BIG e-news: Autumn 2014 edition – Issue 30

As your re-elected Chair, I offer this welcome to BIG and another year of action and activity from the science communication skills-sharing network. Many of you will have had your first taste of BIG at the Event in Oxford while others will be celebrating fifteen years as part of what has been called 'a benign cult' (see article below)Whether new or old, I hope that you will join in BIG's other activities and join the wonderful BIG Chat email list. Look out for a new calendar of events that will be published shortly as we hope to have a great programme of skills days this year. This group has something of enormous value which cannot be bought, never wears out and provides never-ending support. That unique and priceless commodity is of course - you lot. 

James Piercy, Chair

(adjacent picture from L-R: Gillian Pearson, first Chair of BIG, Steven Williams, BIG Demo competition winner 2014, and James Piercy)

BIG Event 2014: Reviews from our Bursary Winners

Last Spring I had a telephone conversation with a lovely lady called Rachel Mason. She asked me about my work and told me all about BIG. She said “I REALLY think you should join, you’ll like it”. She was right.

I had felt rather alone as a freelancer plying my science shows and workshops around Oxfordshire schools but now I have an amazing network of contacts from all over the country. At the BIG Event I was utterly bowled over by just how willing everyone was to share techniques and tips. There were so many diverse sessions I found it very hard to choose which to attend. I decided to focus on improving my performances, learning how to do the freelance thing properly and seeing more established communicators Doing Their Stuff.

I learned how to breathe and buzz, developed techniques to train my audience and was reassured that I’m right to be cautious about Tax. The demo sessions were great fun and reminded me what it’s like to be at the other end of the performance. I’ve taken my own children to a few science shows but the different demo sessions gave me a great insight into the enormous range of techniques different presenters employ. What I’ll take away from the BIG Event is how generous and patient everyone was with newbie like myself. Thank you for my bursary and for making me feel so welcome, I’ll be back again!

- Dr Sarah Bearchell, Sarah's Adventures in Science

Heading to Oxford for the BIG Event I didn’t know exactly how the next few days were going to pan out, but I was pretty sure it was going to be a lot of fun – I wasn’t wrong. The event was as fast paced as I’d expected, and there was little time to sit around planning which sessions I’d attend before being thrown into the BIG Mingle.  Racing around the OUMNH and Pitt Rivers Museums led to a lot of laughs, and a list of people I wanted to chat to when there was an opportune moment.

I’d earmarked several sessions that I really wanted to attend - and my boss had picked a few more.  I dashed around trying to get to as many as possible, and found the talks to be very engaging with lots of opportunities to get a bit hands-on.  I picked up lots of top tips as well as some new ideas that I can’t wait to try in the future. 

It’s difficult to pick a favourite session, but a quick trip behind the scenes to visit the Oxford dodo during ‘What can objects do for you?’ was a definite high point!  ‘Working with researchers’ was particularly useful as I’m currently developing new ways of engaging our Fellowship in our education programme – and I’m now desperate to give glass fusing a go.  It also has to be said that there was as much to be gained from a quick chat over coffee or in the pub as from the structured sessions – networking is key after all.

Without a doubt the highlight for me was the Best Demo competition – we laughed, cheered, crossed our fingers and hoped for the best, then headed out to the museum courtyard for a fab dinner and post-demo-analysis.  A few glasses of wine and some table-top games helped the evening along, and I left not only with a renewed enthusiasm for my day job, but with some new found friends too.  I’ve been a member of BIG for several years now, and this is the first time I’ve made it to the BIG Event – it certainly won’t be the last! 

- Hazel Leeper, The Linnean Society of London

What better place to think about public engagement in STEM subjects than the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum? Surrounded by a very imposing T.Rex and its court, a Canadian totem pole, and lots of excited museum visitors, we learned about HOCinc, OOSing, and TOOTing, saw a leaf blower turned into a hover craft, attended insightful sessions on anything from networking to reaching under-served audiences, and marvelled at the Best Demo Competition.

