Communicating Science to a Captive Audience

At the British Science Association science communication conference at the end of May this year, there was a small session on diversifying your audience. It didn’t attract too many participants, people presumably lured away by the exciting names at the other sessions, but those who did attend got the chance to learn about one of the most ambitious, inspiring projects I’ve seen in science communication: communicating science to prisoners

 The project was put on by the Science Museum in South Kensington. They worked with two London prisons (plans to run a session at a third had to be cancelled due to a recent riot, which serves to highlight some of the logistical problems they faced), Pentonville and Holloway, a women’s prison. More details on the project can be found at The Collective Memory, but what I found particularly fascinating about the project was the way that the Science Museum outreach team were targeting a particularly hard to reach audience through their children.

 Prisoners form an extremely diverse audience, one which is unlikely to view the Science Museum, and indeed science, as ‘for them’. The prisoners had the initial perception that museums were “boring, dull and you have to be well educated to learn or appreciate anything in there” – exactly the sort of ideas which stop more people learning about science. The Outreach team could have just gone into the prisons and done an exciting workshop with them, trying to change conceptions, but what they actually did was much more powerful. They went in on a family visit day, and delivered the sessions to family groups. Through the engagement of their children, the prisoners had the chance to see the fascination behind science, and were also given the chance to see things in themselves and their children that they had not seen before. When asked what they had learned that day, one prisoner replied “I learned that my daughter could read and write”. This project wasn’t just about science communication, but also about family relationships, which made the perception-changing power of the activity all the more potent.

 There doesn’t seem to be much focus on reaching parents through their children. We know, for example, that children’s choice of chemistry and physics as subjects to take at school is influenced by their parents’ and families’ perceptions of the careers available to people with those backgrounds (See the IoP and RSC report here), yet the work that is being done in encouraging people to take up those subjects still tends to be aimed at students and teachers, which is a shame when a recent survey implied that parents were not aware of the wide range of STEM careers available.

 Many parents feel like their children know more about science than they do, and there are resources available which aim to help parents learn more about science – but always with the ultimate goal of helping the children learn more. There is very little being done to reach difficult adult audiences through children, which is why the science museum project is so novel and – I think – important. True, the audience is quite literally captive at the prisons, so they don’t have to invest massive resources in encouraging the audience to turn up, but the project has not only succeeded in changing perceptions, but in using science to bring people together. You can’t ask for more than that.

 “These have been the two best days since I have been in prison. It’s the only time I feel close to my son. It makes me cry but its brilliant”

Bryony Frost is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London, and is one of the editors of Refractive Index



  1. Hi Bryony, thanks for the interesting post. I’ve been involved in a similar (though less impressive) project myself: working with Eton College’s Natural History Museum on Family Learning Events on engaging and raising aspirations of parents through their children. Sometimes we struggle to ensure that our target families get spaces on the now highly-coveted events, which is why it is essential that we work closely with local schools for them to identify and encourage these families.

    One school went so far as to ‘commission’ an event where those families were invited to the museum on a school day. Unsurprisingly they were initially hesitant, but for unexpected reasons: many of them felt that other children were more in need of the experience. It was only when the head teacher convinced the parents that it should be considered as a treat for their children for working/behaving well in school that they assented. The feedback was very encouraging, both from the parents and the teachers.

    I have also done some engagement work in a prison, but this one was in Bolivia – the infamous San Pedro Prison in La Paz. We ran art activities with the children incarcerated there and it was an eye-opening experience. Imagine the possibilities (and difficulties) of running an on-going STEM project there.


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