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BIG e-news: Winter 2017 edition - Issue 38

Announcing BIG and Little Events 2017!

We are delighted to announce our return to Newcastle next summer as the BIG Event 2017 will be hosted by Centre for Life on 19-21 July. It's been seven whole years since we were hosted by the Life team so it'll be a great opportunity to see their new exhibitions and how things have developed over the years. Our call for session proposals will open in the new year so keep an eye out in your inboxes and on BIG's social media sites for more information.

Thanks to support from Thinktank Birmingham Science Museum, The Little Event will also take place again in 2017!  This one-day conference is for early-career STEM communicators who are keen to suck the knowledge and experience out of those who have been at it for ages. It is also an excellent opportunity to make professional and friendly relationships with others in similar work, or to update job-hunting skills for those hoping to take a next step in their careers. The full programme is being finalised and will be announced very soon. The price is just £45 for BIG members. You can find out more and book your place here.


Break the ice with an Apple

Kevin Gunan Shang, University of Manchester

As a STEM Ambassador on career services, the most embarrassing moment is the dreadful silence – no pupils feel like talking to you or asking questions. Therefore, doing some preparation beforehand is quite necessary. 

Now I understand that it is quite normal for the pupils to feel a little nervous when approaching someone from outside. Every one of us tends to get a bit shy at first; we have no clue what this other person is like. Breaking the ice is essential in STEM career activities and will stimulate the social interaction with the young generation, leading to more productive and comfortable conversations.  

Different from other social settings, a unique advantage in STEM communication is that you can always fill your ice breakers with some latest research findings and fancy tech products. For my experience, talking about the link between my scientific research and the Apple products is always like a magic power during my career talk. Teenage students are so full of zest and have a wealth of knowledge of tech. This topic provides them the opportunity to share things about themselves and gets them moving. Some told me how they enjoy using the iPhone and iPads; some were more curious about the meeting I had with the people from the States; some just kept asking my opinion on what the next generation of iPhone would be like. After this icebreaker, I am able to feel the tension and nervousness dissolved, and find it much easier to interact with the pupils on their career choice in STEM afterwards. 

There is a STEM fire in pupils` heart, but you have to find something powerful to light it. A proper ice breaker might be the starting point. 

HYPATIA: Gender Inclusivity in STEM

Shaaron Leverment, The UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres

“Getting young people enthusiastic for STEM: It’s not as hard as adults think it is!”  This is the first sentence of one of the blogs produced by teenagers for the EU Horizon 2020 project ‘Hypatia’.  It summarises the need to work together with teenagers. 

At the Association for Science and Discovery Centres (ASDC) we are leading the UK involvement in the Hypatia Project. The project aims to kick start greater collaboration between teenagers, science centres, schools, researchers, gender experts, policy makers and industry partners, in order to effectively engage and encourage 13-18 year old teenagers with STEM learning and future careers.

The project encourages teenagers, regardless of gender, to value their own experiences and interests and reflect on the relevance of science within their lives.  One of the key instruments produced by Hypatia is a modular toolkit of activities and resources which engage young people in a gender-inclusive way. Drawn from existing European good practices, the toolkit includes a wide range of innovative hands-on activities, such as workshops, meet-the-expert sessions, speed dating, games and debate scenarios. These resources can be implemented by teachers, informal learning organisations, researchers and industry.  They include both activities and gender facilitation guidelines and this toolkit is a free resource that will be available for all in 2017.

At ASDC, one of our roles is to discuss, translate, develop and implement modules from this toolkit in order to ensure what we disseminate is high impact, relevant and excellent. For this purpose we are creating a national Hypatia Hub.  We are pulling together organisations and individuals who are passionate and experienced in science education and engagement with teenagers.  Our hub consists of informal and formal science learning institutions, local and national authorities, experts in this sector and teenagers themselves. In addition to using the toolkit, we aim to continue the work of addressing the attitudes of science education professionals towards more gender-inclusive practices and look towards a national strategy that can be adopted during teacher, science presenter or STEM ambassador training.  
Teenagers are also being invited to take part in an editorial panel, producing content for the “Expect Everything” website and social media, a communication campaign that provides a forum for teenagers to share their interest and identity with science.

