Whitehead

On Thursday, October 16th, 7pm, we are delighted to be bringing a one-woman play about “ethics, equality, and ownership of our DNA” to Wellington in collaboration with the University of Otago at Wellington. HeLa is showing in Wellington (October 16th), Christchurch (October 9, 10) and Auckland (October 21 – 25). We’re also excited that the playwright and star of the show, Adura Onashile, will be coming to speak to our Science Communication and Creative Science Writing students when she’s in town as well.

More about each of these events to come… but please come along!

What courses are we running at the moment?

It’s mid-trimester break, so it seems like a good time to reflect on what Science in Context courses are running at the moment … and what’s coming up. I still haven’t wrapped my head around the dates of term-times in New Zealand so for those other non-antipodeans out there, we’re currently in Trimester 2, which runs from July to October. We offer all of our courses through Continuing Education as well – so they’re open to anyone, even if you’re not a student or don’t need the credit. Continuing Education students get to enjoy the learning, discussions, and content but don’t need to take the assessments: score!

This trimester, we’re running SCIE201: Energy, Society, and the Future. This online course has about 80 students this year who appear to be really enjoying the content and having some robust conversations in the discussion forum – they’ve learnt about different energy sources until now and next up will be looking at different options for our future.

SCIE311: Science Communication Rebecca and I are really enjoying teaching this course – one of our few face-to-face courses, and the only compulsory course in the Science in Context Minor. We have about 25 students enrolled who are submitting and developing fantastic work. Their first assignment had to be a piece of written science communication, and the second can explore other media (infographic, video, podcast, spoken word, event, performance, visual art, app, game … you name it, they’re trying it). We’re also really enjoying the fantastic line-up of visiting lecturers who are showing the breadth and potential of science communication and opportunities for public engagement with science, as well as sharing more thoughtful insights into the goals and purpose of these activities. I look forward to sharing some of our students’ work on this site at the end of the trimester.

CREW352: Creative Science Writing Workshop Rebecca is co-teaching this course with Ashleigh Young, using the successful workshop technique developed by the International Institute of Modern Letters, and a small and select group of students are busy critiquing a wide range of creative non-fiction science writing while also developing their own portfolios.

Another course, run exclusively through Continuing Education, is Ethical Issues of our Time: Computers, Climate, and Conception. Every Wednesday throughout October we will be joining colleagues to look at ethical issues from climate change to phone hacking and wiki-leaks to reproductive technologies. This course is open to anyone with an interest in learning more.

Coming up in the summer: SCIE211: Contemporary Issues in Science and Society Offered as a 12 week course Nov – Feb, or a 6 week course from January. This is the original and longest-running of our courses that explore ‘Science in Context’. In 2011, we started with 28 students and a module led by Sir Paul Callaghan. Three years on, we now have over 200 students each year and a diverse range of contemporary modules that all explore some aspect of the relationship between science and society. This year we’ll exploring big questions like “Should genes be patented?”, “What is the most important thing to understand about climate change and what can we do about it?”, “What are the potential benefits and implications of more nanotechnology in our society?”, and “Is there any value of a predator-free New Zealand and of so, what would it take to achieve this?”

SCIE401: Climate science and decision-making This short course will run for the third year in Jan-Feb 2015 and looks at the complex relationship between science, policy, international diplomacy, and economics … among other things. Also available through Professional and Executive development, this course traditionally attracts students working – or wanting to work – in the climate science/policy sector.

And in March 2015 SCIE312: Revolutions in Science Another popular online course with an energetic discussion forum. This course reviews major theories in science history, from classical Greek science to the European enlightenment to 20th C revolutions in physics, biology and earth sciences including New Zealand’s science history.