There’s a difference between telling someone about an issue and getting them to actually engage with it. The tricky thing about talking to school groups is that the students are often told to be at your talk, and this means that their level of concentration and interest can vary. So you want to use your talk to conjure up mental images that will make them click with, and therefore remember, the issues that you are talking about.
Repeating the same ideas to different audiences lots of times has meant I’ve found myself condensing explanations more and more, partly for my own sanity and partly for timing purposes. In doing this I’ve stumbled across some shorter and catchier ways of describing ideas that seem to resonate with teenagers, and then used these the next time instead of any waffly descriptions I’d been going with before.
So I thought I’d share some of the approaches I’ve taken and reused when I’m trying to explain marine environmental issues. I’m not an expert, by any means, I just enjoy giving talks on this area and these are just some things I’ve noticed as I’ve gone along. Some of these might seem over-simplistic, but marine conservation talks can get quite heavy with facts and concepts and the reason these strategies have been successful could be to do with their simplicity. These are some of the ideas that Year 7, 8 and 9 students have fed back at the end of a talk when I have asked what they have learnt, and this is how I can tell that a particular description has clicked with them.
So, here are a few ideas:
Plastic bags confuse turtles
Explaining how turtles eat jellyfish, and then how an upside down plastic bag floating in the ocean can look very similar to a jellyfish, conjures up a clear mental image of confused turtles consuming plastic rather than their usual prey. This invokes concerned looks and sympathetic responses from an audience of teenagers, and I use the picture below to help get this point across.
Spend some time explaining what a ghost net looks like, not just what it does. Spooky by name and by nature, these vast abandoned fishing nets drift around and catch anything that happens to get in the way, only sinking to the floor when their catch gets too heavy. The idea of an uncontrolled net roaming the oceans and looming over marine life seems to help students grasp how damaging ghost nets can be.
Fish don’t have hands
Too obvious for words really, but this has helped me to explain why fish and other marine life suffer so badly from entanglements with marine debris in the ocean. This idea seems to act as a trigger for students to remember the issue of entanglement, and it seems to help them recall other associated impacts when asked to feedback what they remember at the end of the talk.
Marine Protected Area boundaries are invisible
When explaining why Marine Protected Areas are so important for marine conservation I also try to balance it out with some of their limitations. I’ve found that explaining how ‘fish don’t know where the line is’, meaning that MPA boundaries are invisible to marine life, helps to get across the idea that mobile species are often not effectively protected by static areas drawn on a map.
Different types of fishing net
Some fishing nets use a diamond mesh and some use a square mesh. Diamond mesh nets contract when they’re lifted out of the water, meaning that the gaps in the net close up and fish can’t escape. Square mesh spreads the load of the force put on the net and means that the gaps stay open when the net is lifted out of the water, and smaller fish can still get out. Therefore, moving from diamond mesh to square mesh is a strategy that helps small fish to escape fishing nets and gives them a chance to grow and help replenish fish stocks. You can explain this by making a square or diamond shape with your hands, and then making the diamond shape smaller to simulate a net being lifted out of the water.
Finding effective ways to bridge the gap between the public and marine conservation issues is a challenge, and it’s about communicating clear messages that resonate with a particular audience. If science communicators share their ideas about messages that work then these could be used to successfully engage other audiences elsewhere. So feel free to comment your tips for marine science communicators working with any age group below, and help to meaningfully engage audiences with conservation messages.