CoDI Show: Is astronaut food the future?

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Me and our compere, Susan Morrison, whom I somehow managed to dress as a satellite, during my first Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas show “Let Big Brother Watch! (From Space)” in 2016.

Why are we more comfortable with exploring new topics in public events then in teaching? Expanding on his personal experience with taking part in Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, Matjaz Vidmar advocates for greater experimentation in the classroom, as a way to promote interdisciplinarity, develop critical skills, and build a deeper partnership with our students…

As our food is getting more high-tech, are you getting worried about what is in it? Looking at food provisions in extreme environments, researchers and engineers have come up with some very interesting, but also controversial solutions, which are now making their way into mainstream food production. How does that look like? What priorities does nutrition research put first, and is “tastiness” one of them? If so, who is checking that the taste stays the same? Satellites are also used to monitor (global) food production, but who owns and controls that data and what effects does that information have?

These dynamic and engaging questions are being posed as part of “Is Astronaut Food the Future?”, my Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas show on 20th August. This Edinburgh Fringe event is as an equal measure of light entertainment, knowledge dissemination and public discussion.  We are sternly told: max 20min introduction to outline the main concepts (hopefully with a joke or two) and the rest is an open-ended discussion with the audience.


In designing and preparing this “show”, I started to ask myself: why is this type of open and mutual learning often confined to public engagement activities, and not used in wider teaching practice?

As a bit of background, my research relates to the emergence of Space Industry in Scotland which I am examining from organisational, network development and policy angles. That is, I am looking at how companies develop products and services based on absorbing new knowledge and ideas from academia, at how they link amongst each other and with different institutions, and how innovation intermediaries, one of the key institutions in the sector, deliver public policy.

As such – I am no expert on Space Food per se. Yes, I am quite well aware of the Space Industry and Space Science. In particular, I closely follow the development of space data driven environmental monitoring for agri-food businesses. But this “food angle” is new to my research thinking, and is emerging as a thread of some of my (future) projects. So, is it not peculiar then, that I am open to have a go at exploring this new-to-me and potentially contentious topic in a public forum at Edinburgh Fringe, yet I have not thought to do it as part of my teaching?

It is not that I lack the opportunity; over the past few years, I have taught “Discovery of Space” as part of an undergraduate History of Science course, looking particularly at the societal issues in the development of science and technology and the role they play in our every-day lives. The exploration of the topic of “Space Food” is further interesting as it banks on three interconnected aspects of best practice in modern academia: promoting interdisciplinarity, developing student’s graduate attributes through critical thinking and problem solving skills, and partnership with students in joint learning processes. After all, exposing our own ignorance of some of the subject’s details is a great mean of building a shared experience of exploration with our students.

Hence, why not try and expand this exploratory approach to teaching? The simple answer: because we are scared. No matter what we say, we are still a little scared of letting go of the “traditional” student-teacher “relationship”, scared where the “exploration” will lead, and, most of all, if it will expose the knowledge and experience we lack. This is terrifying on a New Town Theatre stage, and even tougher in a classroom, because the expectation to perform well – and that our professional status depends on it – is even more to the fore of our minds.

But fears can be overcome. Though it terrified me at first, this show is my third CoDI appearance and I think I’ll do another one again next year. Being freed from the fear of the new and uncertain, and embracing our vulnerability, is liberating beyond a nice feeling of achievement. Itis also intellectually refreshing to think outside of the box(es) we routinise ourselves into. So, take a deep breath and delve into the unknown – the dividend will be worth it!

Is Astronaut Food the Future? is on 20th August 2018, 8.10pm, at the New Town Theatre (Fringe Venue 7). Info and tickets are available from here. Hope you come along for the journey (to space and back?)!

Many thanks to SSPS Student Development Office for financial and moral support, and to the Beltane Public Engagement, Fair Pley Productions and Stand Comedy Club teams for their amazing work over the years of developing the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas.

Matjaz Vidmar

Matjaz Vidmar is a doctoral student in Science, Technology and Innovation Studies at the University of Edinburgh and at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh. He is an (Astro)Physicist by training, with further degrees in Social Science, examining science evaluation, innovation and economic growth. He is involved in several international initiatives and projects to develop the future of Space Exploration and Industry, such as serving as the Policy Lead for the Gateway Earth Development Group and as a Deputy Chief Executive Officer at Astrosociology Research Institute. He is also a university lecturer, a mentor and tutor, and an award winning science communicator.

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