This project is taking place across 14 European countries.  In the UK we spring into action in 2017 with events in schools and science centres across the UK.  If you would like to get involved with the National Hypatia Hub and would be willing to share experience and best practice alongside disseminating our findings, please get in touch

Isaac Physics Widening Participation

Dr. Lloyd Cawthorne

On a cold November's evening in Manchester the University's physics department is still open. Tables have been moved around, extra chairs have been found and a fresh batch of tea, coffee, biscuits, and orange juice has been delivered. What is the event for? Well just over a month earlier a free to attend voluntary event was set up for A-level students to do extra physics questions. These questions do not count one iota towards their A-level mark, nor are they advanced problems about say astro- or particle physics. The event is titled “Isaac Physics workshop: Problem solving with vectors”. How many do you think would attend? All 40 available places were reserved two weeks before the event, this was then extended to 50 places and those extra ten sold out the same day.

On the night, little by little, students start entering. Some had made a 30 minute train journey across Greater Manchester just to be there. We mix them up, to ensure they make new friends, and they start doing problems. Forty minutes into the workshop, many of the pupils are stuck on the same question. On each table one of them asking “If the 20cm long big clock hand has the same speed from 16:00 to 16:30, what is it's velocity at 16:15?”. Some five minutes later, after much discussion, they begin to realise that they've forgotten to specify the direction of the movement. Suddenly half the room has a  “light-bulb” moment that snowballs round the room, as students explain what they have realised to their new friends.

Later on we enter the main task of the workshop. By making use of Pythagoras' theorem, simultaneous equations, some common sense, and some physics we derive an equation to describe Brownian diffusion; the very same one Einstein used to show the existence of atoms. The kids were very surprised to find that a typical air molecule will have billions of collisions per second rather than the thousands they guessed earlier.

There are thousands of activities running across the country showing kids how interesting science can be, and more often than not they are very good. But, sometimes, a little more is needed to encourage a child to pursue that interest. Isaac Physics is an organisation set up to do just that: to build a child's confidence so they know they can pursue physics beyond high-school. There are currently over 45,000 registered users, quite an increase from the 5,000 two years ago. On-line there are over a thousand free questions combining both A-level physics and maths, with questions that are far less 'scaffolded' than what they see in high-school. On top of the on-line resources, there are hundreds of workshops taking place across the country.

I have just started a post-doc working with both the University of Manchester and Isaac Physics to spread the word about Isaac to both students and teachers in Greater Manchester. Already we have several workshops planned for the new year on vectors, exponentials and calculus and already kids have started signing up. I wonder how many light-bulb moments we'll see?


Things to do with liquid nitrogen

Ian Dunne, Do Science

Liquid nitrogen is wonderful, I use it when I can and if you can get hold of it easily then it is super stuff, but to transport it any distance is a bit of a nightmare, there are lots of regulations. Here is a link and here is one about handling

You must treat it with care, I have heard of a situation where it was spilt in the boot of a car and froze the whole thing, so much so that the next day all the paint fell off, still better that than your foot. And I heard tell of one presenter who got theirs from a well known biological warfare research station and then took it into schools, I am sure it was safe but can't help thinking of how glad I am I never heard of accidental release of Sarin in a primary school. 

It is very cold, boiling point -195.79 degrees C so the bulk of the liquid must be considerably below that. Remember it is not just the cold that is a problem but also the displacement of oxygen rich air in a confined place could have a raft of problems. Pouring on the floor is great but you must make sure it cannot get onto people feet, one guy froze somebodies toes.

My top 5 are:

5. Have a large plastic box, over 10L of warm water and pour in some nitrogen, the most wonderful clouds of water vapour will cascade out. If you have some washing up liquid in there too, it will make a bubble monster fit for Dr Who.

4. Self peeling satsuma. Pop a satsuma into a dewar and leave for a minute of so and then remove, drop it and all the peel comes off.

3. Make liquid oxygen, either pass gaseous O2 through a pipe in LN2 and collect or use a metal ladle, put LN2 in the suitably supported ladle and then collect the LO2 straight from the air. Please note liquid oxygen is fiercely dangerous.

2. Banana into a hammer, simply place the banana into the dewar, when it is hard use it as a hammer to drive a nail into a block of wood. I once saw somebody do this where supposedly he put his finger in the LN2  froze that too, and snapped it off, it was a frankenfurter not his finger. This could mentally scar an audience.

