‘Science engagement cannot be separated from fundamental democracy, need to bring humanness back into science’

Lewis Hou, science educator and founder of Science Ceilidh, speaks to The Hindu on the importance of science communication among local communities

January 30, 2024 09:00 am | Updated January 31, 2024 12:24 pm IST - Bengaluru

Lewis Hou, science educator and founder of Science Ceilidh, was at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, to talk on the importance of science communication among communities.

Lewis Hou, science educator and founder of Science Ceilidh, was at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, to talk on the importance of science communication among communities.

A crowd had gathered on the lawns of the quaint campus of National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). They formed circles, each comprising five to six people. Soon they started moving. They went in circles, made a bridge, spun and released, resembling some kind of European folk dance.

While it may have looked like a group of people having fun, it wasn’t just that. What was witnessed was the demonstration of ‘Merry Dancers’, more commonly known as the northern lights, through Scottish traditional dance, Ceilidh (pronounced as Kay-lee). Giving his instructions to them while playing his fiddle is Lewis Hou, science educator and founder of Science Ceilidh.

Crowd performing the ‘merry dancers’ at NCBS.

Crowd performing the ‘merry dancers’ at NCBS.

Science Ceilidh is a social enterprise that uses traditional Scottish dance and music for science communication, thereby aiming to support STEM, creativity, research and wellbeing in communities. Mr. Hou was in Bengaluru at NCBS, to talk about centring communities in research engagement. He spoke to The Hindu on his vision, what Science Ceilidh stands for and the importance of science communication among local communities.

From Mr. Hou’s talk at NCBS.

From Mr. Hou’s talk at NCBS.

You’re a neuroscientist, but you’re currently at the intersection of art and science. 

My background is in neuroscience. I did have a research position for a while in brain imaging and neuroanatomy. But rather than pursuing my PhD I ended up setting up my organisation 

I was always very passionate about music, and I got the opportunity to do an exchange year at McGill University whilst I was at the University of Edinburgh. That got me interested in the neuroanatomy of music and how music affects the brain. Alongside my degree, I had started working in the field of science education and science communication. By the end of my degree, I wanted to bring all these things together.

For me, the intersection is really around research, culture and community and education. I feel art and science are expressions of the same thing – including creativity and curiosity. “Art-Science” can sometimes paradoxically imply these things shouldn’t be put together - We should be breaking the silos between science and arts and not reinforcing them. 

How was the beginning of Science Ceilidh? 

Alongside my work, I play traditional music. I play the fiddle. I play for dancers called the Ceilidh. It’s a little bit like Garbha. In Scotland, we do it at schools, weddings and celebrations, and everyone joins in. You do not have to be a good dancer to take part. It’s more about everyone’s participation than one’s skill level. 

I love science festivals, but we all can acknowledge the fact that they generally preach to the converted. So, whilst I was working in science festivals noticing that everyone there was already interested in science, I wondered if it wouldn’t be amazing to bring the spirit of participation to it like in Ceilidh’s. I wondered how to make a non-scientist feel welcome in these places. 

Even though we do more systems based work around research now, this is how Science Ceilidh started, with the thought of how we could use the Scottish dance, which everyone in Scotland is familiar with since school, to explore science ideas. 

What does it aim to achieve? 

One of its two main aims is the pedagogical aim of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary learning; How do we explore science and arts together in the classroom to help students learn, break the stereotypes about science and arts and develop their higher-order thinking skills. 

On the community side, I was more interested in ways to use cultural events to bring new people into the conversation. We work very much in the rural parts of Scotland where these traditional cultures are even stronger. People host ceilidhs all the time – where it’s more focused on everyone sharing anything, not just dance. We thought about how we could use this and embed research into it. 

When we were doing events, the majority of the people who came had never gone to a science event before. At our events, researchers joined in with other people, ate, laughed and danced together.  

Scientists often think if they just come in and talk about their science, people will listen. But there are decades of research that says otherwise.

Whereas if you can build that trust and relationship as humans and not necessarily you as experts and them as learners – and culture is a good way of doing it - that really goes a long way. Scientists can sometimes feel arrogant. So there needs to be humility in this work. We need to find ways to listen to each other. 

I’m not saying that experts shouldn’t give science talks, but we should also be doing more listening and building connections.  

What are Science Ceilidh’s events like? 

It has changed a lot over time. For us a key thing in the very beginning was training. We would train teachers, especially newer teachers, who are interested in using this as one methodology to teach. 

We were quite lucky that the Scottish curriculum can be flexible. This is one big cultural context which I understand in India is incredibly different because the education system here is incredibly competitive. 

We have a lot of networks where we support youth workers. We have a few partnerships which are quite long-term. We work with the New Scots community, the refugee community in Edinburgh. We develop programmes based on what each community tell us they want and need. 

We work with a lot of universities in Scotland but we’re independent. We see ourselves as an intermediary organization.  

