BIG enews
Spring 2013 edition – Issue 26

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Our annual conference is on the horizon and the programme is starting to take some great shape.

We are thrilled to announce our Keynote Speaker below and we have some other special treats planned for delegates which will be announced over the coming weeks.

During the BIG Event we will be electing the new committee for next year. In particular, we will be on the hunt for a new Chair.

Are any of you interested in representing your peers? Start thinking now, and look out for the call for nominations in the coming weeks.

Sarah Vining,



Keynote for BIG Event Announced!

Rachel Mason, BIG Event Organiser

The BIG Event is not the kind of conference where the delegates decide to come because of the keynote speaker – no Winstons, Attenboroughs and Coxes for us, no no. So I’m not going to try to sell the BIG Event to you with tales of these.

We’re not the kind of folks to turf up for a conf to rub shoulders with the famous when there’s so much to glean from other people doing work just like us. And these keynote-type people charge a FEE, I’ve heard. Outrageous.

I want to find someone each year who will open the BIG Event by bringing along a flavour of the place we are visiting and a twist on the work we are familiar with, without putting the Event beyond the budgets of most of the members. It’s never an easy part of the event to fill but this year we’re really pleased to welcome someone who does all of these things.

Valerie Mellon is based at BBC Scotland in the building just across the way and a pebble’s chuck from the science centre. She works on the production of Nina and the Neurons, one of CBeebies’ flagship science programmes. In each episode Nina joins a family to explore a question posed by a child, involving mum and dad, sisters and brothers in her explorations. Val’s work takes her all over the UK to meet ordinary folks with simple science questions and puts them together into an engaging programme aimed at the under sevens and their families.

Val found out about the BIG Event from a member who took a placement with Nina and the Neurons; when she approached us to find out about coming along as a delegate, we thought that would be a wasted opportunity – why not suck all the stories out of her while she’s with us?

First conversations with Val have been very jolly - she sounds very keen to find out what goodies she can pick up from involvement with BIG and will be staying for the whole Event. She has also asked if I think it might be all right if she maybe brings some ‘things’.

Yes, Val, that will be just fine.

I’m sure Glasgow Science Centre and BBC staff don’t throw pebbles at each other all day, by the way. It’s just a metaphor. Perhaps Val can put us straight about that in July. I think she’ll be good.


Skills Days – Time for a New Model?

Bridget Holligan, Science Oxford and BIG Vice Chair

At the moment we rely on enthusiastic BIG members to offer to coordinate Skills Days based on their own areas of interest or good presenters they have seen etc. and, as Vice Chair, it’s my role to support this process with the aim of having 3-4 Skills Days happening each year around the UK.

Things were all looking good last August: about 8 BIG members, possibly buoyed up by the enthusiasm generated at the BIG Event, had come forward to suggest ideas for events that they would be interested in putting together.

But, you all know how it is, as the BIG Event boost faded away and the reality of people’s lives and jobs took hold, so did my leads for potential BIG Skills Days. We had a fantastic Little Event in January (for which I can take no credit whatsoever), the wonderful Katie Steckles coordinated a Sci-Comedy event in February, and there is another exciting development now in the pipeline looking at how scientists and science communicators can work effectively together - but overall I think it might be a good time (again?!) to see if there was a more effective way of getting a regular programme of BIG Skills Days together.

In addition to the BIG Event (July) and the Little Event (January), I would like to propose that BIG run up to four events in September, November, February and May. The events would link to general themes that we know are of regular, ongoing interest to BIG Members such as presenter skills and impact/evaluation and I would be keen for one day to be specifically aimed at the freelancers in our community. BIG members with relevant skills and expertise would be booked to deliver the skills days and others to help us to source affordable/free venues. As we do now, we would work to ensure that each event was able to cover its direct costs.

Volunteer coordinators would still be as welcome as ever in order to bring depth and variety to the programme, but we would not be as reliant on this approach as we are now in order to enable a regular programme of Skills Days to be put together. This approach does probably mean a bit more work for the Vice Chair but it would be easier to plan and publicise a programme in advance, and to make BIG Skills event a more established and visible benefit for our members.

Please email me in order to find out more or to make suggestions – or come to the AGM at the BIG Event!


Europhysics Fun

Simon Jones and Zoë Randell, science made simple

We’ve just returned from a week in Germany at the Europhysics Fun science communication conference. As the only UK attendees this year, we thought we should write about what the project is and what we learnt from our experience.

