Interview 50. – Elin Roberts


Elin Roberts is Head of Public Engagement at the Centre for Life in Newcastle. She is a passionate communicator with a wealth of experience producing and presenting science shows. She has worked with scientists, presenters, teenagers and teachers helping them produce engaging performances. She trains presenters, drawing on her experiences of stages large and small, tame and terrifying to get the most out of their own technique. As a practitioner of science communication she still enjoys the sensation of dried PVA on her fingertips and the smell of freshly applied sticky back plastic.

Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

I don’t get to spend much time on gallery these days, but I was amazed when a mother who had previously self-identified as ‘not creative’ produced an absolutely glorious three-dimensional house model. Rather than draw, as almost everyone else had done, she cut out pieces of different coloured card to build up the image. It was wonderful. She was amazed at herself and her own creativity, and in turn I was by her.

She was so surprised and so proud it struck me. We raise our barriers and so we can take them down.


How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

Hmmmmm. If you make me, my interpretation would be:

Awe is an almost physical reaction.

Wonder sparks the imagination.

Curiosity is a playful desire for deeper understanding.

You can have each of them as a separate dish, but they are considerably better served together as a meal. They complement and counterpoint, each adding a richness and depth to the other.


What inspires you to be creative?

I’m not sure it is inspired, sometimes it is just hard work. I need to keep chipping away at it, reminding myself that I need loads of ideas for any of them to be good. It’s more challenging when I feel snowed under, I need to fight to stay playful. When I do find something that ultimately delights me, it will delight me for years so it is worth the battle.


Do you have any ‘rituals’ or an environment that aids your creativity?

Finding space. I need a lot of headspace. That’s exceptionally precious these days. Sometimes I wonder if I will lose my best idea before it flourishes because I’ve drowned my headspace with admin.

Being playful. If I want to delight others, I need to be delighted myself and that requires a whimsical, playful nature that needs to be protected and nurtured. It’s too easy for grown-ups to forget how to play.

Being cheeky. I’m a rule-follower by nature, so encouraging myself to break the rules really aids my creativity. Being cheeky is a low-risk behaviour that reminds me that we don’t always have to follow the rules.


What do you love about magic?

I hate magic (Sorry Matt). Magic is the ultimate trickery, hiding the best bit from the audience. I don’t understand why so many people love to be knowingly tricked. Perhaps something in that desire explains the phenomenon of fake news.


What do you think hinders an audience from experiencing wonder when watching a magician?

The trust relationship between magician and audience is a really delicate dance. Magicians need to tease but without going too far. They use all the tools of the trade to get there, but if they get that balance wrong, then it can lose wonder for the audience. I think it is fascinating to watch good magicians. We can learn so much from them.

For me, the reason I don’t like magic is that magic is ultimately about the magician being smug. ‘I know something you don’t know and I’m not telling’. The trust is broken for me as soon as this ritual starts. If the audience sense that smugness too strongly, it will put them off experiencing the wonder.


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

It’s important for us to keep noticing things that delight us. When we are young this happens naturally. As we grow old we need to practice. It’s the opposite of riding a bike.

But look. Really look at the way water can bead on the leaves of plants; the way the colours are reversed in a double rainbow; the sound as a bouncy ball hits a hollow object.

The more we find wonder in the everyday, the easier it is to nurture it and share it. To share wonder in a believable way to others we must feel it ourselves.


One of the things you’ve done that has made quite an impact in the science communication world is your silent science show. Can you tell me more about the concept and the impact?

This is one of the things I’m proudest of, but it came from a difficult place. A colleague was keen to produce a chemistry show without words. Some of the marketing material was already out by the time we realised that the show she pitched was not going to work for our audience. It was down to me to fix it.

I wanted the audience to feel awe and wonder and curiosity. I needed to cover chemistry content and make the show suitable for school groups and public. It had to feel like a science show and not a magic show. Cue much soul searching and tearing of hair, but at the end of it came the show now known as ‘Kaleidoscope’.