We also provide funding. We work with the British Science Association to delegate funding to communities directly who want to do research themselves. The idea here is about changing some of the power dynamics. Normally a researcher decides what they want to do, they find the community they want to research, and the money goes to the researcher. Sometimes, that can be very problematic. The scientist comes in, sets the agenda without fully understanding the issue, takes all the data and the community doesn’t hear what happens next or feel like they benefit from it.  

We’re trying to flip that model and fund the community first. We still link them to a researcher but they get to decide which researcher they want to work with, build a relationship and decide together how they want to research their question.   

We’re not saying that all research has to be like this, but for us, this is an interesting way of getting communities who are not already involved in science, involved on a very fundamental level. 

How do you use music and dance for science communication?  

We had done an event called ‘Dear Green Place’ in Glasgow in 2021. We worked with a community that was not in the centre of the city, and from an underprivileged area. We worked for over two months with the young people and local arts organisations. The idea was to explore what climate change means to them and their community. 

We did a lot of different activities with young kids. We taught them what climate change means from a global perspective but also asked them to think about what would change locally. We were using creative methods to relate what feels like a very faraway problem to a very local perspective.  

We then worked with them to explore this through movement. They developed a dance; we give them an open structure and they decide as a team what to perform. 

We saw lots of very dramatic dance movements representing wildlife destruction, flooding and so on. For example, they’ll all be running around and all of a sudden fall down very dramatically. 

We got them to draw what climate change means to them and some of them drew very traumatic pictures like penguins screaming for their mom. 

They wrote these amazing dances and drew wonderful pictures of their hopes too, for what they would like to see locally. 

They also later performed before their parents. The parents loved the performance, they laughed a lot, joined in, gave their perspectives, and heard what the young people said. None of them had ever gone to a climate change discussion before. And some of them said they had never thought about climate change until they saw their kids performing.  

For me, that’s the real motivation. I’m not expecting them to now know how climate change works in lots of detail because of the dance and event. But because their kids performed, they have this vested interest to come in, to have a conversation, to learn something, to have some stake in climate change. 

This was during COP26 when all the world leaders had come to Glasgow. And here is a whole community in Glasgow to whom COP26 was irrelevant but through this holistic approach, were engaged in climate actions. So, this to me demonstrates the importance of these types of programmes.  

Do you also use Ceilidh to teach fundamental science concepts? 

Our priorities are climate change, mental health and culture. But we have dances that we’ve written with researchers on concepts like photosynthesis, how stars form, how the brain works and so on. 

There’s only so far that you can explore with dance. But very often it helps give a foundational understanding through embodied learning. 

And again, it’s a science model. So when you develop these with young people, you can also criticise them, play with them, and do little thought experiments with them. For example, if two dancers are representing evaporation, what happens if the temperature increases? Is there going to be more dancers or less dancers? 

How dire is the need for science communication among local communities? 

I think it’s pressing now more than ever. I think we’re in a situation where the divide feels bigger than usual. In the UK, one survey suggested that only 24% of the population feels like they’re connected to science or are actively interested in science.

I think there’s a huge swathe of people who if approached in the right way, in a way that’s not arrogant, in a way they are not talked down to and if given opportunities, would want to engage in science more and understand the processes of science. 

In India there are lots of different dimensions to this; You have to think about the language, the caste system that’s been here historically and other such factors.  

Climate change, mental health, and health in general are societal-wide problems. We need everyone to understand it and be involved in it because that has very real-life consequences in terms of political decisions, personal decisions, and public health.  

Sadly there’s no magic bullet. We need to have space for dialogue and building relationships. Everyone today is like ‘Oh how’s AI going to solve it?’ AI is not going to build relationships, and if anything, may only deepen the divide as these silos are being reflected not just in our social groups but also online of course. 

We do need to be listening to communities. Most of them have long-term cultural histories. We need to be able to at least understand what they have to say, even if we don’t agree with that. This is where you can’t separate science engagement from fundamental democracy.  

People often need to feel belonging and love. But science, the way it’s taught or communicated, does not provide that. Very often it’s very condescending and authoritarian. 

We need to think about how we can provide joy and love in science too.  If a peddler of pseudoscience offers you love and care, whereas the scientist is telling you that you’re wrong and just making you feel bad or unimportant, it’s a completely understandable decision that you then choose the pseudoscience.  

I think we need to think about how we can bring back that humanness into science. 

Would you be looking at collaborations in India? 

I’d love to. This trip has started a few conversations about using different cultural forms here such as Gharba or Yakshagana for science engagements.  

I think from a school curriculum perspective, it’ll be interesting to understand how more interdisciplinary approaches could benefit mental health as well. We are always up for collaborations and to explore this further with people who are passionate about it.  

I’m not trying to say that valuing art and culture are the only solutions. Mental health is massive and complex. What’s going to be important in the future is critical thinking, creativity, and innovation, not just your ability to learn facts. So, I think it’s critical for there to be space for art, culture and creativity in the curriculum. 

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