BIG enews: Spring Edition 2012 - Issue 22

In this newsletter
People Power ... the Science of Engaging Audiences
Putting the 'M' into STEM
Free shows for schools: good idea?
Experiences on stereotypes
Organising truly participative debates
Using technology to inspire interest in local biodiversity
RI launches video channel
Exploring Cystic Fibrosis and gene therapy
Tapping into experience in Bath
Turing's Sunflowers
BIG People: Huw James
It's been a very busy month in BIG-Land with two Skills Days and an annual conference on the horizon.

This year's BIG Event in York from 25-27 July will take place over a whole three days and there are some really special treats planned for delegates which will be announced over the coming weeks

If you find - like most of us - that it's hard to keep up-to-date with BIG events due to an inbox that's fit to burst, don't forget that you can join BIG's Facebook page or keep up to date with our tweets by following @bigchats on Twitter.

People Power... the Science of Engaging Audiences

Our one-day course will concentrate on explaining, exploring, workshopping, audience interaction and volunteer engagement techniques. This course enables even the most experienced of presenters to enhance their science demonstrations by making the most out of their audience contributions.
The day is split into a series of practical and theoretical challenges, which help participants practice techniques whilst allowing them to explore their application to their own specific presentations and workshops.

The course will be held on Monday 2nd April at the At-Bristol Science Centre and will cost £40 for BIG Members including refreshments and lunch.

Register here


Putting the 'M' into STEM - a maths communication training day

Are you looking to improve and develop skills for maths outreach? Do you currently do public engagement in maths and want to improve, or are you looking to try and incorporate the 'M in STEM' into your work?

There are a few places left on BIG’s forthcoming skills day which will help dispel the myth that Maths is a difficult and scary subject, among communicators as well as the public, and we hope to make it easier for people to engage with and to see the kind of work being done to popularise maths, as well as learning approaches to delivering their own sessions.

We have three very skilled Maths communicators running the day: Matt Parker, Joshua Award-winning maths communicator and 'Stand-up mathematician',  Nicola Stock, Centre for Life and Dr Sara Santos, from the Maths Busking project.

The event will be held on Tuesday 8th May at the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester and will cost £50 for BIG Members.

For more information, or to register, click here.

Free shows for schools: a good deed or a BIG problem?

Rosie Coates, science made simple

As National Science and Engineering week commences science communicators across the land will be clocking up serious miles travelling to schools across the country and barely able to catch their breath, let alone find space for contemplation of the effectiveness of what they're doing.

I, however, am just starting my maternity leave from science made simple making this seem a suitable time for pause and reflection on some of what I've been doing since this time last year.

Like many of us, I'm sure, part of what keeps me motivated after five consecutive Travelodge nights, is the idea that I am offering activities that enhance young people's experience of science and engineering, and offering these to those young people who don't have many such opportunities.  So, how do we make sure that what we offer is what they want and that we get to the places we're most needed?

I'm really pleased that at science made simple we have made a massive effort to get funding from external organisations to visit schools that don't have much of a budget for enrichment activities.  In fact, the majority of the shows that I have delivered in the last year have fallen into this category. Some of these create great new products and fly off the shelves to schools we may not have reached before. Pause whilst I polish my halo.  But on other projects I do wonder…have I been offering these schools and their pupils something that they really want, or just something?

As you'd expect, after all of our shows we collect evaluation from teachers and pupils and periodically pull this together to help us to find out if we're offering our audiences what they really want.  We use this evaluation to improve our shows, improve our presenters and to plan new show ideas.  Unfortunately, new show developments require considerable investment to do properly and we often have to turn to funders to help with this.  We may have some great ideas for new shows (and know it matches what teachers and students want) but if we can't get a funder whose 'message' fits we are unlikely to be able to bring the ideas to fruition. On the other hand, shows covering topics that may be less in demand from our audiences continue to receive funding by dint of being 'on message'.

So if a school which is well resourced approaches us, we can offer them any of our shows, many of which have been written in response to customer request, whilst if they apply for some of our subsidised shows their choices are instantly narrowed to those selected by funders to fit with their agenda.  Many schools are prepared to make that compromise.  For me though, it's a compromise we should make with great caution. Experience has shown that even when offering a fantastic STEM experience for free, it can be a hard sell on the phones to schools who are just really busy and only want what fits their needs as closely as possible. It’s not enough to offer it for free (which also raises a whole load of questions about sustainability and perceived value of our sector) it needs to be what they want.