The presenter walks to the centre of the stage to address the audience: ‘Some people think that science is about being really clever and knowing all the answers, but that’s not how I think. I think Science is about watching closely, being curious and asking the right questions’. They then hit the lights and music and turn their back to the audience, put on a labcoat and gloves and safety glasses (and a new persona) before facing the audience again. From that point on, they don’t speak, just present beautiful chemistry demonstrations set to music. At the end of the show the presenter turns, removes the labcoat, gloves and glasses and returns to their own persona. They then answer questions from the audience who are on the edge of their seats wanting to know what happened.

The reasons it works are several-fold. Firstly it is beautiful and wonderful to watch. The same show works for pre-schoolers and chemistry graduates at the same time, but on their own levels. Many in the audience are hugely curious and are trying to figure out what happened, or what is about to happen. They are on the edges of their seats, conferring, frustrated, figuring out as they go along, being puzzled. These are feelings that real scientists work through all the time. The presenter can’t draw their attention verbally, so the audience must really *watch*, they don’t want to miss a thing. The audience are certainly not silent throughout the show, spontaneously clapping, cheering and discussing ideas.

Finally, the Q&A section is critical. Ordinarily most performance shows are pushing information from the stage to the audience. This show flips that dynamic, the audience are pulling the information from the presenter. They hold the power.

As the audience left they were given a sticker with a link to our blog with videos of all the demonstrations so nobody missed out on an explanation if they were shy or we ran out of time.

The impact has been phenomenal. There are at least four other organisations who I know have used this format in their own centres and are thrilled by the responses.

Sometimes the best ideas come when creative restrictions are in place that you feel are impossible to overcome. Then you overcome them. (Or not, but they rarely get spoken about with such passion).


At the Centre for Life you have a permanent tinkering space, can you tell me more about the concept and impact?

Leaning hard on the experience of the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium in San Francisco and our experience hosting Maker Faire UK we’ve seen that a playful tinkering mindset is an important part of the creative process. I find it sad that so many young children believe that there’s no room for creativity in science. We believe that science is an inherently creative process and that we can build and develop skills to encourage ourselves to be creative thinkers. The hanging question, is *how?*.

In conversation with the Ignite! programme I came to hear of the work of educationalists Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas. They were looking at traits that creative thinkers demonstrate. The list they came up with was: Resourcefulness, Risk-taking, Resilience, Relationships and Reflection. Collectively called the 5 Rs, they have been invaluable to me in planning activities to encourage creative thinking.

These 5 traits are tangible, we can easily imagine them as skills that can be strengthened with practice. This practice is important. To be creative we must make ourselves vulnerable, but this is rarely comfortable. Practicing these traits helps us get used to that insecurity and we grow in confidence. Taking risks, asking people for help, trying something new, it all opens us up to vulnerability. Thoughtful exposure to this helps build our resilience and confidence, we get better at putting ourselves in these positions, and from that position we are better placed to think outside the box.

As for impact, the Making Space was initially a temporary install in 2015. It hasn’t been off gallery since. It has made such an impact that we are quadrupling the capacity for activities in our new Creativity Studio opening in 2019.


You manage a team of very enthusiastic and creative people. What are the challenges and opportunities?

I am hugely privileged. I have worked with, and continue to work with wonderful people. My team is eclectic, from a range of backgrounds and with different interests that helps bring different perspectives to our collective thinking. We feed off each other and ideas grow and develop.

As a manager, my challenge is to keep the balance: When whimsy strikes it is easy to get totally wrapped up in an idea without considering if it’s the right thing for our audiences.

Sometimes I find it hard to let my team make their own mistakes, but each of us learns best when we make mistakes first-hand. I need to learn when to let them burn their fingers (metaphorically, not literally of course, my risk assessments would never live that down).

Opportunities abound, ‘though. They bring passion and energy ideas and graft. They make the real magic happen. I just sit at my desk and take the credit.

What stood out for you? Any questions? Things you disagree with? Write a comment and join in the discussion.

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