On August 4th, I made the long trip (almost 4 hours each way!) back to my hometown of Ulverstone to give a public talk at their annual Astronomy festival, TastroFest. I went to talk about the work I've been doing with a citizen science project called Radio Galaxy Zoo, and to discuss some of the results we have so far. Citizen science projects rely on the help of their public base of volunteers, making each participant a contributor and author for the work we do up in the Ivory Tower. We would send off the results of our research to the rest of the team at the University of Tasmania before submitting for publication, so it is only fitting that our volunteers should also be kept in the loop.
The funny thing about presentations and talks is that you never remember actively giving them, or exactly what you've said. Aside from the occasional issue with the remote slide changer, my memory stops at the moment I started speaking. I find that it isn't until the questions start rolling in during question time that you think to yourself "Did I really say that?".
Nonetheless, the questions and discussions I had were absolutely fantastic, and I'm going to take it as a sign that people really learnt some things about radio astronomy and citizen science, without feeling completely left in the dust. On a few occasions I have attended public lectures that left even me reeling and struggling to keep up, and that's as a 3rd year undergraduate, not a layperson. My ultimate aim for any publicly attended talk/event is to educate without either alienating the audience with its difficulty or making them feel as though they have been talked down to. It's a difficult balance to achieve, especially with audiences whose personal expertise and knowledge range from complete novice in all things math, all the way up to distinguished experts in the field. The more talks like this I do, hopefully the better I get at it. When you've only ever considered a problem or idea from the standpoint of years of calculus, it can be hard to step back and consider the mindset of others.
In particular, one discussion has stayed with me. After the talk, a high school student in the audience told me that he was interested in studying to be an astrophysicist himself, and wanted some advice on what he should be doing now to begin to move towards that goal. At his level (Year 9), the physics curriculum in many schools is unfortunately lacking. My own memories from that time include nothing more than a simple consideration of different forms of energy; a series of lessons that left even the most physics-obsessed students asleep in their chairs. My only advice to this student was that he should continue to focus on his mathematics and aim to take the highest level courses possible available to him, as it is often the mathematics which later trips physics students up and holds them back.
This all has me wondering: what more can we do to encourage physics at a high school and college (Years 11 and 12) level? Students do not get any true taste of physics until Year 12, if they choose to take the course. I recall attending health-study workshops when I was 15 that gave us all the chance to really engage with the health sciences, and ideally we would see a similar program for the physical sciences and mathematics. But how can we do this when most of what we do in our daily work is maths? I don't have a good answer on this yet, but I do know that we need to find better ways to engage students with the field, otherwise they may never know just how many options are available to them.