Yes, I want to get to those audiences with the least opportunities, I like my shiny halo.  But I also think that for long term survival and the best chance of making an impact, we need to be prepared to cast off the halo now and then, ask the end-user to pay for what they really want or need, and accept that sometimes the customer should steer the service on offer not the funder.


Experiences on Stereotypes from a new Science Communicator

Terry Harvey-Chadwick

In the two or three months since I have started work in the world of science communication I have learned a great deal.

Unlike most of the other science communicators I have not previously worked as a scientist; instead I have been a science teacher.  I have come to realise that the main requirements to succeed as a science communicator is a deep rooted passion for science and the ability to communicate that passion.

My first “bump” against the establishment of science communication came when I applied to take part in the 2012 British Science festival in Aberdeen.   They turned down my application mainly because they did not want someone called “Professor Boffin” as this name carries very negative connotations.  It is an old fashioned stereotype that current scientists are trying to move away from.  I found that this was a prevailing view among many science communicators.
When I started offering my services as a science communicator,   I found no one else in the same situation calling themselves ‘Professor Boffin’.  I now think there was a reason for this, and I realised that I had to re-think what I was doing.

Professor Boffin appears as a long haired, bearded, white-coated man with a test tube in his hand.   Scientists today dislike that.   The new way to approach science communication in order to reach that elusive young audience is to appear young and vibrant like, for example, Professor Brian Cox or Professor Alice Roberts.

Since last summer I have built a name for myself locally as Professor Boffin.  The children of primary school age love the character, he seems to have captured their, and their parents, imagination.  They get very excited about the whole thing and go home to repeat many of the experiments together.  Surely, as science communicators,  this is what we are trying to achieve.  The teenage and young adult audience, however, do not approve.  To them Professor Boffin is a joke.  At secondary school if you are a “Boffin” or “Boff” then you are laughed at and made fun of.  To these people Professor Boffin is everything that is wrong with science; these are the people we really need to reach: the future scientists and engineers.  This was illustrated very effectively when I performed as Professor Boffin for an audition for ‘Britain’s Got Talent’.  I was in front of 3000 people and 3 celebrity judges.  Alisha Dixon’s comment was “I hated science at school, I hated my science teachers, you’re a science teacher, so I hated what you just did”.

In spite of the way scientists are trying to re-invent their image I still believe that Professor Boffin has a place in all this.  Professor Boffin is a very useful stereotype to engage primary school age children.  I shall continue to appear as him for parties and fetes and primary school visits.  For more mainstream science festivals and at secondary schools, however, I shall work under my own name. Whatever character I am being I have a desire to express my passion for science and why I believe it is so important.  I hope with guidance and help from my friends in the business, I shall learn how to do that more effectively.

The full article on my experiences as a new science communicator is available on my website.

Organising truly participative debates using Crowd Wise

Perry Walker, Fellow, New Economics Foundation

I’ve been managing a series of events on engineering and sustainability in London, Newcastle and Sheffield.

The funding came from the Ingenious public engagement grants scheme of the Royal Academy of Engineering. There were four events in each place. In London, one was in UCL and three were at the Dana Centre at the Science Museum. As well as the Public Engagement Beacon at UCL, we also collaborated with the British Science Association. In Newcastle and in Sheffield the events were run by the Great Debate and Action for Involvement respectively. This article is about the process we used and the challenges we faced.

Crowd Wise is the name of the process we used. I developed it, but it builds as ever on the work of others. It uses preference voting (the form of voting rejected in the AV referendum) which is over 200 years old. The key to the event are a series of options, usually between four and six, for tackling the topic of the event. The titles of the three events at the Dana Centre are typical of the others: With wind energy, the energy varies with the wind. How can we deal with this? Low carbon homes - What should be our priority in reducing electricity demand from our homes What’s the best way to manage personal mobility in London over the next twenty years?

