London stories: Soapbox science

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With a student volunteer at her side, Dr. Haley Mountford leads her audience through a facial recognition exercise.

The esteemed discipline of science has taken quite a battering in the United States on topics ranging from vaccines to climate change. So I was pleasantly surprised to come upon a very cool outdoor educational activity when I was roaming the streets of Oxford on my last weekend in the United Kingdom.

There on a soapbox was a tall, slender woman in a white lab coat imploring us spectators to come closer so we could better hear the presentation she was about to give on facial recognition.

Her name was Dr. Hayley Mountford and she was one of several professors who were participating in the UK’s Soapbox Science, a national initiative to bring science to the masses through a grassroots outreach program.

Eight other scientists, all women, were giving presentations simultaneously in the public square just outside a modern shopping mall.

As a student volunteer flipped through pages of photographs, Dr. Mountford encouraged us to think about which aspects of a person’s face would lead us to recognize that same person in a photograph of them at a younger age. Was it the eyes? Mouth? Nose? Eyebrows? The shape of the head?

She started out with some easily recognizable celebrities, like Beyonce and Justin Bieber, but then moved on to less well known individuals, such as Jordan Pickford, the goalkeeper on England’s World Cup soccer team.

And in a nice show of humor, she showed herself in a grade school portrait.

But then she talked about the science of face recognition and told us of law enforcement professionals who specialize in this sort of thing. They become so skilled that they are able to positively identify crime suspects from those grainy images captured on video cameras in banks, grocery stores and elsewhere.

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Dr. Hayley Mountford laughs at her grade-school portrait.

It was a fun, educational science lesson that lasted 15 minutes and I had two takeaways from the experience.

1. What an ingenious way of engaging the public.

Soapbox Science, now in its 8th year, not only takes science to the people, but it also aims to raise the visibility of women in science.

According to the Soapbox Science web site: “We place inspirational speakers on soapboxes and encourage them to engage in and start conversations with the public about their work.”

2.  How lucky I was to stumble upon this activity.

The organizers scheduled 18 of these events in the UK and Ireland this summer. The only one scheduled in Oxford was Saturday, July 28th, from 1 to 4 pm. That was the day I visited and that three-hour time block was precisely when I happened to walk by. Had I passed by earlier or been in another part of the city, I would have missed this entirely.

I’m wondering now if this soapbox idea might work with other professions or audiences. Could it possibly be a way for journalists to talk about their professional code of ethics? Could it be a way for educators to introduce simple math? Or maybe a way for English as a Second Language instructors to do some show-and-tell with vocabulary?

What are your thoughts?

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This is the first in an occasional series of blog posts reflecting on my recent teaching and tourism experiences in London. I welcome your feedback on Facebook, but I especially appreciate it when people leave their comments at the end of these posts.  — .G.R.

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2 thoughts on “London stories: Soapbox science

  1. Well, I’m going to mention it to my journalist friends. Maybe a safe public space like Pioneer Courthouse Square? Ah, but how to stand out from the obnoxious street preachers?

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