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Mr. Shaha’s Recipes For Wonder — An Interview with Author Alom Shaha

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

May 2, 2018

Mr. Shaha’s Recipes for Wonder is a science book with a difference written by Alom Shaha, illustrated by Emily Robertson, and published by Scribble Kids Books. Shaha was born in Bangladesh but grew up in London; as a parent, teacher, science writer, and filmmaker, he has spent most of his professional life trying to share his passion for science and education with the public.

Shaha has produced, directed, and appeared in a number of television programs for broadcasters such as the BBC and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts (NESTA) and the Nuffield Foundation. His new book Mr. Shaha’s Recipes for Wonder gives clear, step-by-step instructions for over fifteen experiments. Whether you’re a science star or just starting out, it will help you inspire young people to learn.

Alom Shaha: I had the idea of doing a science activity book while I was working for the Royal Institution on a video series called Experimental. The Royal Institution hired me to come up with videos to encourage parents to do science activities at home, and I was very lucky to have that job because it allowed me to sit and think about how I would approach this and how I could make videos that were different from the literally hundreds, if not thousands, of videos already out there. If you type in science activities for kids, or science experiments at home, you’ll get a list of hundreds. I watched many of these and I read lots and lots of science activity books.

What I noticed was they all had the same approach, which was to show you, usually, some kind of interesting physical phenomenon, give you instructions how to recreate it, and then give you a scientific explanation. I felt there was something missing. It struck me that none of these videos or books really involved any kind of experimentation or investigation; they missed one of the key aspects of science, which was kind of thinking about what is going on. They were giving you the answers, giving you the instructions for how to create a phenomenon, but not really allowing or encouraging children to think about what was going on.

The second thing that I felt was missing was giving parents information how to actually get the most out of these activities, so I very much approached this as a teacher. As you know, I’m still a science teacher, so I wanted to help parents teach their children, not just to do activities in a hands-on kind of way, but what I would call a minds-on kind of way.

So I ended up convincing the Royal Institution that what we should make were videos which were very different in look and feel to all the other videos out there, and I think if your listeners go and take a look at our films, that they’ll see how true that is. Our videos were made so that parents watching could model the teaching behavior that we showed in our films and encourage children to be thinking about what’s going on, as well as doing.

Kylie Sturgess: This is a book that is illustrated by Emily Robertson. She’s got the challenge of making it an attractive read, and I must imagine it was a very interesting collaboration. Can you tell us about how this book came together, to make it both beautiful looking as well as instructional?

Shaha: Well, the idea for a cookery book came up when I was having lunch with my agent. We were discussing the possibility of my writing a science activity book, and since we were having lunch, we started talking about cookery and so forth. It suddenly struck me that a recipe book approach would work really well because, obviously, science activity books do lay out instructions for doing activities, so that was where the idea for making it a recipe book came from.

Also, I was very keen to not have the word science in the main title of the book because I wanted to appeal to people who wouldn’t necessarily be attracted to something related to science, who wouldn’t necessarily identify as people who were interested in science. I wanted to appeal to a wider audience, and I think we’ve been quite successful with that actually.

That’s where the idea for a recipe book came from; I wanted the book to look and feel very different from any other science activity books out there. Very early on in the process, we agreed that the illustrations would be really important and a key to achieving that aim, and so, along with the publishers, I looked at a number of illustrators. Emily’s work just really stood out for me, and we all agreed that she was the person who could help us achieve this aim of giving the book a really different look, compared to all the other science activity books out there.

People have responded tremendously positively to Emily’s work, and I think we’ve absolutely achieved our goal of making a book that looks and feels very different. That’s also down to the amazing design work done by the people at Scribe.

Sturgess: You already mentioned the Royal Institution playing a part in the trialing of the activities. You’ve worked with them before a few times?

Shaha: I’ve had a long history with the Royal Institution. I think I first worked with them in my 20s, when I was doing a science communication masters at Imperial College. As part of that, I made a CD-ROM of the Faraday Museum, which is based in the Royal Institution, for part of a public exhibition at the Elephant and Castle, where I grew up.

I approached Professor Frank James, who is the world’s leading expert on Michael Faraday and he was just really kind and gave me his time, and advice, and help then, and then somehow I maintained a relationship with the institution doing little bits of work here and there, working with Christmas lecturers and working on small bits of science of communication. But, really, it was a couple of years ago when they asked me to develop Experimental that I really became part of the family there.

Sturgess: At the start of the book, you write about something I’ve heard you discuss before in science communication: that curiosity is one thing, but it’s skills and knowledge that come through guidance by other people, such as teachers, parents. Have you seen a development in how you communicate science during your career?

Shaha: Yes, I think I’ve definitely been on a journey. I’ve been doing science communication close to twenty years, I guess, and like most science communicators, as I’ve progressed, my thinking has, I hope, deepened and developed. I certainly, in the early days, like many science communicators, I probably had ... what’s called the empty bucket or the deficit model approach, where I just thought it was important to tell people about science, but I think my approach has changed hugely since then. I’m not so much interested in telling people the so-called interesting facts that science has given us, but much more about getting them to engage with it for themselves, and that’s really what the book is about.

It’s about encouraging parents to embrace science as a cultural activity in the same way that they embrace art and music and literature. Most parents are perfectly comfortable reading to their children or .... You know, as we’re having this conversation, my wife’s in the other room with our daughter, doing some arts and crafts!

And, for me, science is not just about mixing chemicals in beakers or measuring the acceleration due to gravity. It’s a kind of way of looking closely at the world and asking good questions about it and trying to find out those answers. What I think parents can do is encourage their children to take an interest in the natural world and ask questions which can be answered by observation and experimentation and, to me, that’s doing science.

What I don’t think is doing science is reading some instructions in a book, which tell you how to recreate a so-called exciting natural phenomenon, and then reading an explanation about it. I think that’s not doing science; that’s kind of passive engagement with science.

Sturgess: I’m looking forward to going over this book with my niece and having it open on the table, the same way I usually do with a recipe book. I’ll probably have to buy two copies at this rate! What has been the response by the target audience so far?

Shaha: I’ve done quite a few events now, working with parents and children, and events at which there have even been scientists in attendance, and I guess the highest praise I’ve received is from a scientist who said, “This has reminded me what science is about.” Also, I don’t know if you know Professor Alice Roberts, who is one of the UK’s most famous science television presenters and a practicing scientist? She’s been using it with her children and, to me, that’s just absolutely the highest praise we could have for the book.

What I think I’ve noticed is that the book is engaging with parents and saying to them, “Look, take this approach to the activities ...” and my suggested approach is that when you’re doing the activities, to talk about the activity with the children, particularly to ask questions about what’s going on, what could we change, how could we find this out?

This process of questioning, which is really at the heart of the book, I think can transform doing these hands-on activities into much more than a practical engagement and more of an intellectual engagement as well. Parents then notice that they enjoy the activity more and they certainly get a sense that they’re getting more out of it and that their children are getting more out of it. I can’t make any claims as to having collected data and so forth, so this is a nonscientific explanation. However, my sense is that by taking the approach that I encourage in my book, both parents and children will ultimately get more out of the activity, and that’s what people are telling me is happening. But, obviously, I can’t make any scientific claims about that, being a good scientist!

Sturgess: Well, I’m going to add to the data by adding a review on Amazon as soon as I can, after I’ve done the activities with some young friends. So thank you for talking to me, Alom!

Mr. Shaha’s Recipes for Wonder is available through Scribe Books worldwide.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.