BIG e-news:
Autumn 2010 edition – Issue 16

In this newsletter

What with the spending review, the nights drawing in and mince pies already on sale, it can seem a rather gloomy time at the moment. But despite the economic uncertainty and unseasonal retail fare, BIG continues to shine a light in the darkness. The next year looks like being an interesting, if challenging, time for many of us and at times like this it’s always useful to have a reminder of just why we do this weird and wonderful work. For me BIG has always been there to provide that support, encouragement and inspiration, and I hope it is just as valuable to you.

BIG membership continues to grow, with close to 300 members at last count – so a BIG welcome to all those who have joined us in the past year. Many new members join to attend one of the many skills days we run during the year. Joining BIG is more than just signing up for a day out though and I’d encourage the newbies amongst you to read BIG-chat, attend other events and contribute to the e-news. We can all learn a great deal from new voices and perspectives.

Thanks to those who have offered to join the working group on professional standards. The first discussions will be very broad: do we need such standards? If so what form might they take? I’d like to see an open meeting to present these initial findings and allow contributions from the wider membership. Watch this space for details.

The second ‘Little Event’ took place in September at Think Tank, Birmingham. It proved to be another successful, inspiring day for those new to the world of science communication. Huge thanks must go to Graphic Science and Storycog for providing bursaries to enable people to attend. Thanks also to Toni for her hard work organising the day and to all those who gave their time to speak at the event. I hope the Little Event becomes a permanent part of our annual calendar as it really sums up what we’re all about: people giving their time and sharing their experience, enabling enthusiastic and creative individuals to meet each other and develop their skills.

James Piercy, Chair

BIG Event 2011: Call for Session Proposals

Savita Custead, BIG Event Coordinator
It’s very exciting to announce that next year’s BIG Event will be held in the sunny South West and hosted by the At-Bristol Science Centre from 20th-22nd July - save the date!

The annual ‘call for session proposals’ has been brought forward to November to ensure more members of the BIG Community have the opportunity to get involved. At-Bristol has a wide range of spaces available for sessions during the event, including plenary spaces, a planetarium, the new “Live Lab”, science show space and an exhibit building workshop. More information about the Call for Sessions will be available shortly on the BIG website, or send your ideas now to Session proposals are due November 30, 2010.

ECSITE Science Busking

David Price, science made simple
The Crew: Marieke Navin, Gerd Hombrecher and David Price

The Mission:  3 intrepid science buskers hatched a daring plan to gate crash this years ECSITE conference in Dortmund and subvert delegates with the dangerous delights of science busking.

Potential pitfalls: Our session was late on Saturday afternoon!  Would any delegates be left?  Would we end up busking to ourselves?

Solution: Get our retaliation in first!  Busk at registration, lunch times and evening events in order to secure an audience.  If a delegate moved we balloon kebabed them until they stopped.  If a delegate stopped, we rope-puzzled them until they moved!

Result: Our session was chocker.

Session message: Science busking is a devastatingly effective means of attracting and inspiring diverse audiences with a science message. Would individuals and institutions be interested in participating in pan European science busking training sessions?

Our hopes: Delegates would leave the session enthused about the potential of science busking. 3 to 4 expressions of interest in busking training.

What we got: Lots of very enthused delegates!  Radically positive feedback forms.
25 expressions of interest in busking training, directly leading to training sessions for the Copernicus science centre in Poland.

On a personal note I would like to thank my amazing busking colleagues Gerd and Marieke and thank my funder Grundtvig for their help and support in allowing this session to take place.

Organised fun – an injection of science

Iona Beange, University of Edinburgh, School of Chemistry

Festivals -  a cultural explosion and what Edinburgh does best – or so says Visit Scotland. But where does the science fit in? Are we restricted to April and Edinburgh International Science Festival – or could we expand?

For the last 12 months, we’ve been working on a Wellcome Trust funded People Award called ‘Superbugs – a challenge for 21st Century scientists’ (see here). In addition to visiting schools and taking part in Science Festivals, the ‘Superbugs’ project has been found in some more unusual places.

If you have ever visited Edinburgh during August, you can’t help but trip over the Edinburgh Festival Fringe ( Generally associated with dance, theatre and comedy – this festival also has a generous helping of children’s shows...

