The RCSU wants you to be a science communicator

Vanessa Madu, this year's RCSU Science Challenge Chair and final-year student in the Department of Mathematics.

The Royal College of Science Union (RSCU) is launching 2023’s Science Challenge – an annual competition open to Imperial undergraduates and Master’s students, as well as high school students in their last four years of school. It invites participants to create compelling and entertaining pieces of science communication. We talked to Vanessa Madu, a final year student from the Department of Mathematics and this year’s RSCU Science Challenge Chair.


What is the RSCU Science Challenge?

So, the RSCU is the constituent union for the Faculty of Natural Sciences and the Science Challenge is our annual science communication competition. The idea is to give anyone who doesn’t have established scientific career the opportunity to develop the skills to talk about science in a way that’s engaging, fun and interesting to people who don’t have their specialism. That could be to the general public, or it could be to their peers who do something different to them.


What are judges exactly looking for from participants?

Speaking to the judges this year, the big thing they want participants to know is that this is a science communication competition, rather than a science communication competition. In previous years, people tend to get very scientific, which is great but then the communication aspect is lost. It becomes a bit like an exam question answer. This year, the judges were very clear about wanting to see unconventional ways of presenting science. This could include the use of creativity, fun, humour, or maybe mystery, drama, and emotion.


What do participants actually have to produce? What kind of communication are they looking for?

It depends on the question that people choose to answer. Some of our judges are more partial to written communication, some are partial to video, and some don’t have a preference. For questions that don’t directly specify, it will be left up to people – whatever format they think will let them get their point over the best!


Are you allowed to reveal who the judges are this year?

I’d be happy to reveal three of the four!

Like a slow reveal – you don’t want to give it all away at the beginning!

Exactly because that would be boring! We’ve got four questions this year, which means four judges. We have both Professor Lord Robert Winston and Professor Kathy Sykes joining us again this year, both of whom have exciting careers in science communication and are well-versed in what makes an enjoyable Science Challenge question. The person who’s new this year and probably the person I’m most excited about is Dr Tom Crawford from the University of Oxford. He’s appeared on the YouTube channel Numberphile several times – he is one of their resident fluid dynamicists!


Fantastic! You say each judge has written one question – and so what is the theme connecting all the questions this year?

It’s a theme I’m very excited about, actually. It’s probably the most diverse theme that we’ve had in Science Challenge yet. We’ve called it ‘Destination Unknown’. The idea is that we’re at a point where there’s lots of really interesting avenues where science could go next. Whether it’s looking up or down, big or small, forwards or backwards, we’re looking for the future of science.


Can you tell us a bit more about who can participate, and when the competition will be held?

The launch of the competition will be happening on the 27th of February, in Huxley 340 at 6.30pm! We’ll be open for entries until the 17th of April at 5.00pm. In terms of who it’s open to, it’s open to undergraduates and master’s students at Imperial and also open to secondary school students in their last four years of education.


So, you were a past participant and last year’s winner! Do you mind telling us a little bit about your personal experience? What did you find valuable about the Science Challenge?

The competition taught me that science communication is hard! Some people think it’s fine to just dumb things down to make other people understand, but this isn’t good communication because you never want to talk down to your audience; you want to take them along with you for the ride. It’s also tricky because you need to think about communication techniques that make things engaging – so, the appropriate use of humor, knowing how much technical detail is too much and how little is too little. It’s a very difficult balance to strike.

Moreover, the Science Challenge requires very short-form content, so it’s difficult to compress a huge topic into three minutes but I realised how much I enjoyed doing it. It was different from the presentations I do as part of my degree where I have to present things in a very academic way. I love talking about science to general audiences, mostly because I don’t need to get bogged down in the technical details, I can just get excited about science and help other people see why I find it so exciting!


So, as a previous winner, do you have any advice for the participants of this year?

If you’re doing a video, never underestimate the power of good audio! The difference is incredible. Be aware of what’s in the background and where you’re placing yourself in terms of the frame. For writing, just know it’s not an exam question. You really have a huge amount of creative freedom – we pose very little by way of constraints, so it is really invitation to be as creative as you like.

Try to think quite wide at the beginning and do some research, and then maybe scale back based on the feasibility of different ideas you have.


So, if I’m a student who’s interested in joining, where can I learn more about the competition?

Ah, so there’s two places. The first is on the College website, which we’re keeping up to date with details. We’ll also be quite active on our Instagram and our Twitter in the lead-up to the launch. So, if you want to get some more information and a bit of inspiration, we’re running a Science Shorts series in the lead-up to launch. We’re working with some of our Imperial Outreach ambassadors to put together 90 second tasters on different scientific topics – keep an eye out for them! And, of course, you can also reach us via our email.

Best of luck and remember to have fun!

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