1. There are loads more, but simple is often best and my personal favourite is to blow up a balloon and then pop it into the dewar, the air condenses and then when it comes out and warms up it re-inflates, if I were you I would learn to make a balloon animal and then ask the audience if they think he should go in head first or tail first.


 A Churchill Fellowship research trip in Korea

 Rick Hall

 I've been in Korea for the first part of my Churchill  Fellowship research into creativity and STEM Education,  and send this note of my travels. 

 Creativity and innovation are top priorities in Korea  (always try  to avoid 'South' K because it is an unwelcome  reminder that  there is a North Korea across the DMZ),  and there are signs of  how important these learning  capabilities are in every glittering  street and  advertisement.  And the sensory overload of  flashing  images, health care products and techno wizardry  really  do evoke Blade Runner on steroids. Not to mention kimchi - the ubiquitous fermented cabbage. 

I was fortunate to visit the Korean Advanced Institute for Science and Technology, KAIST, in Daejeon in October and find myself as a judge in the World Creativity Festival with teams of gifted and talented students from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia as well as the home teams from Korea competing for prizes and awards.  The pressure to succeed, no, lets not beat about the bush, the pressure to win, was intense, especially as many teams had brought parents along for the ride.  As the awards were announced there were tears of joy and distress in equal floods. The event took place in the Faculty of Creativity at KAIST, a huge campus of innovation. 

And over the same weekend, the Daejeon Science Festival attracted thousands of visitors.  I was pleased to see many attractions that would be familiar to BIG readers - non-Newtonian fluids, and drone demos among the hundreds of of stands. The science park also contained some familiar figures such as the one in the image above.

Rick's blog of his travels with the Winston Churchill Fellowship to Korea and India can be read here.


Stop! Collaborate & Listen

Chris Hall, Aurora Communications

Now, more than ever we need to work together. Following Brexit, Donald Trump is now the president elect in the USA. We live in politically and socially unnerving and unpredictable times, meaning the future of science is more uncertain than ever.

I work for a strategic communications agency in healthcare, and spend much of my time working with pharmaceutical companies. I am privileged to witness the amazing things that innovations can achieve in healthcare, moving people from sick to well and bringing families together. I also work for an independent company full of people who share my drive to improve patient access to innovation. However, doing this work also means I am in the centre of an often maligned world.

A recent global survey found that while the pharmaceutical reputation is improving, despite negative publicity, the most negative view of the industry comes from 18 – 24 year olds.This trend is concerning, the development of new innovations in healthcare is a long, costly, and arduous process and requires a regular influx of young, smart and driven people from across the world to push the boundaries.

I am beginning to speak and write regularly about how the pharmaceutical industry and the medical profession can work together more closely. The reasons for this are two fold, firstly to improve access to innovative treatments for patients who need it now, and secondly, to engage the public to understand where treatments come from, the importance of funding healthcare and the importance of next generation in improving all of our lives.

The pharmaceutical industry is changing; I am seeing it with my own eyes. The days of solely providing drugs have disappeared; patients are now firmly at the centre of everything that is happening and much greater investment is being put in to provide support ‘beyond the pill’. There are amazing stories behind new treatments, people who have dedicated their lives to discovering; promoting and ensuring people have access to life changing treatments. It is my belief that these stories need to be told.

As the world inevitably changes over the coming years, one thing will remain true. Healthcare will play a key role in all of our lives. The production of innovations to treat illnesses is not, and will likely never be, perfect. However, I firmly believe we can only move forward and reduce the global burden of ill health by improving relationships and inspiring the public. Above all, we within the industry need to not only tell amazing stories, but also listen to the public, listen to their concerns and work together to ensure healthcare remains at the top of everyone’s agenda, no matter how uncertain the future may be.

I hope this resonates with a few of you and if anyone has anything to add; please do get in touch.


Women of Science campaign 

Rhys Archer, Women of Science

As a PhD student at The University of Manchester and last year won the initiative I’m an Engineer Get Me Out of Here. I chose to put the £500 prize into producing leaflets for schools showcasing the range of women in science and engineering, with a website and social media alongside. 

So why this campaign? Firstly, I recognised a lack of female scientists and engineers in the media and I didn’t feel this fairly represented the amount of women doing good work in STEM in both research and industry. Due to this, sometimes young women and girls interested in STEM don’t always have female role models in STEM, as they will not always have been taught Science or Maths by female teachers either. 

