BIG enewsletter - Autumn 2011 edition - Issue 20

 In this edition
Guess what? BIG has just welcomed its 400th paid-up member! Let me share that with you again because it's SO exciting... BIG HAS JUST WELCOMED ITS 400TH MEMBER!  What a long way we've come over the past 15 years and my, my, haven't we grown?! It seems that more people than ever before are choosing to renew their membership year on year, but also more people joining for the first time which is clearly indicative of a growing market. We've seeing a huge growth in new members from Universities and professional bodies in recent years, and we've now topped a thousand BIG-chatters. The new line-up of the Executive Committee met for the first time last week and we are aware that needs are changing. We hope to line up an exciting programme of skills days over the coming year to reflect the changing membership, starting with our Advanced Audience Skills workshop on 17th October (announcement below). 

Sarah Vining, Administrator

BIG Event 2011 - Straight from the horse's mouth...

"I was immediately inspired from the very beginning of the BIG event – indeed I tweeted as much! Everybody was so welcoming. Miles Bullough’s keynote speech was brilliant, and made me think very differently about how I approach my creative projects. I certainly won’t be afraid to allow the ‘mad-woman’ out in the future! I really enjoyed the ‘secrets of stagecraft’ session. I can’t say I’ve ever thought about my public engagement activities as a performance before but certainly will try to bring a little ‘mystery and magic’ to my future events. And at the ‘communicate with confidence’ I really learned a lot about how to present myself physically to engage my audience" - Dr Vicky Jones, University of Manchester

"When I arrived, I wasn't sure what to expect, having only attended the Little Event before. I was nervous, arriving by myself in a room full of top class communicators. Would anyone talk to me? What if I forgot how to talk? Was I in a dream and would find myself naked in the middle of the room? Luckily none of these things happened and I was soon catching up with old friends and making lots of new ones. Some highlights were the improvisation and voice workshops. As well as being fun and a great way to meet fellow delegates, they taught me some really useful tips that have already helped me improve my communication skills (I never expected that reading Shakespeare in a funny way could  make me a better communicator!). I also have to mention the best demo competition. The enormous variety and inventiveness of the demonstrations was fantastic and there are definitely a few ideas I will be, ahem, "borrowing" for use in the future! I now have to think up an entry worthy for next year’s competition. This has been one of the highlights of my year. It was great to meet so many people who are passionate about science communication. If you haven't been to it before, I would urge you to go next year. I know I will certainly be there!" - Karl Byrne, Science Communicator


...And over to the Little Event!

"The Little Event at the ThinkTank, Birmingham certainly got off to an interesting start as the first thing we did was learn bizarre facts about each other, some involving Ben Fogle and Neville Longbottom! Everyone was made to feel very welcome and  there were many opportunities to chat and make new contacts between the sessions. The atmosphere was very friendly plus the presentations and activities were superbly planned both for people fairly new to science communication (such as myself) and for people looking to boost their skills and learn new tricks! Many aspects of being a successful communicator were covered, from career ideas to presentation skills to pinning down what “learning” really is– and who could forget Kenny Webster’s hilarious presentation on how to be friendly and helpful but not to the point of being “creepy”? What did I gain from the Little Event? Well, I walked out of the ThinkTank in the evening feeling inspired to pursue science communication as a career and delighted to meet such an enthusiastic, diverse bunch of people. I would easily recommend the Little Event to anyone who wants to try out or learn more about science communication, and I look forward to more BIG events in the future" - Emily Coyte


'What is Science for?' Conference

Sally Veitch, Development Education Project

The first 'What is Science for?' Conference Exploring science in a global society will be held on 5th November at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.

The conference will enable educators to engage with topical debates about the potential of science in today’s world, and will explore innovative and participatory methods for bringing these issues into the classroom/learning environment. Ideally suited to science teachers and educators but also for non-science specialists involved in teaching science-related issues in other subjects. All delegates will be given a pack of practical teaching materials.