The event begins with a first vote, with people stating their preferences on the basis of a three line description of each option. Then four to six engineers each make the case for one option, taking around five minutes to do so. The audience is divided into small groups. One or more small groups (depending on the size of the audience) take on each option, amending it if they wish, and merging with other options if they think that will help them do better in the second vote. Finally, they present it briefly to everyone else, and a second vote is held. There is a short Q and A with the panel, while the votes are counted, and then the results are presented and explored. These events have taken between two and three hours, although two is a real squeeze. Two big challenges have been:

•    How to get over the need to set priorities among the possible answers.
•    Whether to try and put over the costs of each option, and how to do so without getting into enormous detail

If anyone has faced up to these difficulties, I’d love to hear their thoughts. There’s a blog about the energy event here.

Nature Live in the Field: using technology to inspire interest in local biodiversity

Grace Kimble and Tom Simpson, Natural History Museum

Online communication can be a powerful tool to link young people to scientists studying biodiversity.

In the words of primary teacher Phil Parsons, Chittlehampton Primary in Devon: “It gives the children a chance to visit places they might never go to, and meet people they might never otherwise meet”.

A new project at the Natural History Museum has facilitated digital connections between school groups and scientists.  School groups can meet inspiring scientist role-models, ask questions about their work, and follow them into the field.  We aim  to provide an insight into the processes, relevance and application of current scientific research, and to inspire pupils to explore natural places and collections themselves Scientists, Learning staff, Interactive Media staff and Media Technicians have worked together to produce online opportunities for pupils to engage in the process of understanding biodiversity. A series of interactive events via videoconference and live chat have been supported by class activities on the NHM social media site ‘Nature Plus’. A dedicated secure site allows school pupils and teachers to upload photos of local species to share with experts and compare with other schools.

A team of botanists have just returned from Costa Rica where they were studying plant biodiversity; in March zoologists will be in the Bahamas looking at marine ecosystems.  Pupils can enjoy a live video link directly to the fieldwork site, and will be using data from the fieldwork to present the scientists’ journeys using Google Earth.

Pupils are encouraged to ask questions, starting with a videoconference ‘briefing’ from scientists at NHM.

As scientists travel and explore, they update blogs with species news. Information is interpreted by Learning staff, who encourage schools to take part in real activities and to find out more about their local biodiversity. Live links by videoconference and using Cover It (live chat that can by used in remote places) allow direct links between classrooms and fieldwork:

‘Have you found anything that could be a threat to your local environment?’
Secondary student, Lincoln Castle Academy

‘We are in a national park so it is protected but around the park there are lots of pineapple plantations which are a threat. The data we collect will help the conservation of the national park. Alex is publishing a checklist of plant species for the national park and it has over 3000 different species. Around 60 are endemic which means they are not found anywhere else’
Tom, Nature Live host, live from Costa Rica

When scientists return to the UK, pupils have a videoconference debrief, to look at the implications of the new research, and to develop further contact with schools internationally. The Costa Rican schools virtual learning project CyberHives are helping to facilitate links.

As well as finding out more about the nature of science in real contexts, evaluation shows that pupils value getting to know the scientists and finding out where they are and what they are eating! Results of a pilot study last year showed that 47% of participant teachers had not taken pupils to a natural history collection, and 51% of pupils had not visited a natural history collection. Therefore, harnessing digital methods is one way to reach new audiences and enhance opportunities for learning outside the classroom.

To find out more about this project that aims to blend indoor and outdoor learning about biodiversity, visit the site here.

RI launches video channel

Rob Cawston

The Ri’s recently-launched video channel brings together the best science content from across the web.

The Channel has a range of online videos and resources aimed at the general public and also teachers – from the re-digitised archive of Christmas Lectures  to hands on demos and experiments. The site also brings together the very best online video content across the full spectrum of STEM subjects.
The project combines the latest video technology with an innovative approach to online learning allowing searchable transcripts, captions and additional resources to be published alongside the films. Licensed under Creative Commons, the Ri videos are free to view, embed and download.

The site has been developed in partnership with Microsoft Research and continues the Ri’s charitable mission to connect people to the world of science. The project is currently in ‘Beta’ phase and the Ri are keen to gather audience feedback to inform the next stage of development. You can visit the Ri Channel here.