After being to a few talks on the history of science, the importance of having real, relatable people to inspire young generations in science was apparent. Yes we have Einstein, Marie Curie etc which can spark an interest, but as a role model they can be completely un-relatable – seen as lone geniuses who were infinitely intelligent. So I also wanted to present women in STEM as real people who could be related to. The project consists of a website and social media to tell the stories of women in science, very much inspired by the Humans of New York stories with an image of a women in science in her workplace, and a few quotes about her life in STEM. Alongside this, there will be leaflets sent to primarily WP schools showcasing the women and their stories in a simple photograph and quote format. 

I am looking for any women working in STEM who would like to be featured as a series of photo stories either on the leaflet or the website. This would consist of an interview, either in person or via skype and your image being used. I’m keen to share as many women’s stories as possible, through the leaflet, social media, and the website so if you are not a women in STEM but would like to be involved then please share and engage with our website and social media accounts, or send us an email if think you could contribute another way/ we could collaborate. I am also looking for any relevant publications or research in this area that are already out there that I can refer and signpost to. 

If you are interested in being a part of this campaign (either as a photo story, guest blogger or in another capacity you think would be useful), have any feedback, or can signpost to any relevant data or research please email me at , or connect with us across social media and the website


Science in the Bath

Matthew Shribman

Science In The Bath might just be the best ablutionary-based science communication channel that you’ve never heard of. 

It’s a channel about everything from bird migration in magnetic fields, to wave-particle duality, which has been rapidly growing an audience of highly engaged teenagers and young adults, and also many older people too. Of particular interest is how much of the audience includes people who identify as “not really interested in science”.

Matthew Shribman set out to make online content for people whom school science is losing or has lost; to re-engage them, and to show them how fascinating and understandable science can be, and the adventure that awaits if they pursue STEM subjects to higher study. Comments on his pages range from "You explain science in a way so I actually understand it. Love your videos :)" and “learned more from this video than I did with a year of physics lessons” to “this is the hero modern science needs”. It’s an audience of people who are actively changing their perspective, and becoming more interested in science.

Besides his 5-minute Science In The Bath episodes, Shribman has also been releasing regular 15 second Science In The Showers, and more recently Animal Interviews, which claim to “ask animals the hard hitting scientific questions that no one else dares to ask”. Shribman has spent the last few years working in the music industry (his most recent track “Riddles” by “Ash Lad” was top of The Times list of Hottest New Tracks in autumn), and, having been working part time as a science tutor in London, he decided earlier in 2016 to combine his skills in entertainment and education, to get disengaged teenagers and young adults back into science, and it’s working.


SMASHfestUK to erupt again in 2017!

Tobin May, Producer

Yes we’re at it again! Having decided that asteroids and solar storms weren’t enough, in 2017  SMASHfestUK is back with “Supervolcano”! The hugely successful science and arts mash-up festival is returning to South East London to engage, inspire excite and entertain with all manner of games, shows, theatre, comedy , music, experiments and explosions! It’s going to erupt during the half-term holidays in February 2017. 

Come and help us  build a world record-breaking cryovolcano which will erupt, shooting ice-particles high into the London sky. Be part of our Survival Village and figure out how to win enough food and drink to keep alive inside it by playing “Survival Supermarket Sweep”. Train up with the scientists of the future in our Volcano Prediction Unit and Volcano Survival Centre, and figure out how to avoid an almost certain fiery death in “Escape the Volcano”. And if that all gets too heated, be entertained by Comedy Club 4 Kids, or gentleman juggler Mat Ricardo who will be entertaining us with music, comedy and thrills galore in the big auditorium in the Fire Mountain Show. And that’s not all; from explosions and eruptions to  edible insects there will be something for everyone at SMASHfestUK.

With a more extensive than ever schools outreach campaign, and our 16-18 “Young Science Explainers Programme” returning after last year’s successful pilot, we hope that Supervolcano will be our biggest and best SMASHfestUK yet. We were delighted to be finalists in this year’s NCCPE Engage awards and, for the first time, this year we are running two “pop-up” SMASHfest events in Woolwich and Colindale. We’re hoping to spread our wings further afield in the next few years and we’re always keen to extend our partnership programme, so if you or your organisation would like to get involved then please don’t hesitate to give us a shout.


BIG People: Matthew Tosh

 Job: Presenter, pyrotechnician, science show health and  safety support, training consultant and occasional voice  artist.