For more information or to book tickets visit the website.

Was this Europe’s first science centre?

Colin Johnson

It has often been claimed that Europe’s pioneering science centre was Urania, which opened in Berlin in 1888.  However, I have recently become aware of an establishment which certainly pre-dates this, and could well be the candidate to push Urania from its perch.

The Royal Panopticon of Science and Art opened in Leicester Square, London, in 1854.  It was a lavish and ambitious venture, and provided well for its visitors.  A review in the Times (12 August 1854) described it as: “...a wonderful place, springing up, as it does, on a spot where wonders are familiar.  Its purpose is the combination of those scientific recreations which are so characteristic of the present day … There are lectures, and there is an organ … and there is a diving bell which will plunge you to any depth … and there is an ascending car which will raise you to any height, and there is a chromatrophic apparatus which creates no end of fantastic devices and gorgeous colours, and there are dissolving views which … make use think that the old magic lantern of 30 years back was but a sorry affair after all.  The instructive entertainments … are of a mind that has been seen at other establishments, but the great peculiarity … is the magnificence of the place.  The spectator, on entering, suddenly finds himself within a huge polygon tower of apparently incalculable height, constructed in Moorish style, and decorated with every variety of gorgeous colour.  Statues, scientific instruments, and specimens of machinery, are stationed about the floor, and the wall is lined by the stalls of a bazaar. … In the centre of the floor is a spacious basin … and in this a jet quietly creates one of those polished bells of water which are among the most pleasing displays of modern hydrotechnics.  Suddenly the fountain is worked at high pressure – the bell is changes to a stream of water, which goes to the very top of the lofty edifice, while other jets burst forth to increase the effect.”

Opening hours were from 12-5 and 7-10, and – the article continues – “during those hours there is constantly something going on, in the shape of lectures, music or show – nay the visitor, if he will, may ignore the contents of the programme altogether, and find abundant recreation in surveying the permanent objects of the establishment”

Sadly, the Panopticon closed after a couple of years, and its assets were sold – an early example of a big capital project set up without heed to the revenue implications!

I plan to research this in more detail, and would be glad to hear from anyone who has come across the Panopticon before.  Wikipedia has a bit more info and a picture, and there’s a nice account with more detail here.


Introducing... SciEnts

Sarah Vining, Chartered Marketing Consultant

“So how can I market myself to schools?” is a question I was asked by all but one of my “clients” during the one-to-one marketing surgeries I held at the BIG Event – followed by, “...and did I mention I have no budget?”. It wasn’t a new thought, but it did hit home the number of people in our small industry who are struggling to attract the same elusive schools market on minimal budgets. Surely there was something I could do to help? Surely we could try and tap into the market collaboratively, using my skills as a digital marketer and my 15-year experience of marketing to schools?

I had very recently completed an online directory of parks and gardens for the Wales Tourist Board and it struck me that perhaps there was a similar model I could apply to the ‘science presenter’ market. Ok, so this is not going to make me my millions, but the seed of an idea was planted and SciEnts was borne. Most freelance science communicators will know that word-of-mouth has them in something of a stranglehold. Free directories like ScienceLive and the STEM Directories do yield enquiries, but many customers are simply overwhelmed by the sheer number of options available. Paid-for advertising in school-related publications is another option, but most are not specifically STEM-oriented and have not yet achieved the ‘critical mass’ necessary to make them a cost-effective way of securing enquiries. 

