This description of Theodoros Anagnostopoulos's work was prepared when Theodoros Anagnostopoulos was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2017.
In an era of vast flows of unfiltered information, when the general public often cannot distinguish between science, pseudoscience and anti-science, Theo creatively engages schools, scientists, journalists, and the general public to create a culture of science literacy.
The New Idea
Theo promotes science literacy by nurturing an ecosystem that drives and sustains a culture of science interest, understanding, and application. Through his initiative, SciCo, Theo is making science education and communication simple and fun, empowering individuals and groups to create local science communication clusters, and integrating scientific literacy as an important pillar of society. By inserting fun, innovative and interactive elements into science and creating communication channels and networks between scientists, stakeholders and the public, Theo and SciCo have successfully created a “pop culture of science” in Greece and Cyprus, and their interventions are expanding throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America.
Public perception, understanding of scientific matters and their connection to everyday life are low internationally. Scientific ignorance can have devastating consequences both at a personal and societal level, and such ignorance is growing exponentially due to the popularity of social media that enables fake news to spread faster and farther. While fragmented approaches to popularizing science exist—books, blogs, camps, etc.—Theo has developed a multi-dimensional strategy targeting all stakeholders: children, parents, educators, the general public, journalists, and scientists themselves. Theo has created a demand for science communication in Greece and Cyprus. He has also mobilized and influenced the educational system—SciCo activities have now become important milestones for the Greek public school curriculum. Additionally, Theo has created a vibrant network of science and education stakeholders by building partnerships with key institutions, including the Greek government.
Stemming from a country facing an economic depression, Theo’s model comprises of a low-cost but high-impact set of tools and strategies that are applicable even to regions with little or no available resources for science communication. This also makes SciCo programs relevant to countries with developed science education systems, that seek for additions to their programs.
Globally, science is largely perceived as tedious, restricted to specialists and unrelated to everyday life and decision making. Part of the reason is that a lot of science is not intuitive or is presented in impenetrable language for those not trained in it. Although a fundamental element of education, it's often presented in a dry or overly challenging way. Additionally, misinterpretation of science findings is prominent, and the spreading of false scientific news is augmenting through social media.
All of this is driving scientific illiteracy, which deteriorates socio-economic evolution, as ignorance causes people to decline access to potentially lifesaving, environmentally friendly innovations and technological breakthroughs. For example, following the global anti-vaccination burst, immunization coverage has dropped and along with several other countries, Greece is currently facing the threat of a measles outbreak.
In Greece, according to the European Commission, 45% of the population report that scientific literacy is not a necessity for their everyday lives. Furthermore, the Greek educational system is tightly linked to a final examination procedure that is outdated and urges students to learn by heart rather than applying critical thinking. According to a 2015 OECD report, Greek students received among the lowest rankings in the EU on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) standards. Students are bombarded with information, teachers are not empowered to innovate their educational style, while the way textbooks are written and classes are taught impedes the association of information to everyday life. Greece is not alone in this regard. While the global focus on STEM has been a popular effort to bolster science education, in many cases, it is still taught in a rigid, rote way.
Engagement around innovation is augmenting in Greece and globally, but it often remains disconnected from science. The public is in awe of technology but remains unable to understand it. Advances in technology and science are transforming our world at an incredible pace, and the next generations’ future will be filled with unprecedented leaps in technology. Being scientifically fluent throughout one’s life will no longer be just an advantage but an absolute necessity.
Governmental efforts through the educational system are mostly based on a didactic approach, while other private initiatives have been one-dimensional, for instance tv programs for kids. With the ease and speed at which misinformation now spreads, more comprehensive strategies are needed to enable widespread science literacy.
One of the key strengths of SciCo’s strategy is their multidimensional approach which differentiates them from other major players or public efforts. For every stakeholder, they have designed and deliver specific interventions. At the same time, understanding that misconceptions are hard to tackle simply via a didactic approach, and to battle the notion that science is tedious and restricted to specialists, they have incorporated a creative and entertaining way of delivery in every intervention. Theo develops and pilots tools to reach and engage different stakeholders. The most effective interventions are then packaged for replication, and SciCo partners with local teams that implement them across Greece and abroad.
Believing that science literacy depends on a public culture of science engagement that reaches everyone, Theo has created highly successful interventions directed at the general public. In 2014, SciCo launched the Science Festival, a one-week yearly fair where researchers, teachers, distinguished scientists and artists communicate science in a fun, innovative and interactive way. The Festival is systematically organized since, in many cities in Greece and Cyprus. However, by analyzing visitor data, Theo realized that more than 60% where already above average scientifically literate. To reach the general public, he decided to bring Science to people, rather than inviting them to Science, pioneering in street science with the Mind the Lab intervention; one day per year, scientists, teachers and students set up labs in metro stations and use interactive, entertaining ways to engage the public in STEM related topics.
Theo also knows that education has to change so that young people grow up equipped with both knowledge of and interest in science. The first SciCo initiative was science theater that Theo produced for school children; theatrical performances explaining scientific concepts and phenomena in an understandable, fun and memorable way, taking knowledge out of the lab and engaging children in science and technology. Up to date, SciCo has reached over 30,000 school students though Science Theatre. Through the success of the Science Festivals, Theo has now not only driven greater demand for science education but also drawn in the Ministry of Education. Theo has positioned the government as a driver of the Festival, and the Athens one is opened every year by the Minister of Education.
