Estonian Research Council’s science outreach program, Rocket69: Perspective from a science communicator, Mare Vahtre – Science Communication Coordinator
Written by: Judy Mielke
Preface: Science communication is one of the pillars of a science-based society where evidence and facts support decision making. In our “Perspectives from a Science Communicator” series, we bring you science communication insights from experts around the world. In this blog post, we speak with Mare Vahtre who is a Science Communication Coordinator at the Estonian Research Council. Among the projects that Mare is involved in is Rocket69, a science talent show for students in Estonia. Every week, 10% of the Estonian population tune into the TV show, and these days, one third of students in higher education in Estonia are in STEM.
Hi Mare! Please tell us more about yourself and how you came to the Estonian Research Council. Why specifically science communication?
I have a background in genetic engineering, and I have been in some science competitions as a student. When I did my bachelor’s degree in science at the University of Tartu, I realized that I am more excited to talk about science than doing science myself. I started my communications career as a Communications Specialist at the University of Tartu and from there I had the opportunity to join the Estonian Research Council’s STEM science communication team because I have a science background and communications experience. At the Estonian Research Council, I am the coordinator of TeaMe+ program, which is funded by the European Regional Development Fund and seeks to popularize the STEM fields (science and engineering) to students and youth. We have a webpage and a strong presence on social media. We have different target groups. Among the students, we have those who are interested in science and those who are not interested in science. The bigger goal is to have more students in the fields of science and engineering and – ultimately – a science-based society. This is the reason we want to bring science to everyone because we must make decisions based on science and fact and not only on emotions.
Rocket69 has had an amazing impact on the pipeline of STEM talent in Estonia, together with an overall high level of trust in science and scientists from the Estonian population. How did it start? And what were some of the hurdles to success?
Indeed, Rocket69 is a huge success for us. The TV program started in 2011. The idea came from science enthusiasts from a physics organization and the TV format was created in collaboration with different partners, including the Estonian Research Council, scientists and the National Broadcasting Organization. I think the first years, actually, was quite difficult because of this new format and while we have good connections, we also had to convince people that this competition in TV format would be successful. The good thing was that we already had some science shows on TV and it formed the foundations that we needed. So, from little things we could grow bigger. These days Rocket69 is not only a TV program but we also have complementary information, such as our toolbox for science communication, that educators can use in their classrooms.
What advice would you give to novices in science communication, especially to researchers who are interested in communicating their research with the public?
I think the main advice would be to establish who are the main target audience that you want to speak to and have your message in the right channel. For example, in our case, our target audience is students but within this group, there are some major differences. Specifically, students interested in science often do not use social media. Whereas students who are not interested in science are on TikTok and Instagram. So you can see that the channels that we use are quite different even when on the surface we may think that students belong to one homogeneous group.
So you really have to think about the message, what you want to achieve, and the best channels for communicating that message.
Another important piece of advice is that we must be adaptable. This is something that I learned in the past year. Even if a channel is working right now to reach a target audience, it might not be the case next year. So, you need to adjust and adapt your strategies. Also, keep in mind the time investment needed for effective science communication. Because of all the parameters needed for effective science communication, we, at the Estonian Research Council, collaborate with researchers to facilitate the communication of research results. Usually, funders delegate science communication to the researchers. We take a collaborative approach because we feel that we can all do this better if we collaborate. We believe that the key to success in everything is collaboration, the same with science communication.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with the science communication community?
Along the lines that collaboration is key to success, we also believe that experience sharing is another critical factor to long-term success. We are very proud of what we have achieved with Rocket69 and our other programs but we are also very open to new ideas. We are very keen to share our experiences. I would say that if you are a science communication enthusiast, whether you are a science communications professional or “just” a researcher, we would love to hear from you and exchange experiences with you.
We thank Mare Vahtre for sharing with us her science communication advice on behalf of the Estonian Research Council.