SciEnts is a brand new web-based directory, with a difference. It is limited to a small number of experienced science presenters who can fit on one page, with equal billing. A small enough number that allows me to liaise directly with and keep a personal and collective feel to the whole project. How do I limit the numbers? I could raise prices until only a handful were interested, but that would be no guarantee of quality. I could choose only my favorite 15 speakers, but that would require marginal, subjective and arbitrary decisions. And in either case, it would mean the project has no particularly Unique Selling Point. The most interesting USP would also be the least unfair way of distinguishing our performers from merely good speakers: Basically, can the personal genuinely present themselves as an ENTERTAINER under a particular category (musician, clown, juggler, actor, puppeteer, comedian etc?) There are many entertaining scientists, but SciEnts is about scientific entertainers. Having identified some, invitation to the ‘Troupe’ is then largely based on personal judgment, having been exposed to the vast majority of STEM performers on the circuit over the past decade. Since there is no British Standard or other recognized quality marking for science communication, the quality of the SciEnts brand will depend solely upon the individual performances of its troupe.
Of course, this means that some of the very best science communicators won’t fit this model. That’s perhaps for the best, since although we want SciEnts to be successful, we want it to remain just one option among many for customers seeking to book a science show. For now, I’d just like to get something started which teachers and event organizers actually use.

In future, who knows? I might follow an agency model, or become an official ‘collective’. I certainly have my eye on the corporate market but recognize that you can’t do this in half measures. Whatever happens, I hope you’ll support this venture borne of years of experience in this industry, my frustration with existing marketing routes and the oh-so-common complaint about how someone should just do something like this somehow!

Advanced Audience Skills - Creating Astonishment

17 October - London

As part of BIG's role in promoting excellence in science communication we are pleased to announce our upcoming skills day - spaces are limited to 15 participants - so book early!

Magicians are masters at controlling people's expectations, attention, memory and emotional reaction. All necessary ingredients for making a lasting impact on your audience. Aimed at professional STEM communicators and others working in public engagement, this 1-day course focuses on stagecraft skills specifically for those who regularly present science demonstrations to the public.

Cost is just £45 for BIG members. More information and registration.


Science Showoff

Louise Crane

Science Showoff is an open mic night for everyone who communicates science. Whether you’re a physics teacher, a biochemistry PhD student or an explainer at a science museum. Whether you want to perform, or watch others take to the stage.

The night takes place once a month at The Wilmington Arms, London. First gig is 4th October. The format is simple: a compere introduces ten acts who each have ten minutes to do their bit. This could be a song about the Large Hadron Collider, a science of beer-making demo, or a tap dance about the mating habits of squirrels. Anything goes.

At the end of the night, there is an hour for performers to chat with the audience and among themselves, to get feedback and form partnerships. One of the aims of Science Showoff is to create a breeding ground for ideas on how to communicate science. Organisers Louise Crane and Steve Cross, creators of The Geek Calendar and Bright Club respectively, want to create a place where people from all areas of the science communication industry can share their latest work in a performance-based way - and then chew it over with a pint (or a whisky) in hand.

Performers are recruited democratically. A month before each gig, the Science Showoff sign-up sheet is published online. Whoever signs up first gets the gig. There are seven slots available. This month’s sign-up sheet took just three hours to fill. The organizers keep back three slots for invited guests to keep things balanced, and these are filled with the help of UCL neuroscientist Sophie Scott. Entry is free; no one is paid – including technician Helen Clarkson who is operating the show. There is a donation bucket and all proceeds will go to a local charity. So come along on 4th October to see how the experiment turns out.


At-Bristol holds First UK RAP

Dr Sue Cavell, Research and Evaluation Consultant

In July, At-Bristol Science Centre held the first UK RAP (Roundtable for Advancing the Profession. The RAP, entitled Assessing Impacts of Science and Discovery Centres (SDCs) brought together key people from the UK’s Science and Discovery Centres, academia, and independent consultants grappling with the issue of finding evidence of impact. This topic had been the focus of discussions, conferences, and symposia over many years but as yet there had not been an agreed, consistent approach to obtaining meaningful evidence.

The objectives of the event were to reach agreement on what SDCs mean by impact and on what would constitute meaningful evidence. It was important to determine also what evidence UK Science Centres have already, and how they might collect further evidence. A key aim was to reach agreement on a mechanism for UK Science Centres to work together to obtain robust, consistent, and meaningful evidence of impact.

