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Board Games and Big Questions: SciComm at Norwich Science Festival | Lizzie Archer et al.

Updated: Dec 10, 2021



Why is Science Communication Important?


As scientists we often forget that as we delve deeper into our research, the gap between our subject-specific knowledge and the general public’s understanding of our field widens. Important scientific advances can be lost amongst complex graphs and unfamiliar terminology, which can alienate the non-specialist audience (including scientists from other fields!). This is why science communication is so important. It facilitates conversation and intrigue whilst striving to make science accessible to all members of society. Ultimately, science is for everyone, therefore, in the words of Professor Sir Mark Walport (UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive 2017 – 2020), “Science is not finished until it’s communicated”.


ARIES DTP E3i Club at Norwich Science Festival


The Norwich Science Festival is an annual celebration of science, powered by communication and creativity. This year, ARIES PhD researchers of the Environmental Enterprise, Engagement and Innovation (E3i) Club organised two events: an ocean-themed panel discussion and a hands-on testing of science-themed board games.


1) Oceans of Change: The Big Questions


Four ARIES PhD researchers from the School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia took to the stage to introduce their research into some of the major challenges facing our oceans and answer the public’s questions. Audience members joined the discussion, which was chaired by Professor Carol Robinson, both in-person and virtually from across the UK via livestream which is available to watch again here.


We heard from Mollie about the importance of phytoplankton (microscopic marine algae) and how nutrient pollution is affecting their communities. Jack informed us about marine carbon and how such resources might be effectively managed. Kyriaki spoke of her work investigating how the ocean is affecting ice shelf melt in Antarctica. Whilst Lizzie communicated the impacts of climate change on the spread of waterborne Vibrio disease and how Vibrio infections may be prevented.


“It was a great opportunity to practice communicating complex science in an accessible way for people who don’t have a scientific background. I think it’s important to do so as it’s a skill that, like any other, requires practice.” – Jack Smith


‘What have you learnt today?’ – Audience feedback

- “Maybe it’s not all doom and gloom”

- “Diatoms are important”

- “All about Vibrio infection”

- “About different types of marine resources”



Oceans of Change: The Big Questions (left to right): Lizzie Archer, Mollie Allerton, Kyriaki Lekakou, Jack Smith and Professor Carol Robinson.


Oceans of Change: The Big Questions (left to right): Kyriaki Lekakou, Mollie Allerton, Jack Smith, Lizzie Archer and Professor Carol Robinson.



2) Playing with Science


Earlier this year, games designer and researcher Jake Montanarini of Montanarini Games trained ARIES and NRPDTP PhD researchers in the art of creating board games out of their research as a form of science communication. Prototype games (detailed below) were showcased at the Norwich Science Festival where they were rigorously play-tested by the Festival’s participants.


James Paul Gee, a prominent academic in the Games Studies arena, writes a lot about learning in games and how they can be useful vehicles for understanding complex narratives. Gee acknowledges that our worlds are so complex and connected new ways of learning are vital to progress past the now, seemingly exposed, “limits of individual human intelligence and individual expertise”. Although his work is mostly focused on digital infrastructure and digital games, these ideas and observations can, and should, be applied to board games, which allow us to embody the sense of play in ways unique to analogue games.


At the heart of it, using games to learn about complex scientific research capitalises on the interactive, productive, and safe nature of play to maximise engagement. Games give players a sense of agency and purpose within a specific narrative, of which they can act and make change towards a goal. When you play a game, you are not just passively consuming or witnessing the events play out, you are making and creating the events, you are active and your activity is purposeful (you want to win, or just don’t want to come last!). When it comes to board games, your input is far more physical which better invests a player into what’s going on.


Designing games that capture complex narratives of scientific research is, now more than ever, an important pursuit! Jake is finding, through his own work, that more and more people are willing to be an active part, to take these scientific pursuits on board and to go further with them because they feel empowered by playing with it in a game. Ultimately, it allows a fun, engaging and productive connection between two seemingly disparate parties for effective communication of something very important!


Playing with Science: Danny Ward and Lizzie Archer


Vibrio Risk


Lizzie Archer – ARIES PhD Researcher at the School of Environmental Sciences, UEA funded by UKRI Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS).


Can you protect your citizens against rising numbers of Vibrio infections?


Vibrio are a species of marine bacteria that are highly sensitive to temperature. Changing environmental conditions, especially warming ocean temperatures as a consequence of climate change, are increasing the spread of these pathogens along the world’s coastlines.

This game challenges players to consider the interaction between human health and the environment whilst developing their own city. Players must purchase resources which balance the need to sustain a coastal economy with measures that help prevent the spread of infection. Each resource influences the level of Vibrio risk which must be kept low if players are to minimise the number of infections reported amongst their growing population. As players move through the decades, extreme weather events increase in frequency and favour those who made wise investments. The player with the lowest number of infections in their city by 2100 wins.


Vibrio Risk


Plant Invasion!


Danny Ward – PhD Researcher at the John Innes Centre funded by UKRI Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Norwich Research Park Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (NRPDTP).


In this game, up to 4 players are invading microbes trying to infect a plant leaf. Players move around the board by picking up movement and action cards featuring information relevant to plant health. As players move around the board, they can claim tiles. Other players can also steal those tiles. The player with the most claimed tile points at the end of the game is the winner, and the successful microbial coloniser of the plant.


"Overall, I really enjoyed the challenge of thinking about my research in a new way and creating a physical board game resource for communicating the fundamentals of plant health to new audiences. I also appreciated the chance to work with other students from different research backgrounds participating in the Board Games for Science training workshops creating their own board games. Learning the fundamentals of good board game design helped me to develop a new range of skills that will lend themselves well to more effective science communication skills going forward. It was satisfying and rewarding to be able to bring my board game to members of the public at the Norwich Science Festival. This was a good chance to get feedback for future improvements and was a nice way to communicate my PhD research with a variety of different audiences."


You can play Danny’s game using the resources found here: https://t.co/6W1CnLZtgx?amp=1


Plant Invasion!


To conclude


All in all, the Norwich Science Festival was an amazing opportunity for PhD researchers. We were able to explore new and engaging ways to communicate our work to different audiences whilst sharing our passion for science. We hope that the participants of our events had as much fun as we did and left feeling intrigued, informed or even, perhaps, inspired by the knowledge they gained.


*All photos credited to Lizzie Archer





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