Europhysics is an opportunity for various physics communication groups to come together and share ideas, whether they are current students, museum curators, or like us, professional outreach communicators. This year we worked with representatives from the likes of Iceland, Ukraine, Denmark, Portugal and Germany. The conference primarily revolves around the sharing of ideas; be that on different experiments and how to perform them, or with styles of presenting and various ways to engage audiences.

We flew out on a blustery Monday morning, packed with our own show demonstrations. Our destination was Göttingen, a self-proclaimed ‘city of science’ situated in the centre of Germany.

While most of our mornings were spent watching others perform and talk about their shows, there were also a variety of activities designed to improve certain elements of science shows. In one notable example, the Feuerwehr (fire brigade) visited and gave us the opportunity to try out different types of fire extinguisher. It’s useful to know but hopefully not something we’ll need in any of our shows! As well as this, we had a theatre skills workshop where we tried improv games and motion techniques, and we also visited the design headquarters of Phywe, the laboratory equipment manufacturers. Here we were left to undertake our own complicated procedures, such as X-rays and laser diffraction, and melting nails with electricity.

The biggest difference in foreign physics shows we noted, was that they tend to work with grand scale spectacle, often performing to large public audiences rather than schools. As such entertainment plays a much greater role than education.

On our last day we were invited to see the Phaeno Science Museum in Wolfsburg. It was a great way to end our trip and is a fantastic museum to explore.

The Europhysics Fun conference is held annually in different locations across Europe. Next year it’ll be in at Danfoss Universe science discovery centre in Denmark. So if you fancy brushing up on your danske, then we would thoroughly recommend Europhysics Fun 2014!


Cheltenham Science Festival

Penelope Hill, Cheltenham Science Festival

Talking about science is a tricky business. How scientists and the public interact has always been complicated. But, over the last 50 years, we have gone from public understanding of science to public engagement with science.

As science communicators, we hope this means that we have gotten better at facilitating the public dialogue about science. But what has persisted, regardless of terminology, is the barrier to getting people involved with science activities. And that is something that Cheltenham Festivals are in a unique position to breakdown.

At Cheltenham Festivals, we are a family of 4 Festivals: Jazz, Science, Music and Literature. When we ask people who visit the other Festivals why they don’t come to Science, we get responses like “it’s not for me”, “science is for boys” or “I won’t understand it”. And I am sure you have heard it all before and more.

In museology, theorists talk about a threshold fear, something that stops particular people from wanting to visit a museum. When it comes to science events, there is a clear threshold fear. Simply labeling the Festival as ‘science’ is enough, sadly, to reduce the number of potential Science Festival attendees. But when you break down that barrier, the feedback is overwhelmingly positive.

This is where I feel fortunate to work at an organisation where we can collaborate with the Literature, Music or Jazz Teams to programme events that will appeal to their audiences as well as the core science demographic. For example, this year is the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s most popular work: Pride & Prejudice. To celebrate, we are having a Literature event at the Science Festival entitled Pride, Prejudice and the Doctor (sadly not a Doctor Who episode… yet) to explore how attitudes to and practices of medicine have changed over the last 200 years. It is this kind of context that we hope will draw in a different sort of person that may not think science is the right ‘fit’ for them.

The demarcation of science from society, thanks to the 16th Century Baconian interpretation of how science should be practiced, means that we need to emphasise how vital science is to society and vice versa. So much of our modern lifestyle is only possible because of science and technology. From vaccines to keep us safe from diseases like small pox to the Web which allows us access to a wealth of information and connectivity, we are the product of scientific advancement.

So, what I really want to say is that you can’t talk about science in a vacuum (figuratively and literally); you need a story or a frame of reference to draw people in. You need context. You need a hook.


Science in British Sign Language

Audrey Cameron, Chemist, secondary teacher and Science advisor for the Science Signs project at University of Edinburgh

Many Deaf students use British Sign Language (BSL) to communicate, yet there are very few signs used for scientific terms. Teachers working with deaf students have to explain the science terminology using time-consuming fingerspelling or rely on students’ abilities to lip-read.

Science communicators working with deaf signing audiences have also found it difficult to get concepts across, and interpreters report they have had to rely on fingerspelling borrowing from English because of a lack of scientific terms in BSL.

How would you talk about thermodynamics when lip-reading won’t tell you the difference between ‘exothermic reaction’ and ‘endothermic reaction’? This is a problem that we have been trying to solve for the Deaf community to aid Deaf students studying science. Our solution is to work with a team of 16 Deaf scientists and sign linguists from across the UK to collect and develop new signs for science.

Since 2007, the team based at the Scottish Sensory Centre (SSC) of the University of Edinburgh, has collected and developed over 850 BSL signs for biology, chemistry and physics. Video clips of the signs can be seen on the Glossary website.