The event adopted the format of the Association of Science and Technology Centres’ (ASTC) RAP. This innovative format has been run successfully in member institutions in the US over many years on a wide variety of topics. Each RAP has a specific focus, one that aligns with the needs and challenges of a particular profession. They are designed primarily as idea-sharing/training opportunities where participants can learn from, and with, each other. The small number of participants engaged in focussed, facilitator-led, discussions on the key focus, hence the ‘roundtable’.

This RAP brought together 29 key participants involved with the Science and Discovery Centre sector, including those whose task it is to drive the research in their centres. The RAP aimed to stimulate discussion around three key issues:

1.      Explore what participants consider the impacts of SDCs to be and reach some agreement over these;
2.      Establish how to obtain evidence of the impacts of SDCs; and
3.      Agree directions for future research on ‘evidence’ of impacts

Professor John Falk, keynote speaker for the event, spoke about his recent work looking at the impact of the California Science Centre on the science literacy of greater Los Angeles. This provided a stimulus for discussions around the UK context. Hannah Baker, Wellcome Trust presented information about commissioned research addressing SDC impact while Penny Fidler, Association for Science and Discovery Centres, highlighted the potential value of 20 million visitors to SDCs as data points for impact research.

A full report on the event which highlights the key issues discussed and the conclusions reached, as well as suggestions for action, can be found here.


From the Conference Hall to the Classroom

Sarah Reed, Science Editor for EU-Universe Awareness

In a one-week special, Space Scoop will release daily news reports for children aged 8+ that highlight the exciting discoveries announced at the European Planetary Science Congress and Division for Planetary Science (EPSC-DPS) 2011 meeting, held in Nantes, France, from 2-8 October 2011. By sharing the latest research with children, Space Scoop aims to bring astronomy to life.

EU-Universe Awareness (EU-UNAWE), which brings you Space Scoop, is asking primary school teachers from around the world to use the releases as the basis for a week-long series of lessons about our Solar System. The final day of EPSC-DPS 2011 coincides with International Observe the Moon Night, which offers many additional educational resources.

Since EU-UNAWE launched Space Scoop in February 2011, press releases produced by the European Southern Observatory and the NASA Chandra X-ray Observatory have been translated into child-friendly language. EU-UNAWE is now pleased to welcome Europlanet – one of the organisers of EPSC-DPS 2011 – as its newest Space Scoop partner organisation.

With Space Scoop reporters at the conference, EU-UNAWE is welcoming educators and children to submit questions about planetary science via email, Twitter or Facebook. The Space Scoopers will track down the relevant astronomers to find the answers to as many of your questions as possible. Please email your questions here. Questions via Twitter should be sent to @unawe and include the hashtag #SpaceScoop. You can also use our Facebook page to ask questions:


Noyce Fellowships

Colin Johnson

You may already be aware of the Noyce Leadership Institute (NLI) in the USA, funded through a foundation established by the late Robert Noyce, inventor of the integrated circuit.  In the words of its website, the NLI “develops and hones the leadership talents of executives in science centers, children’s museums, and related institutions.  NLI is committed to expanding the impact of these organizations in their communities by increasing the capacity of their leaders to manage change, focus outward, engage peers, and form key partnerships.” 

Science Centre Fellowships are for senior staff, perhaps already CEOs, and involve a significant commitment of time (and some money!) over a period of two years.

For their 2012/2013 Fellowship Program, the NLI has asked me to help them to identify potential applicants from countries outside N America. My role is to identify, to encourage and to support potential applicants - especially in the drafting of the strategic initiative they propose to undertake as a core component of their Fellowship. 

The application deadline is January 9th, but that notifications of intent to apply are required early in December.  More details are on the website.

