Building a Better Normal through Science

Australia Awards alumna Paola Ceriola responds to the call of the times

Fresh from her postgraduate studies in Australia, Paola Ceriola was eager to give back to the Philippines and start sharing what she learned from her year-long Australia Awards journey. When Paola received an Australia Awards Scholarship in 2019, she knew she wanted to design better learning experiences for Filipinos. Through Australia Awards, she took up a Master of Learning Sciences and Technology at the University of Sydney to equip her in implementing her re-entry action plan (REAP) – a learning program on conservation and climate change in a coastal community in her hometown in Albay, Bicol.

“I needed a postgraduate degree that was practical. Little did I know that taking up Learning Sciences and Technology meant that I had to learn cognitive science, psychology and complexity science theories from scratch,” she recalls. “I enjoyed it, though! I’ve always been curious about the workings of the human mind. My background in communication was also useful in studying learning science. Good communication, after all, is integral to effective learning.”

When Paola returned to the Philippines in 2020, however, she found herself implementing her REAP in the middle of a pandemic. Because of COVID-19, Paola could not conduct face-to-face workshops, which were part of the learning program she originally planned. Despite the limitations, Paola progressed with her REAP by redesigning it to better respond to the country’s emerging needs – she brought her learning program online to cater to more learners from all over the country.

“When the pandemic hit, I had to redesign the training program to make it online. I also had to broaden our topic to include other sciences, not just conservation science, because we have many pressing issues that we need to tackle. Science issues are complex and multidisciplinary, so I ended up designing a science communication program. The best part was that we were able to invite young Filipinos from all over the country to participate,” she said.

Equipping young science communicators

Dubbed Mulat Pinoy Kabataan News Network Science Communication (MP-KNN SciComm), Paola’s REAP was a 5-week online workshop that trained young Filipino science communicators in creating science stories. Paola collaborated with Probe Media Foundation, Inc. (PMFI), which has trained professional and aspiring media practitioners since 2001, and PumaPodcast – a pioneering Filipino podcast network. Adopting PumaPodcast’s show called A Better Normal, the MP-KNN SciComm workshop aimed to answer the question: “How might we build ‘A Better Normal’ for the Philippines through science?”

“The ultimate goal is to equip young Filipino science communicators with the skills, mindset, values, and network that can help them become effective storytellers, especially during a time when people are more vulnerable to misinformation,” says Paola. She worked for Tripleshot Media, whose founders are former Probe Team producers, for her first job after earning her undergraduate degree in Broadcast Communication from the University of the Philippines (UP).

For its first run in mid-2020, the workshop trained 25 young science communicators from all over the country in creating science video stories, infographics, podcasts, and articles. With six mentors steering the way, the workshop discussed various methods such as conceptualisation, writing, and production.

The workshop also enabled students to practice their interviewing skills through open forums and eventually presented their work on virtual platforms. The students’ outputs were then published on Mulat Pinoy’s website, PMFI’s social media accounts, and other online platforms like FlipScience.ph.

“Our goal is to hone the learners’ skills in science communication. But our ultimate purpose is to build a community of scientists, young communicators, and creative professionals who can effectively communicate science for audiences who need it most,” she said.

Not a one-time project

The attendees of Paola’s workshop series attest that the endeavour was not just a one-time project. UP Broadcast Communication student Becca Galvez, one of the participants said: “It was inspiring to hear stories from innovators and game-changers in the field, especially those that were my age because I saw their drive to use this to combat our country’s stigma towards science. I am in awe of the groups’ creativity and skill in producing podcasts, documentaries, and full-length articles, purely through working together online. It redefined the limits of quarantine because I realised that there are stories everywhere we look.”

Climate change corporate communicator and researcher Robi Kate Miranda adds, “I believe that there’s no more effective way than moulding young minds who will lead the next generation in helping the communities where they are in.”

Meanwhile, Paola’s collaborators also saw the value and relevance of the project, especially during the pandemic. PMFI Executive Director and Ceriola’s mentor Yasmin Mapua-Tang applauds the project. “It was Paola’s brilliance, hard work, and enthusiasm that made it happen. Her original plan was a face-to-face workshop for children/youth on climate change in Bicol. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, we were at a loss because of our inexperience with online training. Paola spearheaded the science communications training design, anchored in science-based techniques and principles that she learned from her experience at the University of Sydney.”

PumaPodcast’s Chief Content Officer Tricia Aquino and Director of Sales and Fundraising Raja Aisha also speak their approval of the project. “Lives can be saved by information being disseminated properly. Equipping young communicators with tools to spread vital knowledge was a task that we were happy to accomplish. The program also happened in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic when we saw just how important it was to communicate to the public.”

Beyond REAP: Building a Better World

Paola is poised to continue with MP-KNN SciComm’s cause come what may.

“We’re in the middle of raising funds for the next cycle. We plan to take all the feedback and data from our recent workshop to redesign the next one,” she teases.

Despite initial setbacks due to the pandemic, Paola was not only able to finish her REAP, but she was also able to pursue her life’s mission. “I value lifelong learning and following one’s curiosity. The world will continue to change, and people with good intentions need to evolve to make the most impact,” she says. “I took up Learning Sciences and Technology because I wanted to learn how to equip future generations with the tools to build a better world. I wanted to contribute to designing better learning experiences for Filipinos, and that’s exactly what I’m doing now!”