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  • From the BIG event to the RI: How informal conversations created collaboration.

From the BIG event to the RI: How informal conversations created collaboration.

10 May 2024 2:03 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

From the BIG event to the RI: How informal conversations created collaboration.

Dan Plane (Royal institution), Robin Hayward (University of Leeds), Martin Khechara (University of Wolverhampton)

The Royal Institution (Ri) has been a place for scientists, science communicators, and the public to come together since 1799. Through our series’ of talks and events we aim to engage people of all ages. Famously our Christmas Lectures, which have been running since 1825, target a young audience, but we don’t restrict ourselves to that one time of year to work with children and families.

Three times a year we run a Family Fun Day (FFD). While our building is normally open to the public, and the museum can be explored, FFD adds to the offer by filling the building with things to see and do. Like a mini festival, there are make & takes, demonstrations, games and challenges, but of course, the centre piece of the building, our world-famous Lecture Theatre is filled with smiling faces as we present shows and talks suitable for the families. Our hope is that we will start some of the youngest visitors on their lifelong journey with science with these informative, exciting, and inspiring talks. Sometimes we present our own shows at FFD, but we like to mix it up and get interesting and varied people to inform, excite and inspire our families! This means we’re always on the look out for potential speakers and performers. And at BIG in 2023 I had the great fortune to meet all sorts of potential collaborators.

Dan Plane

Thoughts from Robin:

I am the communication and engagement officer for all things tree research at the University of Leeds. It’s an amazing role that I’ve enjoyed now for two years – since finishing my own PhD, back when all this was just enthusiastic procrastination. With only a couple of years chatting science professionally outside of academia, I’m a relative newbie in the world of scicomm and BIG has been an amazing opportunity, both to meet people and to learn things I would never have considered for myself.

I attended my first BIG Event in 2022 and, pretty much as soon as I got back to work, I told my manager that we should be making annual attendance a priority in our conference calendar. Returning to the BIG Event in 2023, I had a much better idea of what to expect when I arrived and was even co-running a session, compiling tips from across the breadth of scicomm. Following a first attempt in 2022, I was also determined to take part in the BIG Demo Competition, and this became the foundation of the show I ended up creating with the Ri.

My job didn’t really include science shows in 2023. I did a few tabletop interactive demos at science fairs and lots of PowerPoint presentations, but BIG was really the only time I got to stand on stage and do a demo for a crowd. It was a great excuse to try something out and play with ideas of bringing science to life. Something I hadn’t considered was that it might also be something that Dan would see from the audience and invite me to come and present at the Ri! I was thrilled to be invited and to receive expert advice and logistical support as we developed a show all about seed dispersal. One of the big barriers to presenting demos at work has always been the investment in getting it off the ground but the Ri was able to supply the kit and the expertise to make it run smoothly. Now that I’ve done it once though, I can do it again, and because we know it works, it’s worth the investment to buy our own kit and bring this science into schools for 2024. A massive thanks to the Ri and to BIG for making it all happen!

Thoughts from Martin:

I am an associate professor for engagement in STEM, manager and creative director of the STEM Response Team at the University of Wolverhampton, a scicommer for 12 years and a member of BIG since 2018. 

When I saw that the BIG event was coming to Birmingham in 2023 we didn’t even have to think about it. Session proposals were in and accepted and the team was going on tour! Our first workshop session at the conference was about using theatre practice for STEM engagement. I was humbled and nervous when so many of the people I respect for using performance in their scicomm turned up to take part. This included the demo team from the Royal Institution (Ri). We obviously made an impression with our costumes, slime and explosions as Dan Plane (Head of Demonstrations for the Ri) came to chat to me later about working together on workshops for the BIG event 2024. Since then, a brilliant collaboration has grown. Only a week or so later we were invited as a team to feature at the October Surprising Science Family Fun Day at the Ri in London. Now to me, the Ri is like a cathedral of scicomm and to go there, stand in their Theatre and speak to an audience has been a lifelong ambition. The time I spent at and the people I met at the BIG event, made it all happen. Without being there and contributing I wouldn’t have been able to have one of the proudest moments in my career so far. I just can’t thank everyone enough who made it possible. 

Thoughts from Dan:

I am Head of Public and Family Programmes at the Ri, which includes heading up the Demonstration Team here. While relatively new in this role, I have worked in scicomm since 2007, in science centres, outreach programmes, and as a freelancer. Part of my new role is to be on the lookout for interesting people to invite to the Ri and engage with our audiences.

I saw Robin’s demo in the Best Demo Competition and as well as loving the clear, simple, and accessible explanation of the demo itself, what I really enjoyed was Robin’s presentation of it, and their clear passion for the topic across the whole event. I still have my Tree Identification Pen! I invited Robin to talk about seed dispersal at FFD and we worked together to put some demonstrations together to make the most of our space, which included dropping 100 paper whirlybirds from our 10m ceiling, and the seemingly ever-present barrel of balls explosion. I hope they don’t mind me saying, but seeds is a pretty niche subject, but Robin’s aforementioned passion, paired with the surprising and visual demonstrations had the audience, young and old alike, buzzing about a topic many of them may not have given much thought to. Perfection!

Martin and Heather’s BIG session about theatre showed off their skills as engaging presenters and I could easily picture them in front of our family audience. The session also included a section about accidents, which inspired me to suggest a joint workshop at the next conference, hopefully more coming on that. For FFD we provided the STEM Response Team with a few materials, the odd bit of liquid nitrogen or hydrogen, all the normal stuff. They brought their experience, skill, and A-game to present a dynamic show with explosions, silliness, and a lot of laughs that got our audience pumped up for a day of science!

I was really flattered how excited both Robin and Martin were about presenting in our Theatre. I hope that they felt it was welcoming and open, as we strive to be just that for everyone.

I think this type of collaboration is win/win. The Ri gets great content and new speakers in our theatre, while outreach programmes based in Leeds and Wolverhampton get to expand their reach to a London audience. And on top of that, said audience get a great experience, so actually win/win/win!

Some final thoughts: 

As scicommers we all work in our own world. We have our own thing going on, our own local group of scicomm friends we do things with and our own programmes of engagement to manage. We change people’s lives that’s what we do but sometimes to do something truly amazing we all need to work together. This gives us chance to cross boundaries between subject area and practice to work in a truly interdisciplinary way. To exist in what could be called a ‘third space’ where these kinds of collaborations happen is fundamentally empowering for all those involved. However, collaboration takes friendship and trust between those that take part. It is clear that the BIG Event and the relationships that have developed have created just that. From a few conversations over dinner, true and fruitful interventions are developing and more importantly three more scicommers know two more people they can trust and rely on. Thanks BIG Event team, we’ll see you in Cardiff!

© BIG STEM Communicators Network

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