We have tried to make the signs iconic to represent scientific terms to make it easier for deaf children to understand the scientific concepts. We also make sure that the signs build on one another to help convey the scientific relationships between the terms. For example – mass, weight and density.

The closed fist hand shape represents ‘mass’ and it is part of the signs for these three terms. For weight, you pull the fist down (to represent gravity acting on the mass) and for density, you use the other hand to ‘cover’ the mass and open to represent low density and close over the hand to represent high density.

There are other websites with signs for science but our glossary is unique because we include video clips of definitions and laboratory experiments in BSL and written English.

Since the launch of the glossaries, the team has promoted them nationally and internationally in schools, conferences, science festivals and workshops.

In this article the term Deaf is used to mean people who use BSL as their first or preferred language, whilst deaf refers to all other groups of people with hearing loss.


Stem cell stories – an unusual competition

Emma Kemp, EuroStemCell

A couple of months ago, our Writer in Residence, Barbara Melville, opened a lunchtime conversation with the question, ‘What do you think about writing competitions?’

By the end of my sandwich, we were discussing essays, comics, poems and a list of potential judges. The EuroStemCell non-fiction writing competition was born.

‘Not another science writing competition’, I hear you cry. I might have felt the same, but for some unusual twists we’ve added to the mix:

  • Creative categories – imaginative science writing, graphic non-fiction and non-fiction poetry. Yes, I did say poetry! There’s more about what the categories involve and some examples to inspire you on the competition website.
  • Collaboration – you don’t have to go it alone. If you’ve got an idea for a graphic story but drawing is not your forte, collaborate! If you’re not a native English speaker or writing just isn’t your thing but there’s a brilliant picture in your head, collaborate! If you’re a poet at heart but know nothing about stem cell biology, collaborate!
  • Stem cell theme – all entries must focus on the fascinating and varied topic of stem cells and regenerative medicine. Surprise us by looking at the science from an angle we’ve never considered before.

We’ve also got a fabulous panel of judges: science fiction writer Ken McLeod, graphic artist Edward Ross, journalist and Director of External Affairs for the Science Museum Group Roger Highfield, writer and storyteller Emily Dodd (of CBeebies Nina and the Neurons fame) and Debbie Sweet, editor of the scientific journal Cell Stem Cell.

What can you win? Fame and fortune! In the form of 300 Euros and dissemination of your work by EuroStemCell if you bag the first prize in any category. Two runners up in each category get 50 Euros each. The deadline for entries is 30th June 2013.

The competition is open to everybody worldwide regardless of age, scientific expertise or writing experience, with just a few exceptions: Professionally published writers, poets or graphic artists may not enter; individuals named on the EuroStemCell grant, their employees and families are also excluded from entering. Please check our full competition terms and conditions online before you get started.

Get the full details by clicking here.


MP becomes Patron of Women’s Engineering Society

Dawn Bonfield, WES Vice President

Meg Munn MP has become Patron of the Women’s Engineering Society, the oldest women’s engineering group in the world which works towards increasing gender diversity in engineering.

The MP will be working with the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) to help ensure that more female students from science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects go on to careers in the professions after graduating, as currently less than half of STEM graduates do so. The Society will also be working with the MP to support companies and organisations to increase gender diversity, and to launch a new awareness day to celebrate Women in Engineering in June 2014, which will mark the 95th anniversary of the Women’s Engineering Society.

Meg Munn MP said, “I am delighted to become patron of the Women’s Engineering Society and I am looking forward to working with them to address some of the issues facing women in STEM. We know that the new innovations that will help us all to live longer and improve our quality of life will come from the next generation of scientists, technologists and engineers. Yet, we know that there are job vacancies in these fields, where women continue to be underrepresented. The work of the Women’s Engineering Society will play a vital role in ensuring that these issues are addressed as they are important for us all.”

Dawn Bonfield, WES Vice President, said, “We know that more women are needed in engineering to increase the thought diversity that is necessary to solve the global engineering challenges we face as a society. One of the challenges is to get the message over to the younger generation of girls that engineering is a great career to follow.”

For more information on the Women’s Engineering Society please visit:


Graphene is theme for Festival’s science communicator

Marieke Navin, Manchester Science Festival

A University of Manchester graphene researcher and lecturer who has encouraged more than 20,000 people to learn about the amazing potential of the wonder material has won this year’s Joshua Phillips Award for Innovation in Science Engagement (Josh Award) at MOSI (Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester).

As part of the Award Dr. Aravind Vijayaraghavan from The University of Manchester’s School of Computer Science, will be this year’s Science Communicator in Residence at the Manchester Science Festival (26 October – 4 November).

