A portrait of Howie Firth. Credit: Selena S Kuzman

This blog has been shared by Howie Firth, Director of Orkney International Science Festival. The Northern Alliance recognises the importance of STEM learning for children and young people and the benefit of strong links with our industries and communities. The festival will deliver a whole host of opportunities for schools and settings as well as families and individuals to engage with.

It wasn’t a difficult decision to put last year’s Orkney International Science Festival online – it was that or nothing. We were lucky to have the choice, more than many other people had, who were overcoming much bigger challenges.

We had inspiration from Edinburgh Science Festival, who found they had to cancel, just weeks before their start date. A whole year’s work was undone but they didn’t have time to feel sorry for themselves, and they managed in just a few days to put a body of fascinating material online.

They had days, and we had months, so the least we could do was set ourselves the target of complete delivery online. Every event in a very full programme – talks and workshops, walks and concerts, lunchtime gatherings and the late-evening Festival Club – would be expressed in an online format.

We needed to find a technical means for hosting events, and here there was a bonus as the world was waking up to Zoom. Streaming from Zoom to YouTube would give easy access for everyone. Savings on speakers’ travel and accommodation would enable everything to be free apart from a few workshops with costs of materials.

We needed technical skill, and here we were particularly fortunate. Over the years a great group of people has developed, who come each year to Orkney to enjoy the Festival. When they heard we needed help they responded with energy and enthusiasm. Spread around the north, from the Black Isle to Portgordon, they joined the Festival’s core workers to form a highly experienced technical team, with everything done professionally – planning and logistics, documented procedures, music and screen intros and outros.

We had some unexpected – and welcome – surprises along the way. Technology shapes the way we use it, and we may speak on the phone differently from in person, when not able to see facial expressions or sense body language. Skype, although visual, seems to continue a kind of phone call mood, and that indeed was its origin.

Talks in public halls area also shaped by the setting. The format may have developed from church sermons, where the audience sit in rows below.

But on Zoom, the mood is different. It’s more like being gathered together in a room, and welcoming a speaker into an armchair to join us and tell a story.

A Zoom presentation, in fact, is remarkably like a radio programme, where the host sets the scene and share the pleasure of the company of an interesting guest with people out there in many places.

That puts an added requirement on the host of an online event. The chair of an event in a public hall has simply to say a few words about the speaker and mention fire exits while the audience wait patiently for the speaker they have come to hear. But an online audience can click at any moment to somewhere else, or just walk away, so the host of the event has right from the start to make a direct contact with the audience and hold them, and move quickly and seamlessly to the speaker.

Here we were again fortunate, as Orkney has a voice training centre developed by someone of world stature. The late and much missed Kristin Linklater trained some of the best-known names on stage and screen, and after a long working life in the US moved back to the islands of her birth to set up a centre which continues her work today. From there we were able to access high-quality training for our online hosts.

For questions from the audience, online events are actually better than those in a hall. Instead of questions from different corners, each on a separate tack, a monitor picks them up from YouTube live chat and forwards them to the event host. The host then selects, to put them in a sequence, with each leading naturally to the next. Here again is the radio parallel: the host acts like a radio interviewer, adding a supplementary question if needed for audience clarification.

Overall, we found a great response. People who had never been able to access the Festival before, through health or travel or family commitments, were now able to do so. It’s often – and rightly – said that science communication has to be about reaching audiences otherwise unable to access it, as otherwise we can find ourselves duplicating what is already being done. Online events open up new worlds of people.

A further help to access was through events now being permanently available on YouTube, and no longer restricted to a fixed time and place. A day worker could catch up in the evening, and a teacher could bring material to a class at whatever stage it was needed. The effort and care of the speakers and delivery team could be appreciated not just by a hundred or so people gathered in one hall, but by sometimes a thousand and more, and the numbers continue to rise steadily.

What does this mean for the future of science festivals? Simply that once we have opened the door and found a whole new audience who we hadn’t known before, we cannot close the door again. At the very least we have to change to a hybrid format, with all events livestreamed and permanently available afterwards on YouTube.

To do this opens up new challenges, but what an opportunity it is to be able to reach new audiences in a way that really matters.

As director of the first Edinburgh Science Festival in 1989, Howie Firth created the science festival format that is today followed worldwide. He has a background in mathematical physics, teaching, writing and broadcasting, Since 1991 he has directed Orkney International Science Festival, which will take place online again this year on 2-8 September. Details of the programme, with topics ranging from tidal turbines to gravitational waves, and a whole host of sessions tailored to schools and families as well as others, can be found on its website: www.oisf.org

Self-Portrait by Selena S Kuzman, at Warbeth, Stromness, looking across to Hoy.
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