British recipients of Noyce Fellowships so far have included:

John Durant, formerly At-Bristol
Paul Jennings, formerly Dundee Science Centre
Kirk Ramsay, formerly Glasgow Science Centre

Ian Griffin, Oxford Trust

2010 Sharon Ament, Natural History Museum

2011 Dan Bird, At-Bristol

If you are interested in this programme and would like to know more, please email me.

A Day in the Life

Name: Ashley Kent

Job: Project Coordinator at Cheltenham Science Festival

A typical day at work consists of unfortunately, checking emails and looking at spreadsheets. However, my job mainly consists of booking people who do science communication. This means I frequently get to go out of the office and see a lot of workshops, shows and other festivals.

What got you into this career? Dumb luck! I was doing a Masters in medical genetics and happened to be right next to a science centre where I got a weekend job. I didn’t even know science communication existed and when I found out, my reaction was, ‘You mean, I can get paid to explain science to people?!’ After that I was hooked.

What is the best thing about your job? Getting to go and see lots of fun events and activities. I was on a trip the other week to a music festival and it was considered to be a working trip! Sometimes I actually think I’m having too much fun to be getting paid to do this job.

... and the worst? Talking about money. I always need too much from providers and have too little to pay them. I used to think of the negotiations like a dance, but now I think of it more like Sumo wrestling. You are both heavily invested in the outcome and know what you want and how to get it, but need to knock someone out of the ring to accomplish your goal. And when you win, it’s a great feeling, but you are still fat. (OK, so it’s not really a perfect analogy.)

What is your favourite meal? Polish sausage, sauerkraut and new potatoes, slow cooked all day. My mom makes this for me when I come home to visit and my mouth waters just thinking about it. A bit of salt and some yellow mustard top it off perfectly.

What is your favourite smell? I’m pretty much a sucker for any men’s cologne or body spray, but Yankee Candle makes a Christmas Cookies candle that I love. It smells just like warm sugar cookies fresh out of the oven. That smell is probably tied with a coconut perfume I sometimes wear. Even when I’m checking emails it makes me feel like I only came into the cabana to check them while a small white cloud passed momentarily over the sun, blocking my otherwise perfect beach-side view. Christmas Cookies vs. Coconut perfume: you decide.

What talents do you possess? Besides inadvertently turning everything into an innuendo? Hmm... I can make small children cry with simple answers to complex science questions. For example, Q: Aunt Ashley, is the world going to end? A: Yes. Yes it is.

What talents would you like to possess? The ability to walk gracefully. I don’t ask for much, but to walk up or down a flight of steps confident in the knowledge I will not fall would be magical. But if I couldn’t have that, I’d like to fly please.

Which actor do you think should play you in the film of your life? I’ve been told that when I was blonde I kind of looked like Renee Zellweger, especially her Bridget Jones role. That’s the nice answer. The naughty answer actually came from Kate who said: ‘Mila Kunis – filthy mouth, excellent rack.’

Which living person do you most admire and why? David Attenborough. He’s done such amazing things and is an icon in the natural world. (Ask any animal and they will all say the same thing.) He’s been at the right place at the right time, but has also made his own luck and worked hard to achieve his goals. The fact that he continues to work even though he’s in his eighties is also impressive. If I could choose my grandpa, I would choose him. No offense Grandpa.

Most beautiful place on earth? Egypt. The first time I saw the pyramids of Giza was in the twilight of 3 am. After my eyes adjusted, they loomed out from the dark. They were two massive shadows and the sight of them gave me goose bumps and made me more excited to see them in full daylight. Absolutely breathtaking. Every day in Egypt was even more amazing than the day before it. Even after two weeks of sightseeing, it was so hard to leave.

What is your Motto for life? I guess I have two really: 1) ‘The world would be a better place without any excuses.’ – meaning that we could get so much more done if we didn’t make excuses for ourselves and equally if we didn’t accept them from other people either. 2) ‘Fake it till you make it.’ – I really feel that if you behave with confidence, it can get you through lots of difficult situations. I think confidence is an amazing tool, but maybe that’s because have an abundance of it!

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