The UK has long prided itself on its achievements in science, engineering and technology. They contribute directly to the country's prosperity and benefit humanity, yet many non-scientists have little knowledge of this important work. Researchers in Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton are at the forefront of improving the public awareness of science by communicating their work widely, whether it involves explaining climate change, investigating life at the bottom of the world's deepest oceans, or understanding the forces behind glaciers and volcanos.
Staff and students working in Ocean and Earth Science are involved in many significant and fascinating global projects. They are world-leaders in this area of research and have forged strong links with colleagues at universities around the world to further our knowledge. One major research area is the deep oceans where much remains to be understood. Few non-specialists have any knowledge of this extraordinary world, which is under increasing pressure from human activities and exploitation.
In recent years, fieldwork has resulted in a number of scientific ‘firsts’ that have underpinned the University’s extensive public engagement work. These include the discovery of deep high-temperature hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic and Southern Oceans. At least 30 new animal species have been found in these challenging environments.
Although these are complex areas of research, difficult to understand for non-scientists, researchers at Southampton are committed to explaining their importance and communicating their passion for the subject to people of all ages. They hope to increase public knowledge of ocean and Earth science and inspire talented young people to study the subjects and become the next generation of researchers.
In 2007, the Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology produced its Investigating the Oceans report. It noted that “people could be drawn into many topics to increase interest in science” and that “a focus on extreme environments (space and oceans) could entice young people into science”. MPs made it clear that all scientists should be engaged in actively involving audiences beyond their immediate research community. This would build a legacy of inspiration and curiosity in the UK. Ocean and Earth scientists at Southampton share this philosophy.
Ocean and Earth researchers have risen to the challenge of increasing public awareness of science in many ways. Outreach events have targeted groups of people including schoolchildren, people who use the sea, retirees/lifelong learners and local communities along the south coast. They play a major part in the University’s Science Week, contributing interactive exhibits and displays for curious visitors of all ages.
In 2010 ocean and Earth scientists created thesearethevoyages.net, an online engagement programme for their research expeditions to deep-sea volcanic vents. The core website carries daily fieldwork updates explaining the science and technology behind these exciting expeditions and provides interactive links for school pupils and anyone interested in learning more about the oceans.
Southampton researchers are frequently interviewed by the world’s media about their achievements. In one example, the discovery of the world’s deepest hydrothermal vents was covered by more than 520 media outlets worldwide and provided the most-viewed story on Yahoo! News on April 13 2010, attracting 1.5m hits. They also work with teams making documentaries for national and international radio and television including the BBC and National Geographic.
Feedback from outreach and public engagement events show ocean and Earth scientists are inspiring and enthusing ordinary members of the public. One parent wrote after the University’s National Oceanography Centre Open Day in 2012: “I have never seen [my son] so engaged. For someone who has been a little lacking in direction… the whole day was a real eye-opener as to what is left out there to discover and how, if he studies hard, he could one day be part of it.”
Encouraging media outlets to carry links to Southampton’s online resources has helped the core website attract more than 200,000 visitors from 90 countries since April 2010. Senior Lecturer in Marine Ecology Dr Jon Copley received the Biosciences Federation Science Communication Award in 2008.
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