The Changing Futures project - Creatively exploring Cystic Fibrosis and gene therapy

Laura Winters, Nowgen

A brand new set of online resources - developed by teenagers for teenagers - exploring cystic fibrosis (CF) and gene therapy has been created.

The Changing Futures project, led by Manchester-based Nowgen (a centre for excellence in public engagement, education and training in biomedicine), worked with young people with CF, artists, clinicians, educators and scientists, to create new and interactive ways of understanding and investigating CF and gene therapy. 

Supported by a People Award from the Wellcome Trust, the Changing Futures project held a series of creative workshops to enable young people living with CF to share their experiences of the disease and their expectations and opinions on gene therapy. From these, and with the help of the project team, they conducted interviews with scientists, and produced video diaries, animations, fashion and art, a music mash up video, and classroom resources for teachers.

People with CF are not advised to meet up with each other, due to the risk of cross-infection. Therefore when carrying out this project, all of the teenagers were unable to physically meet, so we had to think of different ways to bring everyone together as a team, such as through the use of social networking sites. This project was very much led by the young people, who shaped both the content and the appearance of the website.

17-year-old Natasha, a young person with CF who was part of the project group, said – “I got involved in the project because there was no resource on the internet, or otherwise, that addressed the concerns teenagers have about gene therapy, there was nowhere that broke it down so it was easy to understand for people my age.

In doing the project I learnt so much myself about gene therapy and also had the opportunity to interview scientists about it. I hope the project informs people my age about what gene therapy is, without being too complicated, nor patronising, as I think it’s important that teenagers with Cystic Fibrosis know more about it, as we hope it will profoundly affect our lives.”

The Changing Futures project comprises three zones: The CF Zone, The Gene Therapy Zone and The Teacher Zone. The first two zones explore how CF is inherited and the effect it has on people’s lives, as well as the history of gene therapy and the latest developments. The third zone is specifically for teachers, it includes activities and experiments, interviews with a range of experts and links to further information, to complement elements of the National Curriculum and A-Level Biology.

“The only way is practise”: Tapping into experience in Bath

Alexander Brown

'Bath Taps Into Science' is an annual science festival, run by the University of Bath.

Part of National Science & Engineering Week, the event attracts local school groups and the “general public,” for want of a better word. Having been offered the chance to run my own stall at this year’s event, I recruited some volunteers from amongst my friends and networks. As for what to actually do on my stall, I was fortunate enough to have At-Bristol loan me half a dozen of their portable exhibits. (This they did free of charge, because I am a volunteer there.)

Within our group, there was a range of experience levels. Although a few had hundreds of hours of engagement behind them, most had a only day’s worth at most. For this reason, we made sure there was always a balanced presence on the stall, offering an opportunity for the “newbies” to observe and learn from their “old hand” colleagues whilst they developed their own skills.

Of course, no science communication intervention would be complete nowadays without some form of evaluation. So I asked my volunteers to write down their thoughts about the day.
Dave, who is studying for a PhD in physics, but who had never previously been involved in public engagement, said “I really enjoyed helping out at the event. I would like to get better at explaining science to the general public and obviously the only way to do this is to practice.” I couldn’t agree more. On the other hand, Dave is being modest about his performance. Bonnie, who has been delivering hands-on projects for 7 years, said that “Dave did an excellent job explaining the mechanisms behind the exhibits at a level the audience could understand.” Anna, another of the newcomers, was representative of the others when she submitted the following: “'I learnt a lot from Bath Taps Into Science. I hadn't done many things like it before and it helped me develop ways of communicating how science works to children in a way that's appropriate for their age.”

Personally, I felt the event went really well. Mixing up the team, most of  whom had never met before, worked exactly as I had hoped. Getting such positive feedback from volunteers is inspiring, and I am glad I was able to provide them with this opportunity.

Turing's Sunflowers: Celebrate Alan Turing’s Centenary year

This spring, MOSI (Museum of Science & Industry) needs your green fingers!

Join MOSI and Manchester Science Festival for a mass planting of sunflowers as part of an experiment to solve the mathematical riddle that Turing worked on before his death in 1954.