…So imagine yourself as a parent, coming towards the end of the summer holidays. You’ve done it all – the cinema, the park, the ice-cream, the museum, the Botanic Gardens. Then a flash of inspiration – what about the ‘Fringe’? Great - but better get there early, as shows are bound to sell out. Then… [DANGER – BORED CHILD ALERT].

[SOLUTION - INSERT SCIENCE]. Never fear – the Superbug team is here. We’re in costume, equipped with playdough and ready to ‘edutain’ your kids with:
  • ‘Build a bug’ - design a bacteria complete with innards.
  • ‘Construct a colony’ - Petri-dishes ready to be filled with nasties.
  • ‘Sort the Superbugs’ – organise the crew of superbug soft toys into their ‘disease’ boxes.
The impromptu science was met with both bewilderment and excitement – but nonetheless almost all kids joined in and many adults got chatting to us too. We also did a lot of clock watching, ensuring the kids didn’t start something they couldn’t finish before their show, but as many kids returned post-show perhaps that wasn’t necessary. Later in the day we moved down to C-urban garden – a space equipped with burger vans, fake grass and lots of adults eating food. Perhaps not the ideal place for chat about Superbugs! But as no-one can resist a fluffy toy bacteria, people were soon distracted and chatting away about Superbugs.

Unashamed piggybacking is a great way to get audiences along to science events. Though architecture and Superbugs may have little in common – floods of people still came to the University of Edinburgh on ‘Doors Open Day’ (Scotland’s largest free annual architectural event).  Though possibly attracted by the old building and the natural history collection, people were soon distracted by the science stands.  ‘Superbugs’ was there with posters, games and hand-washing activities (you can’t beat a bit of UV hand lotion). The fact that this day coincided with the University of Edinburgh’s Open day only added to the rush, as keen families came to see what university was all about.

Surprise – It’s science. With knitting groups sprouting up all over Edinburgh – not least within the university, here at Superbugs we decided to get busy ‘Stitching a Superbug’. After knit one, purl one, and knit quite a few more, we came up with a pattern for a bacteria cross-section, complete with woolly ribosomes and fluffy plasmids. It’s a great way to get people talking about science issues.

So is science in Edinburgh restricted to Easter? Of course not! Let’s be culture vultures, piggybacking for all we’re worth and bringing Edinburgh alive with the sound of SCIENCE all year round.

A science communicator’s learning journey

Peter Nurick, Science Learning Team Member, Dundee Science Centre

Dundee Science Centre has just launched its ‘Learning Journey’: a self-directed professional development programme for any member of staff.

Dundee Science Centre is most certainly a learning organisation, in every sense of the word. It actively promotes learning within its walls while extending learning opportunities through varied outreach and community programmes. It is also, however, an organisation which seeks to learn from others, and sees staff as a key tool in that area.

On the 6th of September I travelled to Birmingham, taking part in Dundee Science Centre’s very first ‘Learning Journey’ – a concept aimed at giving all members of the team the opportunity to experience firsthand other institutions of science learning and communication. I successfully applied to our HR Manager, to make a learning journey to Thinktank in Birmingham, to experience and learn about another science centre.

Coinciding with my trip was the Little Event which I felt this was a fantastic addition to what has already proved a great experience. As a new member of the BIG network, it was a great introduction to what is available within the British Interactive Group.

The Little Event brought together a whole host of people from differing fields – linked by their desire to communicate STEM ideas to a wider audience – and over the course of a day we took part in variety of activities, looking at the theories behind learning, communication techniques, career opportunities and presentation skills. I found it a great way of sharing knowledge and learnt a lot, and as a result I would certainly not hesitate to sign up for a similar event in future. I strongly recommend it, not only to existing BIG members, but those who are possibly thinking of joining in the future.

I feel the concept of the learning journey that Dundee Science Centre is using is a novel one, and one that has a wide-ranging series of benefits to me, as I learnt so much from other science communicators and by visiting another centre.  I am looking forward to hearing about future learning journeys my colleagues make. By incorporating the Little BIG event, the whole experience was a fantastically positive one, and one that I hope to replicate in the future. My thanks go to the staff at Dundee Science Centre and Thinktank in Birmingham, as well as all those involved with the planning and running of the Little BIG event, which I found so useful.

