Improving Public Understanding of Science: Social Media and Digital Technologies

Marcus du Sautoy is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. In his launch talk for engage: Social Media Michaelmas he talked about how he uses digital media to fulfil this role. For Marcus, engaging the public digitally is about converting passive audiences to active participants. He advocates creative thinking to find various simple effective ways to open up two-way communication with the viewing public.
Marcus’s mathematical programme The Code is now held up by the BBC as exemplary digital engagement practice because of its inventive and successful online partner project. This programme had a very real off-screen life in its puzzle-solving initiative. Marcus explained how thousands of viewers followed the series closely in order to find the clues to solve The Code Challenge. Furthermore, the programme also produced a complicated 82 page online puzzle book. Around this challenge an enthusiastic community of amateur puzzle-solvers grew. They set up their own wikis (see, for example “crack the BBC code” and “the code group”) and collaborated to work out the trickiest puzzles. The final of the competition was held in Bletchley Park and televised. This project shows how, given the opportunity, a dynamic community of active, collaborative and driven people can be mobilised and engaged in scientific ideas.
Similarly, Marcus also experimented with crowd-sourcing in an online partner project to the programme Numbers. He asked viewers to upload photographs of numbers from 1 to 2011 to an online portal and again was delighted with the community that sprung up around building this collection.

Marcus also works on the level of smaller scale broadcasts, writing articles and engaging through Twitter. He likens the strategy for managing the Twitter in-tray to personalising a newspaper.

In his talk Marcus showed the great potential of public engagement projects as well as describing his earliest steps down this path, in simply writing articles and getting his work circulating. Marcus advises tenacity and variety in the pursuit of public engagement through digital media. He challenged listeners not to be afraid to share their ideas, and advocated willingness to talk about areas of lesser expertise. The launch of “Engage” could not have been led by a more inspiring or appropriate speaker to illustrate the academic potential of the kinds of tools that engage: Social Media Michaelmas is offering to members of Oxford University.

Get involved with the exciting social media events at the IT Services this term through engage: Social Media Michaelmas

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