My personal favourite was the session on 'Learning from Objects'. Not only did we get to handle some exciting objects ourselves (there was fossilised dinosaur poo, amongst other things), we were also treated to an illuminating discussion of how we can use objects---made or natural, original or replica---to tell stories and to increase the impact of what we are trying to get across. An excellent illustration was the 'Oh, wow!' from everyone in the session when two bones were passed around the room. From a distance, both bones looked very similar. When we picked them up, however, each one of us was struck by how much lighter one bone was than the other: they turned out to be thigh bones from a cow and from an ostrich, and that tactile experience has now made the abstract understanding of bird bones much more vivid in my mind.
The absolute highlight of the session, was the end: we were led into one of the back rooms at the Museum to see the remains of a stuffed dodo, one of only a few remaining specimens. To me, the powerful impact of seeing that dried dodo head with centuries of amazing history behind it, really brought to life the session's message that an object, particularly an original, can be incredibly effective at getting an audience excited and emotionally engaged.

But even with all of that, the best part of BIG are, of course, the people. There were actors and scientists, there were staff from museums and science centres, there were science communicators both young and old, there even was a magician! And what really stood out for me throughout those three days, what amazed me more than the T. Rex or the bones or the dodo, was how eager everybody was to share, to help, and to collaborate; it really did feel like, despite our vastly different backgrounds, we were all part of a one BIG community. This year's BIG Event was my first, but I'm sure it won't be my last.

- Nico Kronberg, The University of Edinburgh

Event Venue for 2015 – wherever next and whatever for?

In 1996 the New Scientist reported on the discovery of an as-yet-unheard-of-by-most-folks group of individuals called ‘fabricators’. These folks were ‘an eclectic mix of people’ with ‘simple raw materials, ideas and ingenuity’. There was also mention in the esteemed journal, of battered bicycles, old ladders, torn dishcloths and jam jars. Hmm; fancy.

Well, that’s how the BIG Event started out and over the years the membership has shifted from the bicycle-batterers to a much broader set: STEM communicators of all shapes and sizes and with skills and needs beyond exhibit design and construction. That’s how BIG has grown.

But the dishcloth-tearers are still among us and they have always been keen to make sure making stuff forms part of BIG’s reason to get together and learn from each other. Interestingly, over the last few years we have found that more and more members – not from a fabricator background – want the opportunity to try designing and screwing together their own interesting science demos, exhibits and wotnot.

This year at the BIG Event in Oxford, people REALLY wanted to set about tinkering in this way and so for the next Event we’d like to make a concerted effort to make this happen on a grander scale, (among other things of course). It’s more work, but it’s worth it, according to …well, a lot of you.

Funnily enough our host venue for 2015 lends itself rather well to this plan. We’re heading somewhere a bit different – to the John Innes Centre in Norwich on 22-24 July – so flirt those dates into your diary.

It’s not a science centre, it’s not a museum, so we’ll have to make our own when we get there. But it is stuffed to the gills with real science and scientists, so if that hasn’t got ideas and ingenuity for us, I can’t think what has.

That’s not all we plan for the next BIG Event but we hope it’ll be part of it and it needs your help and ideas. If you want to help put this in to gear, get in touch with me now please. I need you.

Rachel Mason, Event Organiser

Saw this and thought of you 

May I ask you a load of questions, with almost no time for answers?! Is BIG a “Benign Cult”? (emphasis on ‘benign’). Are we changing the world? Can we be Revolutionary? Can we aim for social change? Could we be? Do we want to be? Should we be? Is an educated populace something that can be imagined? Achieved in our lifetime. Can the world as we know it survive without this? Are there torches that could be passed on, carried, or newly created? Could we do this in harmony with spreading the joy and fun of learning, whilst in no way displacing the joy and the fun? Can we deal with serious subjects and maintain a sense of humour? Can we attend to and act responsibly towardstroubling issues without being overwhelmed by the magnitude? By the negative? Can we put our feet up on the footstool, from time to time? Can we learn to Zoom out, Zoom in, Zoom out, Zoom in? Can we maintain perspective? Being mindful of the Big Picture while working hard in the trenches? For what kinds of science literacy can we aim? Can we imagine supplementing the understanding of science facts with the engendering of hard headed skills of general discernment and evaluation? Evaluation of the information bombarding us in every day life? From news media, product sellers and politicians? Which are true? Which are lies? Which are a mixture? What common, mindless beliefs in our societies might become targets for us? Can we explore new territories such as linking with community mental health agencies? Describing personal health experiences? Can we apply science method/perspective to every day life? Can we imagine social workers on staff at a science centre? Do we know that the annual conference theme of a major museum association is “Picture of Health: Museums, Wellness & Healthy Communities”? May the force and the spirit of BIG be with you! Thanks for listening.