Public Engagement for Science and Society – a conversational tool

Toby Shannon, British Science Association
Earlier this year, the Science for All Expert Group published a report which reviewed the current public engagement landscape, outlined a vision for public engagement with the sciences and laid out a roadmap for future development in the area.

The report highlighted a need to ‘create a wider understanding of why, when and how the public engages with the sciences’ and included an action to ‘develop a common framework to describe types/purposes of public engagement’.

The Science for All Follow Up Group has developed a practical tool to help people working in public engagement have constructive conversations about what type of engagement is appropriate for different aims/situations. The tool and further details about what it hopes to achieve can be found on the science and society web site.

The conversational tool recognises three ‘elements’ of public engagement technique which can be used in combination to varying extent to produce different results:
  • Transmit – inspiring, informing and educating to build capacity and influence decisions.
  • Collaborate – to consider, create or decide something together with the public
  • Receive – to use the views, skills and experience of the public to inspire or build your own capacity or decisions.
The Science for All Group would value feedback from people working in this area.

Please visit the website to download the tool and try it out to see whether it enables you to have constructive conversations around public engagement. Any comments/thoughts on the tool are welcomed – these can be submitted either on the website itself or by email to

Astrotour 2010

David Ault

For 18 weeks this summer, I've travelled 20,000 miles in planes, trains and automobiles crossing North America indulging my passion - science centres. The aim: to explore how science communication is done over there and bring the ideas back home with me.

Astrotour 2010 started quite simply - sitting in a café in Udaipur, India trying to work out what I wanted to do with my life. I love acting and travelling, but also astronomy and seeing science centres and planetaria, so I decided to travel across North America, somewhere I'd wanted to see for a long time.

[Picture - David suited and booted ready to go down the mines at SNOLAB]

I started in Toronto, leaving Heathrow as the election results were coming in, then travelled east, before dropping down into New England, across to the mid-West, down to Texas and finishing off in California in September. It was a long road from one side to the other, though it was all on a very tight budget - I didn't pay a penny for accommodation, rather using Couchsurfing and my voice acting friends for a room.

The science communication too was fantastic - the Boston Museum of Science, Great Lakes Science Center, Science North and Dynamic Earth to name a few, bookended by the incredible Ontario Science Centre and Exploratorium. My highlights must include seeing all the planets in the Middle of Nowhere, Texas, and heading 2km underground in the mines of Ontario for the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. People were very happy to show me round, to say what lay behind the planning and share ideas, reviews of which I put on my science blog at


Noel Jackson, Head of Education, Centre for LIFE
Can I reveal a pet hate of mine? It’s the ball chute exhibit where children enjoy hurling balls down a parabolic ramp.

You see these as passive money gatherers for charities outside the checkouts of supermarkets and the same thing as an exhibit in science centres.  Little kids enjoy rolling balls down the ramp and watching the path they take but older children quickly tire of this entertainment. If you enquire about the educational value of this exhibit, one usually hears about the way it models gravity well. This is really useful if you are doing an A2 in Physics but of little relevance to anyone else.

There other factors which are age related.  Educationalists are used to looking at the National Curriculum, which despite its many faults, does give a good indication about what you can expect children to learn about science at any age between 5 and 16. Perhaps more intuitively, teachers know the kind of activities that go down well with each age group. For example five year olds love songs they can join in with,  primary pupils love singing along (and doing the dances) to current hit records, pubescent teenagers visibly blanch at any suggestion of performance and  sixth formers who have discovered that being a star is a babe-magnet will do a turn at the drop of a hat.

The final factor to consider is topic. There is no inherent reason why The Egyptians should be studied by young children and why World War Two is good for top juniors and World War One should be considered particularly appropriate for KS3. But for whatever reason, there is a strange uniformity in the topics chosen for exploration in schools. The youngest pupils are most likely to study the classic civilizations and pirates, KS2 is the realm of the Tudors and Stuarts, Habitats and Space and thematic teaching in secondary schools will usually be linked to multicultural awareness.

So to make an activity that is going to really work, my conjecture is that the science, activity and topic should all be carefully chosen to match the age of the target audience. Next time you see a science engagement activity aimed at school students which does not seem to be hitting the button, stop and see if all four factors are in concordance. And next time you see an activity that is really flying with real engagement, real learning and real excitement, I would be very surprised if you found that the topic, science and activity were not well matched to the age of the pupils.

