CHRISTMAS LECTURES in the 21st century

Our Head of Education, Dom McDonald, explains how we've made a 200 year old icon of science engagement relevant to young people in the 21st century.

  • Christmas Lectures audience members holding up cards saying 'YES'

    Audience of 2018 CHRISTMAS LECTURES

    Credit: Paul Wilkinson

‘What are the Christmas Lectures for in the 21st Century?’

Unsurprisingly, this is a question we hear a lot here at the Ri, and also unsurprisingly, it's one we’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about.

If we were being lazy, we could just say that the Lectures are ‘iconic’, and that their historic relevance requires us to continue to produce them. But if that’s the best we can come up with then it is hard to justify the sheer amount of hard work and dedication that goes into them each year.

Yet their iconic nature does give us a necessary-but-not-sufficient starting point.

The fact is that the Lectures have been around for 200 years, and they are deeply loved by a significant constituency who see them as a Christmas tradition. We also know from research we commissioned last year that the live Lectures offer a unique, memorable and engaging experience for young people in the audience. And they remain one of the few places on British television where millions of people engage with a single topic which is tackled in depth for several hours in prime time.

  • Drawing of a man giving a lecture to families

    Michael Faraday delivering a CHRISTMAS LECTURE on 27 December 1855

    Credit: Royal Institution

We now have the technology to make them available via different channels, so for the first time in 2018 we livestreamed the Lecture recordings (in mid-December) to a small number of partner organisations around the UK. This trial has given us the foundation to develop a larger project in 2019, and take the ‘live’ lectures to an audience who would never have had a chance to see them otherwise.

This high-profile starting point gives us the opportunity to do something rather more interesting than simply continuing in the tradition of 'Putting On Lectures At Christmas'. It enables us to engage a large number of people with a wide range of activity which takes place around the TV programme.

The audience that we get for the lectures not only means we can engage people with the science of a scientific topic, but also look at its social and ethical implications. By doing so we hope to make the Christmas Lectures the centrepiece of a national conversation about the place of science in our lives.

  • Children smiling and clapping

    2018 CHRISTMAS LECTURE audience

    Credit: Paul Wilkinson

  • Camera viewing screen filming children

    Filming the 2018 CHRISTMAS LECTURES

    Credit: Paul Wilkinson

One important step to enable this has been to cover more controversial topics in the Lectures. In 2018 we touched on the concept of ‘race’, the genetics of sexuality, and the moral maze of prenatal testing. After the TV broadcast we donned our flak jackets and waited for a storm of protest, but it never came: in fact, we got an overwhelmingly positive response on social media. Our viewers seemed happy for us to be tackling ethical topics with a scientific underpinning. Of course not all of them agreed with us, but the negative feedback we had was measured and considered and, given that we can’t please all the people all the time, that is as much as we can ask.

This shift of focus means that the TV programme becomes a means to an end rather than just an end in itself. As a result we have changed the way that we enable schools to engage with the ideas covered in the Lectures. In previous years this had focussed on how teachers could reproduce experiments seen in the lectures, but for the last two years we have worked with our colleagues at Lloyds Register Foundation and Mangorolla to focus on the moral aspects of the Lecture topic.

In 2018 this has meant a schools debate resource for 11-14 year olds examining the rights and wrongs of single sex toilets in schools. We chose this subject because it crystallises a set of questions around nature and nurture, the nature of identity, and equity.

  • Top-down view of teenagers sat around a table

    Young people taking part in our 2015 Unconference

    Credit: Andrew Youngson

We recognise that this sort of teaching is a challenge for many Science teachers, who are not always encouraged to tackle the messy human aspects of the practice of science in the real world. So we have made the resource able to be used by any teacher whose subject prioritises debate and discussion, such as English or PSHE.

This approach has its culmination in our Youth Summit in March, supported by EY and Lloyds Register Foundation. This builds on our previous Unconference events and will see 200 young people between the ages of 16 and 18 come together to explore what ‘Identity’ means in the 21st Century.

At the Youth Summit we are deliberately aiming to give the young people as much control over the agenda as is possible, so that at the end of the day we can be clear about what should happen in response to the event. These might be things that they mandate us to do, that they choose to take on themselves, or that we decide to do together. In this way we aim to show that science is not just for scientists, but for everyone.

Managing a project like the Christmas Lectures requires us to recognise our responsibility for a 200 year old institution, but also to be aware that the Lectures have only survived this long by continually adapting to the wider environment. So these changes are just the latest step in that evolution, before I hand the Lectures over to people whose job it will be to look after it for the next 200 years.

  • Four children on Christmas Lectures stage

    Children taking part in a demonstration from the 2018 CHRISTMAS LECTURES

    Credit: Paul Wilkinson


Thank you to our 2018 Christmas Lectures sponsors: Lloyds Register Foundation, UKRI, Schlumberger, and BGI.

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