Graphene, the world’s strongest, thinnest and most conductive material, is expected to revolutionise products of the future. From ultra-fast transistors, to better medical imaging, or even as a replacement for silicon in computers, Aravind’s work to promote the importance of graphene to school children and adults helps place Manchester at the forefront of this internationally important innovation, and encourages more people to choose careers which support its development here in the UK.

The University of Manchester is building the £61M National Graphene Institute, which will see scientists working alongside industry to help develop future applications.

Aravind uses simple hands-on activities, games, models and videos to explain how Nobel-Prize-winning laureates Professor Andre Geim and Professor Kostya Novoselov first managed to isolate the single atomic layers of graphite – known as graphene. Aravind is working to develop a visually engaging project for the Festival that aims to inspire visitors about the unique and beautiful structures of graphene and other polymers. Dr Aravind Vijayaraghavan said: “The development of graphene could change the way we think about everything from personal electronics to medicine. Through my public engagement work, I hope to inspire more people to pursue science education and careers, perhaps even a career in graphene technology, and to promote Manchester's role in this important development.”

The Josh Award is named after the late Joshua Phillips, who was a science communicator at MOSI and a Chair of BIG.


World Space Week Grants Available

Penny Fidler, ASDC

4-10 October 2013 is World Space Week.

ASDC is pleased to announce that in partnership with the Science and Technologies Facilities Council, we are offering 10 small grants to ASDC members to celebrate World Space Week by engaging schools and the public in the UK’s amazing research and development relating to space science, satellite engineering, earth observation, space exploration and much more.

The grant will be simple and quick turn around, and will close on May 22. All the details are available here.

BIG People

Name: Carol Walthew

Job: Heritage Lottery Fund, Skills for the Future, Museums and Botanic Garden Education and Outreach Officer Trainee, with the Oxford University Museums and Collections (OUMC).

A typical day at work could consist of… the perfect combination of some structured training together with time being thrown in at the deep end! The HLF state: “Skills for the Future funds work-based training in a wide range of skills that are needed to look after buildings, landscapes, habitats, species, and museum and archive collections, as well as equipping people to lead education and outreach programmes, manage volunteers and use new technology.” With my first six-month placement, at the Museum of the History of Science, drawing to a close, I can hardly believe what I have managed to achieve in this supported role. Look out for a website all about the traineeship programme, coming soon…

What got you into this career? It was the desire to leave academic research (Experimental Psychology). When I starting using all of my annual leave to volunteer at science festivals friends and colleagues started forwarding me science centre/museum job emails – I was grateful for their input. After my Fellowship I got a job as an Enabler at Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum, where I stayed for three, enjoyable years before I made the move to my current post in Oxford.

What is the best thing about your job? Getting to work with three of the OUMC institutions' Education Departments; I’m spending six months at each of the following: Museum of the History of Science; Ashmolean; Arboretum & Botanic Garden. I’m savouring every minute because I know this is a rare opportunity.

... and the worst? The traineeship is only 18 months long. I’d like to spend a longer period at each and every one of the University museums - the diversity on offer is so exciting.

What is your favourite meal? If I’m eating I’m happy, that’s a given. However I do really like meals with lots of little different dishes, taking my palette from one delicious surprise to another. The staff lunch buffets at the inaugural Abu Dhabi Science Festival put me in a delirious, multi-dish spin.

What is your favourite smell? The smell of a newly creosoted garden shed in the summer.

What talents do you possess? I don’t have any natural talents but I am stubborn, self-motivated and I like a challenge, which has helped me have the illusion of some talents along the way.

What talents would you like to possess?
It frustrates me that I’ve been unable to learn another language, despite repeated attempts. I’ve had a wee bit of success with BSL so I hope to find the time to pursue this further. Failing this, I’d like the sporting talent to win an Olympic medal.

Which actor do you think should play you in the film of your life? My Mum nailed this one on the head, she said “Miranda Hart: you’re both tall and accident prone!”

Which living person do you most admire and why? No-one is perfect, but I do admire people who choose to face extreme challenges that seem to require superhuman mental and physical strength. Ranulph Fiennes, Ellen MacArthur and Felix Baumgartner, to name but a few.

Most beautiful place on earth? Sitting on a bicycle.

What is your Motto for life? You always have more to give, always.

With best wishes from the BIG Executive 2012-13…

Andy Lloyd, Chair
Bridget Holligan, Vice Chair
David Porter, Treasurer
Ashley Kent, Secretary
Ben Craven, Ordinary Member
Rachel Mason, Event Organiser
and Sarah Vining, Administrator

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