Ken Gleason, Hands-On Science

ASDC Annual Conference: Review

I had the pleasure, recently, to represent BIG and join our friends at the Association of Science Discovery Centres for their annual conference. The theme for the day of talks and networking was “Opening the doors to Science: How do we inspire and engage those hard to reach groups?"

It was great to see strong links between research and practice through the day. A key recommendation of the Wellcome informal science review undertaken last year was to build these links and I know that some BIG members are working closely with researchers to make sure their activity meets the needs of the groups they work with. There is still work to do here and I’d love to see more researchers joining us. Session at next year’s BIG Event anyone?

A few important pieces of work were mentioned which I’m sure many of you will have read. Those that haven’t, try and find time to squeeze in a browse of the links below. In particular I’d draw your attention to the Aspires work from King’s and the concept of ‘science capital’ They suggest that to drive aspirations we should increase this capital- a personal investment and interest in science amongst families. Seems to make sense- if you grow up in a house full of books you’re much more likely to be a lifelong reader and maybe an author too.

As always it strikes me that we need to take care to remember other people aren’t like us- others don’t share the kind of capital that we have in our families and we shouldn’t assume they do. I write this on the day that my 9 year old proudly took into class the notes he had made on Newton over breakfast!

The King’s team found that most kids like science at school but hardly any want to do it, how can our programmes help develop this capital and break the ‘not for me’ attitude of many. There were some interesting examples during the day, of projects working with underserved groups and ways to change how centres can make their offer more accessible. I look forward to hearing more about these schemes if you’re involved in one why not write a piece for BIG news or tell us about it on BIG-chat.

2013 Wellcome trust- informal science learning 

2013 Kings College- Aspires Young people’s science and career aspirations, age 10-14

2014 Royal society - vision for science and mathematics education

2014 Bis - charter for science and society 

James Piercy, science made simple

RI's L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre

What is your mental picture of a scientist?  I’m hoping that has moved on from a glasses wearing, mad haired, older man in a white coat, but it is likely that some stereotypes persist and I see it as part of my job as manager of the L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre (LYSC) at the Royal Institution  to dispel these when they do not reflect the reality of scientific endeavour. At the centre we have just finished an intensive two weeks of STEM (Science, Technology, Education and Mathematics) workshops. These are normally for school or home educated groups but out of term time we offer them for general booking by young people between the ages of 7 and 18.

It is always an educational experience for me and the team to glance through the comments on our evaluation forms as well as talking to the students to get some idea of their diversity.

The aims of the LYSC, are to offer workshops that engage students and are enjoyable but also to challenge preconceptions about science and scientists stressing that science is a creative process. Comments from 10 year old Lucy who said The workshop was so much fun, I forgot I didn’t like science!’ show that we are achieving this at least on a subjective level and our evaluation gives some quantitative measure; on preliminary analysis well over 80% of the 220 attendees said they had a more positive attitude towards science and of the remaining 20% many volunteered the information that they were already very positive about science.

However this got me thinking about what the preconceptions we are challenging are, why they may put intelligent young people off continuing their studies in the science disciplines, and how we can find out if our activities are successful in challenging and removing these barriers.

In my view many prejudices against science stem from ideas that it is a simply a huge number of facts to be learned and logically fitted together, that scientists are hyper intelligent but a bit self absorbed and a (modern) view that they are at the opposite end of the scale from artists.

Even a modest biographical scan of some leading scientists will show that this latter assumption has no basis in fact. From Leonardo da Vinci’s classical art to Humphrey Davy’s poetry and Richard Feynman’s bongo playing it is obvious that many scientists have an artistic outlet.  It should not be considered a reasonable assumption that they do not use this creative side in their scientific work, indeed a quote from Michael Faraday shows the exact opposite, I am no poet, but if you think for yourselves, as I proceed, the facts will form a poem in your minds

And Davy was equally clear about a need for discovery in science “Nothing is so fatal to the progress of the human mind as to suppose that our views of science are ultimate; that there are no mysteries in nature; that our triumphs are complete, and that there are no new worlds to conquer”

At the LYSC we try to engender this spirit of discovery and not so much to focus on the facts behind the workshops, although these obviously come up in conversation and demonstration, but on the process and on students being allowed to try things out

One of our most rewarding workshops in this sense is our ‘eggsporter’ where students have to work in teams to produce a cardboard vehicle capable of safely carrying an egg ‘driver’ at high speed into a wall. Although occasionally messy it is brilliant to see students put into practice Newton’s laws of motion and Galileo’s dynamics to produce stiff passenger cells and energy absorbing crumple zones. The truly remarkably thing is that they often produce innovative AND aesthetically pleasing designs and then try their hardest to cover them up with a cardboard skin as if embarrassed by their engineering.