 A typical day at work consists of: Oh, start with an easy  question, won't you? My days vary hugely and usually  features elements of kneeling in mud and sheep manure,  hiding in a dark corner of a theatre when operating pyro  or H&S for other people, being on stage and presenting  my own shows, pressing a "FIRE" button, visiting  explosive storage magazines, exploring venues on behalf  of firework people, writing and reviewing risk  assessments, plus the crucial office work to support  everything that I do outside or on tour. At other times, I'll  sit in a soundproof cupboard and talk to a microphone. I  love all stages of event preparation. Most culminate in a performance of some description, but I get a lot of satisfaction from knowing that the hours of work behind the scenes are worth it and enable us (i.e. me and the people I support) to deliver something special and memorable for our audiences.

What got you into this career? It sort of evolved. For a start, I didn't know it even existed! I began as a physics teacher and discovered that I enjoyed creating demos slightly out of the ordinary (e.g. flame tests in bins, building my own Jacob's ladder, or playing "Three Blind Mice" with different sized explosions). I have been advised not to write about my high-voltage National Grid transmission model, so I won't. As time passed, I noted that my classroom had certain limitations, including a ceiling. I introduced myself to the PE department by closing-off the tennis courts to experiment with liquid nitrogen or dry ice pressure explosions and small hot-air vessels. A chance landing on Jonathan Sanderson's blog in 2005 introduced me to BIG and, knowing that there were other people out there like me, I plucked up the courage to come-out as a science communicator. Following the initial shock, my family and friends have since been very supportive. At the same time, I was starting to venture into television, with some Saturday morning children's TV science stunts, before going on to present several series for Teachers TV. This whet my appetite to focus more on presenting, both with and without demonstrations. All of the above happened in parallel to a conversation with a manager of a firework display company who sensed my enthusiasm. I trained as a firer and went on to become a senior display supervisor, which completely transformed my approach to assessing risk and managing hazards, which I now see as an enabler, rather than a limiter.

What is the best thing about your job? The immense variety. I love the contrast of being a performer against working almost invisibly behind the scenes on a show or live event. I get to meet and work with hugely diverse and talented groups of people.

... and the worst? Dealing with ill-informed, ignorant or highly emotionally charged people (mostly public) when I'm managing firework displays. It is usually someone challenging me regarding a safety fence or exclusion zone. "I am entitled to stand here if I want to."

What is your favourite meal? Usually fish. Or curry. My mother makes a mean meat and potato pie too. A tartiflette or gratin dauphinois takes a bit of beating, especially if made at home from first principles, provided you can source the appropriate cheeses. I like porridge (with salt, NOT sugar). I've never tried meal worms. I classify Marmite as a biohazard. Sorry, what was the question again?

What is your favourite smell? Freshly baked bread and croissants. Takes me right back to living in France and knocking on the back door of a bakery at sunrise on the way home from a nightclub

What talents do you posses? I am a change-ringer, both on tower (church) bells and handbells. It's the mathematical ringing, as opposed to tunes, and I've been doing it for around 25 years. Blimey! It still melts my brain at times, especially the handbell stuff, as you have to operate two bells independently and keep perfect rhythm. I can also play orchestral timpani.

What talents would you like to possess? Time travel. Then I could go back and see where I'd left my timpani sticks.

Which actor do you think should play you in the film of your life? Is this a trick question? Are you hoping I'll say Rowan Atkinson or James Dreyfus? I'll do you a deal and settle with Jeremy Renner.

Which living person do you most admire and why? I have been inspired by many people for different reasons, some of whom are local community heroes that I've met through my radio work. Singling out one would be unfair to the others.

Most beautiful place on Earth? Iceland. More specifically, the area around Lake Mývatn in Winter and the Námafjall geothermal field. It's an amazing place, with very little light pollution. A photographer's and astronomer's paradise!

What is your motto for life? Always look for the positives in people and situations. I'm also a fan of the Confucius quote: "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life."


With best wishes from the BIG Executive Committee 2016/17…

  • Bridget Holligan, Chair
  • Karl Byrne, Vice Chair
  • Lucy Moorcraft, Treasurer
  • Natalie Ford, Secretary
  • James Bamford, General Member
  • Andy Miah, General Member
  • Rachel Mason, Event Organiser
  • Sarah Vining, Membership Services Manager

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