The experiment will brighten up Manchester and the Nation, whilst helping mathematicians to explore Turing’s theories about plant growth. The project requires participants to sow sunflower seeds throughout April and May, nurture the plants throughout the summer and when the sunflowers are fully grown they’ll be counting the number of spirals in the seed patterns in the sunflower heads. Don’t worry - expertise will be on hand to help count the seeds and you’ll be able to post your ‘spiral counts’ online so the growing isn't just restricted to the Greater Manchester area.

The results will be announced during the Manchester Science Festival in the Autumn, alongside a host of cultural events connected to Turing’s life and legacy. The project will produce a range of learning resources to help explore the wonder of maths in nature. You can find out more here.

BIG People 

Name: Huw James

Job: Managing Director of To the Blue

A typical day at work could consist of...Walking the dog, Emails, Tea, Script Writing, Presenting, Science Experiments, Tea, Climbing, Demo building, TAX, Meetings with sometimes normal sometimes random people, Tea, Mountain Biking, Skype Calls, Biscuits, Tea, Filming, Running Training Sessions, and maybe some Tea.

What got you into this career? On leaving University I did what most people would do and manage bars for a while. On realising I wanted to do something with my degree, I took a CV to Techniquest (25 years old this year) and before I could get back to the house, they rang me to bring me back in to offer me a job. Everything kind of snow balled from there, it’s a great place to make a start in Science Communication, if you are passionate about what you do.

What is the best thing about your job? I’ve got to say the variety! At the moment I’m running Science Shows across the UK, writing Education Resources for a Land Speed Record Project, organising a 2 month overland education expedition, writing astronomy workshops, looking at the education side of a South Pole project, screen testing for TV documentaries, writing TV science shows and of course, most importantly being a STEM Ambassador!

... and the worst? The ONLY bad thing about my job is being freelance or running your own company brings with it financial uncertainty that you just have to deal with, and when the Tax Wo/Man comes knocking at the door, you have to be ready!

What is your favourite meal? Proper pub lunch! Probably Bangers and Mash. Made with potato and sweet potato, Cumberland sausages and real gravy! But then again, Tesco Egg Mayonnaise sandwiches if we’re going for stats of how many I’ve had!

What is your favourite smell? I find that every show about engineering I’ve ever done has a unique smell, more so than science shows. Whether it’s rocket motors, greasy water or my absolute favourite, flash cotton in black paper ignited with parabolic mirrors! Yum...

What talents do you possess? People look at me funny when I say I’m good at everything. But my point us that I’ve been able to do anything to a decent level but never exceptional at anything. And I’m still not sure which person is best to be, jack of all trades or master of one. I’m now climbing at a pretty decent level and I got some pretty mean Diabolo tricks up my sleeve. In fact I also learned to juggle when we had Carnival Science at the local science centre. I find most of the skills I learn are through science shows. Like being able to retain all your fingers when a fire piston explodes in your hand.

What talents would you like to possess?
I’d really like to have a trade, something like plumbing, carpentry, giraffe wrangler, the ones that are really in demand. Mostly so I have something to offer other people when they do me a favour, other than, do you want to blow some custard powder through a blow torch?

Which actor do you think should play you in the film of your life? This actually came up in a conversation when me and the boys decided we’d look at a film of our lives...I think that Hugh Jackman was decided for me, it was either him or Don Cheadle.

Which living person do you most admire and why?
I have many role models in life, ones for adventure, ones for technology and many more for many interesting things. My role model in Science Communication is and always will be BIG’s very own James Piercy, an amazing presenter, intelligent and witty and SO engaging. He’s always been a father figure to me in Science Communication, alongside Jonathan Sanderson and Elin Roberts as god parents and Colin Jackson and Harry White as some kind of weird double male grandparents. Even though none of the aforementioned people are anywhere old enough to be anything but my brothers and sisters...
Most beautiful place on earth? For me, it’s the North Face of Pen-y-Fan in the height of winter. Half way up a frozen waterfall with nothing but white for as far as the eye can see. Just you and your mates, and a long way down!
What is your Motto for life? Create your own opportunities, nothing will be handed to you on a plate.

With best wishes from the BIG Executive 2011/12…

Andy Lloyd, Chair
Savita Custead, Vice Chair
David Porter, Treasurer
Ashley Kent, Secretary
Brian Macken, General Member
and Sarah Vining, Administrator


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