Virtual Lab

Emma Newall, Virtual Lab Project Manager  
The MRC Clinical Sciences Centre in London is doing its bit to bring cutting edge science into the classroom with Virtual Lab, a new and exciting project for schools. Aimed at students between the ages of 14 and 19, this initiative offers young people unprecedented access to authentic, contemporary medical research.

“Schools are facing an ongoing challenge, what with budget constraints and health and safety concerns, to provide opportunities for students to take part in practical science,” explains Emma Newall Virtual Lab’s project manager, “but through our interactive digital laboratory, students will conduct a research experiment online.”

The Virtual Lab infrastructure allows students to engage with real data and problem-solve to explain their results. Experiments are designed to convey how research is conducted and how scientists work. The engaging website explains how “eggsperiments” are designed using animated chickens, a good excuse for a very bad pun! Then introduces the research back-story through film and animation and trains students to be research apprentices before embarking on the experiment.

Local schools have responded very positively to the first pilot experiment, which focused on cell division. One student remarked “I enjoyed the website very much. I hope there will be more experiments.” The next experiment, an analysis of stem cells, goes live in November at

The Virtual Lab team would be interested in hearing from any potential collaborators such as filmmakers, digital media specialists and science educators.

BIG People: Richard Gregory 1923-2010

By Melanie Quin
Richard Gregory FRS was Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Bristol. To Ecsite members, he was also known as our founding president (1989-90). To hands-on practitioners, from BIG members to Exploratorium exhibit developers, he was founder of the UK’s first independent science centre: the Exploratory in Bristol that opened daily to the public from 1987 till the wave of millennium centres.

I met Richard in 1987, and learned to love and respect him through Ecsite’s turbulent and self-exploratory early days. It was he, together with Stephen Pizzey, who made the case to the Nuffield Foundation for a start-up grant for Ecsite. The funding was forthcoming and Richard rubbed his hands with glee, almost bouncing on the balls of his feet: “Melanie, we’re going to do such exciting things across Europe - that’s what we need, an acronym to fit!” And so, of course, we became ‘ECSITE’. The only serious discussion I recall was over the ‘C’. Should it stand for ‘consortium’? (The North American exhibit consortium was one we were interested in emulating.) Or for ‘collaborative’? French and Belgian colleagues suggested that ‘collaborative’ would give us a bigger umbrella for future activities, Richard assented and thus it was decided.

There followed many months of complex negotiations, formulating Ecsite’s constitution. If these took place after lunch, Richard often quietly nodded off. He was envied and easily forgiven. He came into his own in freewheeling debates about the nature of science and the true purpose of science centres (he was also an incomparable after-dinner raconteur). Two clips from a piece he wrote me for the Ecsite Newsletter in 2005 capture this beautifully:
“Pictures are extraordinary objects, well worth considering in a science centre! Consider looking at a picture of a person, or some other familiar kind of object. One sees the patterns of paint as almost alive, breathing. This incredible jump from pattern to picture, is given by knowledge, as of living breathing people – knowledge developed interactively through childhood. In a gallery or museum, we project our knowledge, developed through years of experience, into pictures and objects beyond touch. The knowledgeable viewer imbues them with life. But when the knowledge is missing there is no meaning to project, so we are effectively blind. This is the fate of perhaps most visitors. … A dramatic demonstration of the power of knowledge for seeing is the hollow face illusion – a hollow mask appearing as a normal, convex face. A hollow face is so unlikely this “perceptual hypothesis" is rejected by the observer’s brain, though it is true.”
“I wonder at the amazing attraction of the Harry Potter books. … What is magic’s appeal? Does science lack magic? Surely not! Can’t science teaching and science centres learn from Harry Potter? To my mind a spectroscope, a microscope or a telescope, is far more wonderful than a magic wand. For instruments reveal secrets and work miracles we can perform. They have real magic, which generally works for us when we understand - though can always be dangerous.”

Richard, you never stopped pushing boundaries and never allowed us to stop questioning either. For that, as much as for your unfailing humour and bonhomie: thank you.

With best wishes from the BIG Executive 2010-11…

James Piercy, Chair
Andy Lloyd, Vice Chair
Rachel Mason, Treasurer
Brian Macken, Secretary
David Porter, Ordinary Member
Savita Custead, Event Coordinator
and Sarah Vining, Administrator

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