Meanwhile, Theo has made further inroads into schools, initiating STEMpowering Youth, a STEM training program for teachers and students: SciCo trains teachers to create STEM laboratories linked to the school curriculum, and teach students to use experimental design and construct their own inventions to solve local and everyday problems. More recently, SciCo has launched SchoolLab, an online sharing platform where participants (students, teachers and researchers) create teams and pick any scientific subject they find attractive, do research and find an interesting way to present it in a 3’ video. All the above resulted in the Ministry endorsing SciCo programs and adding them to their official agenda. Municipalities across Greece are now demanding the replication of SciCo interventions in their area.
Recognizing that driving demand is not sufficient and that scientists have to be able to share their knowledge in far more interesting and accessible ways, Theo also works with scientists on communication strategies, both through specially designed workshops and by offering them free booths to interactively present their work and engage the audience at the Science Festivals.
Finally, recognizing the crucial role that the media plays in spreading either accurate or false science, Theo engages journalists on science reporting. SciCo has initiated a program of workshops with the aim to empower journalists to both understand the tangible effect of spreading misleading information, and to correctly interpret and disseminate scientific findings.
To be able to realize their vision, they work with a broad network of collaborators, beginning from their multidisciplinary team which includes scientists, artists, educators, journalists, marketers, business consultants and more. Outside the team, they have formed strategic partnerships with private and public organizations (some examples include the Greek Ministry of Education, British Council, Onassis, Vodafone Foundation and CERN) to exchange knowledge, resources and work towards the reformation of science communication and education. SciCo has also created a network of more than 1000 volunteers. By offering training, they empower volunteers to both exercise science communication and become more competitive candidates in the job market.
SciCo has been working towards the full digitalization of their programs; they create MOOCS and how-to guides, specifically designed to render their partners fully capable of successfully running the SciCo interventions with minimal support from the core team.
Theo measures impact by quantitative and qualitative means: the team uses knowledge and understanding questionnaires before, directly after and months after interventions, in depth interviews with children and adults and focus groups. They also monitor behavior change: for example, when running a biology and nutrition program for school children based on science theatre, they measured participants’ breakfast choices pre and post intervention; children where 60% more likely to opt for healthier food and snacks after the program compared to the pre-intervention measurements.
Theo believes that access to science and science communication should be affordable. At the same time, creating and delivering such interventions is costly. To tackle this, SciCo runs on a multi-channel revenue model, comprising of CSR and marketing budgets, ticket sales, workshop delivery and grants. SciCo do not sell their packages (e.g. Science Festivals). They initially support their local partners by channeling part of the revenue from the sources mentioned above until they become sustainable, and they then make profit-based agreements with them (i.e. a proportion of net profit is to be payed back to SciCo when applicable).
Starting from Athens, SciCo’s programs have been implemented in more than 30 cities and villages around Greece and Cyprus, but also in Malta, Thailand and Malaysia. In Greece, Theo's initiative has reached more than 140,000 visitors through Science Festivals and events, 20,000 school students through science theater, more than 8,000 students and over 500 educators via empowerment programs (School lab, STEMpowering Youth, MARCH). SciCo is currently in the process of expanding operations in Europe and Latin America.
As a geneticist, throughout his academic career, Theo gained scholarships, awards and published several peer reviewed papers. At the same time, he realized that the scientific research conducted by himself and his peers was perceived as completely incomprehensible by those outside the lab. As a result, he started noticing a deep gap of knowledge between scientists and the general public. He also started to feel that being a scientist in a lab with no expressive outlets was not his path.
At the age of 32, Theo decided to quit his scientific career and take a gap year to investigate other passions. A few months later, he came across a science communication competition organized by the British Council. The idea fascinated him, and he felt that he had finally found the path he was searching for: “making science simple and fun.” Some months later, SciCo was born. Its first form was a small team performing Science Theatre; Theo co-wrote and co-directed four shows and played in approximately 100 performances for 30,000 school children.
However, the lack of awareness for the need for science communication rendered SciCo non-sustainable during the first years of its existence, so Theo had to work elsewhere to support their operations. In 2009, he accepted a marketing position at a multinational pharmaceutical corporation with the aim of gaining valuable knowledge in the field of marketing and broadening his corporate network. He continued to work on developing SciCo alongside his full-time job. Five years later, Theo was finally able to dedicate the totality of his working time to SciCo.
Apart from his journey in research and science communication, Theo has organized and participated in three road trips from Athens to Beijing, from Athens to Cape Town and from Athens to the North Cape, raising environmental awareness. Theo is the president of the Onassis Foundation scholars, a British Council Climate Leader, has trained in NASA space camp for science education and has given numerous talks on science communication globally. In 2011 he was nominated by UNESCO for the Kalinga Science Popularization Prize and in 2012 he trained with Al Gore to become one of Climate Reality Project Ambassadors. Since 2011, he has been the host presenter of TEDxAthens, TEDxLimassol and TEDxPatras.