One of our original workshops is making shampoo. Before lunch students design experimental tests to assess the specifications of various shampoos and then follow a standard recipe for their first version of a product. The real meat of the workshop comes after lunch when students combine the results of the tests and their knowledge of the function of the various ingredients to attempt to produce a shampoo that fits their own specification with the right amount of foam, viscosity or grease dispersing power for an individual product. This was communicated by 12 year old Lyra  from Bedfordshire who “enjoyed testing our first try at shampoo! (Very Gloopy), then improving it”.

So some evidence that the idea of science being a sterile subject can be successfully challenged and many of the young people who pass through the centre go away clear that there is a whole world out there for them personally to investigate. However, the belief that science is not a creative discipline is deep rooted and we need to continue to dispel it at every turn.

Last month Professor Alice Roberts reported that she was astonished that students she met did not see the sciences as creative disciplines. We certainly we get our fair share of young people who have a great scientific vocabulary and amazing memory for the retention of facts but lack deeper understanding of a topic and struggle to design half decent experiments; they are often shocked when we ask them to make choices and decisions in our workshops. To some extent  this lack of experimental awareness is due to a preconception that science is just a body of knowledge and all that remains is for the student to acquire as much of it as possible.  Often our schools are forced to fit in the teaching of advanced ideas before children have had a chance to play (experiment) with those ideas (and make mistakes themselves). The University of Chicago school mathematics program states that ‘If children are introduced to abstract concepts before they have a solid basis for understanding those concepts; they tend to resort to memorization and rote learning, which is not a solid foundation for further learning’.

My last thought is actually one of slight irritation, whilst going through evaluation forms for our ‘Spectacular colour Chemistry’ summer school where students use pomegranates to produce two different fabric dyes, I came across an answer from a 14 year old girl from London to our standard question about what else she would want to investigate:

“I would like to dye more fabrics with a wider variety of veg and fruit” – Coralline

My immediate reaction was ‘well go on then – we have given you the tools and the knowledge!’ Have we really shackled the present generation so much that they only feel they can do science in the controlled conditions of a laboratory under the supervision of more highly qualified scientists?

My message to Coralline? Go pick some berries put some gloves on and experiment, in your kitchen, in the shed, anywhere.

David Porter (this article was originally published on the RI blog)

BIG People

Name: Ruth Perkins

Job: Science Communicator for science made simple and Chemistry with Cabbage

A typical day at work consists of I’m not sure I’ve ever had two days similar enough to know! I’d be travelling to somewhere new, meeting interesting people, sharing my love of STEM and music, keeping up with the brilliant science and food festivals coming up, developing something new, and telling people about BIG.

What got you into this career? A physics degree, being cheeky, Dr Who, and David Price! The Dr Who exhibition brought me to MOSI where I met David and instantly wanted to be a planetarium presenter like him.

What is the best thing about your job? Doing varied work with a really talented bunch of friendly people who love what I love!

... and the worst? Occasional early morning starts. There should be only one 5 o’clock in a day!

What is your favourite meal? Sashimi, anything Japanese!

What is your favourite smell? Basil. Where can I get some basil perfume?

What talents do you possess? I can play a basic tune on any instrument, can write and speak some Japanese, and can pour a perfect pint.

What talents would you like to possess? Build things like Dave Ansell, fill a space like David Hall, and tease an audience like Ashley Kent

Which actor do you think should play you in the film of your life? Robert Downey Jr.

Which living person do you most admire and why? Ben Craven for his ability to fascinate and intrigue people, in such an understated way, with original creative work, and his general loveliness!

Most beautiful place on earth? Venice

What is your Motto for life? What if?


With best wishes from the BIG Executive 2014-15:

James Piercy, Chair
Bridget Holligan, Vice Chair
Lucy Moorcraft, Treasurer
Ben Craven, Secretary
Greg Foot, Ordinary Member
Ruth Perkins, Ordinary Member
Rachel Mason, Event Organiser
and Sarah Vining, Administrator

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