Putting the audience first for science communication for all ages

Phil Smyth, Science communicator on RTÉ’s Home School Hub

Many families with young children in Ireland will know you from Phil of Science on RTÉ Home School Hub, where you set up and carry out sometimes explosive experiments. What’s the key to engaging children, or anyone, about science?

I always work on an “audience first” basis. If it’s something for kids’ TV, then you have to design content for kids – but also you might put jokes that adults and older kids will get, to encourage people to watch this with their siblings or kids. For any age, tone and energy are key, as people will recall little of the content but a lot of how you presented it.

The element of surprise is important too. If there is a bit of tension around the timing or “will this really work?” when we are trying a different way to build a bridge or seeing if something will explode, then it is an experiment and there is excitement. Otherwise, it is just a demonstration. So it is good to have a bit of off-the-cuff messiness in there, and to have elements that people can try at home.

Were you a science messer when you were growing up?


Yes! I grew up in Dublin and my Dad was an engineer with the “Corpo”, and he would bring me out on site visits when I was older. But where my interest in science was first sparked was by my Mum encouraging me to mess at the kitchen sink when I was very young, playing with bubbles and pouring liquids, and she would point things out to me in nature when we were out walking. She sowed that interest.

Why did you study physics?

After my Leaving Cert I was offered common entry science in Dublin City University, and it was a godsend. I got to try out biology, chemistry, physics, computing, maths and even some sport – growing up I had won national titles for golfing – and I was like a magpie drawn to one and then the next subject in first year. I chose to specialise in physics.

How did you get involved in science communication?

I have always been really chatty, and I love learning about new things. After college I did a Master's in Mechanical Engineering, and that involved teaching to undergrads in labs. I enjoyed that, and built on it. I met my awesome wife, Dr Aoibheann Bird, when we were studying physics in DCU.

She is a scientist too, and we have both moved into science communication and public engagement. Through our company, Simply Science, I work with University College Dublin’s Institute for Discovery, and we work with companies and non-profits and other organisations. Much of it is about engaging with grassroots communities.”

What would you like to see happen in science communication?

I’d like to see a move away from using it as a means to recruit new scientists. Of course we are going to need those, but as we can see with global crises such as the pandemic and climate change, we need everyone to engage with health and environmental issues and solve problems, it’s not just for scientists and engineers.

At the moment, I am working with Midlands Science, with Transition Year students who may have no intention of studying science. The goal is not to get them to become scientists or engineers, but to increase everyone’s awareness of science as something that is useful, no matter what you do.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation