BIG enews
Winter 2010-11 edition – Issue 17

 In this edition

BIG Money -  A Message from the Chair

James Piercy, Chair

Thanks to prudent financial planning and additional income over the past few years, BIG has built up a small cash reserve which we are able to use to provide additional benefits for members.

We aren't in a position to commit to any large ongoing costs but do have the opportunity to inject some capital to trial new initiatives.

The committee have discussed a number of possible options but we are interested in your thoughts on how we can achieve best value for the membership. Perhaps there is something you would really like to see BIG deliver, or maybe you would prefer us to save for a rainy day. To get you started, here are the ideas we have come up with so far:

  • Commission articles and reviews for the new website
  • Pay speakers fees for the BIG event or skills days to gain a wider range of skills and experience for the members
  • Offer bursaries for the BIG event
  • Run a fabricators event (these 2 or 3 days events based around designing and prototyping interactives were run in the past)
  • Offer big members bursaries to attend other conferences and represent BIG
  • Offer Free skills days
  • Re-run the BIG Bursary scheme for personal development
  • Run a marketing campaign to increase membership and awareness of BIG

We have set up a short online survey for you to let us know what you think of these ideas. The survey link will be emailed to you within a day or two. We look forward to hearing you tell us what you want, what you really really want.

Improvisation Skills Day - Monday 21 February, Thinktank, Birmingham

Debbie Syrop, BIG Skills Representative

As part of BIG's role in promoting excellence in science communication we are pleased to announce another opportunity to learn from one of the UK's leading experts in improvisation.

Whether you want to improve your rapport with the audience or build your confidence so you’re ready for anything, improvisation offers a range of skills to help. Aimed at professional science communicators and others working in public engagement, this 1-day course focuses on skills specifically for those who present shows to the public.

"The training was excellent - I think I got more out of that than any other performance workshop I've been on."
"I had a fantastic time and learnt a lot."
Comments from previous course participants

Using improvisation techniques you will learn to:
• Warm up the crowd and engage with them with ease
• Lead easily from talking to the audience into your material
• React to whatever happens in the room
• Prevent yourself from getting bored of presenting the same old show

Taught by top improviser, stand-up comic and compere Rob Broderick, the course uses group and individual exercises to give you the impro skills you need and techniques to try out in your own shows and presentations. This is a course that was developed for stand-up comics, and is now used to help public speakers of all kinds.

When? 11am-6pm, Monday 21st February 2011

Where? Thinktank, Birmingham

How much? £55 for BIG members (non-members will need to join BIG first)

Any questions? Email

Register for the Improvisation Skills Day

Places are limited to 12 people and are expected to fill up quickly so don't delay!

Brainwave 11 - Call for participants!

Lucy Kimber, Event Manager

The County Durham Development Company runs a yearly science and technology event for County Durham students. We are looking for individuals/groups to deliver hands on workshops and activities as part of the event content.

The event is called Brainwave 11 and is aimed at 14/15 year old (year 9&10) County Durham students and will run from the 14-16 July 2011 at NETPark Technology Park in Sedgefield. (school days 14th/15th July and public day on Saturday 16th July). The event welcomes around 250 students each day to come and take part in workshops, careers talks, lectures and hands on activities to get them enthused and interested in science and technology. The loose themes for the event will be The Body, Space and Technology for Life.

Here is a link to last year’s event so you can get a feel for the event and the content - If you would be interested in being involved in Brainwave 11 we would love to include you in the programme. If you would like to discuss the event and your involvement please email

The Squashed Tomato Challenge

Julie Pollard, Practical Action

I know many members of BIG are involved in schools outreach so thought you may be interested in a great new challenge I have put together.

The Squashed Tomato Challenge is A really fun brains-on as well as hands-on challenge suitable for KS2-5. It would be a perfect activity for National Science and Engineering Week (11-20th March) and can be used to obtain a CREST in a day bronze award.

Students consider a problem faced by farmers in Nepal – how to transport tomatoes form half way up a mountain where they are produced to the market down below.  The challenge is to design and build a model that can move tomatoes without getting then squashed.  How high and how far is determined by the teacher.

A whole range of support material for the challenge is freely available to download including teacher’s notes, student info sheets, certificates, student worksheets, images and even some tomato facts and some bad tomato jokes! 

To find out more go to

Planet Science

Ruth Hendry, Tinopolis

Planet Science was originally launched as a Millennium project nurtured by NESTA; in 2010 it has begun its move to a new environment with a re-launch under the ownership and guidance of Tinopolis Interactive.

Planet Science exists to offer young scientists of school age the inspiration and excitement that will support their study of science at school and beyond. Planet Science is there to support classrooms, curriculum, textbooks and teachers - but not by going over the same ground as they cover. Instead, our mission is to tickle your curiosity, excite your interest, and unleash your passions in science. You'll find that we may not (yet) cover every single point of science that you are interested in. But we do aim that in everything you do and see on the site, you find the thrills of discovery, working it out, and understanding what makes things tick.

Primary school learners, whose science curriculum is quite broad, have their own section of the site, as do Secondary School students, whose approach is more structured by different science disciplines. Parents and teachers looking for ideas and inspiration about supporting scientific talent in the young, also have their own section.

Planet Science can reach you as a newsletter to your mailbox or be a purely web experience. All the material on this site is cleared for educational use in classrooms or at home. Take a look at some recent articles and experiments to find out more:

  • If you haven’t had enough of snow, you can learn all about it
  • Dive under the ocean
  • Make your own volcano

We’d like your help to make Planet Science the best it can be. Let us know what you think of Planet Science at the moment. What would you like to see more of? What would you like to change?

You can follow us on Twitter - @planetscience - upload your images to our Flickr groups - - and email us on
We’d be really interested in hearing your feedback, so don't be shy; get in touch!

All Change for Science Oxford

Anne Lechelle, Science Oxford

Science Oxford has announced exciting plans to create an innovative new cultural centre for science and enterprise within the heart of Oxford. The new centre, which it is estimated will cost £30 million will take shape over the next five years.
Envisaged as a unique world class facility inspired by and showcasing cutting edge science and technology, the centre will house a suite of inspiring interactive galleries whose content will excite and enthuse visitors of all ages. The new centre will include a state of the art digital planetarium together with a public plaza, café and shop. When open, the complex is likely also to include an enterprise and innovation centre offering rentable office space to businesses, as well as high-tech conference and corporate events facilities.
Ian Griffin, Chief Executive at Science Oxford says: “In creating a new public centre for science and enterprise here in Oxford, our vision is to bring the excitement of science and the joy of discovery right to the heart of our city.”
Foster + Partners, London-based architects responsible for the Great Court at the British Museum and the ‘Gherkin’, have been appointed architects for the project. The total cost of the cost of building is estimated to be £30 million, of which £10 million has already been secured. The remaining £20 million will be raised from private individuals, trusts and foundations over the next two years.


Slippery Thoughts - a portable streamlining demonstration that works

Richard Ellam, L M Interactive

As part of The Great Train Show, which is my show about forces, I wanted to discuss streamlining and air resistance in the context of high-speed trains.

I needed something which was portable, easy to set up, and produced a striking result which would be acceptable to my audiences as proof that streamlining works.  Over the years I've seen a number of demonstrations of streamlining, some of which are more convincing than others. Hitherto the best Ive seen is the one where you drop shaped projectiles down tubes full of gloop, and see that the streamlined projectile get to the bottom first.

Theres nothing specifically wrong with this as a demo, but it awkward to transport gloopy tubes, the demo is messy to do, and theres a conceptual transfer problem. Its not intuitively obvious that the behaviour of projectiles falling under gravity through gloop has anything much to do with the behaviour of vehicles travelling through the air. Another objection is that if you set the thing up as a race between different shaped projectiles in parallel tubes you have to establish somehow that both the contents of the tubes and the masses of the projectiles are the same - and if I was to be really fussy youd need to establish that wetted areas and the sectional areas of the projectiles were the same, too.

Theres also the fact that sooner or later if you travel with tubes full of goo then the goo WILL get out and coat all your other props in horrible stickiness.  So what to do instead?

A brief experiment with a vacuum cleaner on blow, and some OO gauge model railway trucks suggested that the vacuum cleaner would merrily blow these along the track, so it seemed likely that I could set up a demonstration using blown air rather than gloop, and a suitable model train. You can buy some very nice models of high speed trains, but theyre not cheap and previous experience suggested that they werent likely to be robust enough for the inevitable scrum at the end of a show when people come up to have a closer look, so I set to and made my own streamlined high-speed train, seen in the photo.

This is about 50 mm tall, 30 mm wide, 250 mm long and runs on standard OO gauge track.  The thing has a mass of about 180 grammes, which is a bit heavier than Id like, but its pretty robust and I can live with weigh as an acceptable price for (relative) indestructibly. It is a fabrication from 4 mm transparent polystyrene sheet which is cut to shape, glued together and then filed and sanded to the final shape. It was finished with blue spray enamel, because I had some. The carriage only has four wheels. I found a second-hand truck in a local model shop which I cut up to provide the wheels and axleboxes. Perhaps I should have used eight wheels, on two four wheel bogies, like the real trains use, but this would have cost more and anyway its easier to get four wheels on the track that eight!

I had already decided that the train would be tested inside a wind tunnel - this isnt really necessary, but it looks nice, and it protects the train. To provide airflow through the wind tunnel I found a cheap  portable vacuum cleaner which was about the same size as the 150 mm perspex tube I used for the wind tunnel and I rigged up a frame to hold the tube and the motor end of the cleaner, with things set up so that the air outlet from the hoover fan blows down the tube.

A piece of track on a baseboard which is supported inside the tube so that the train is presented to the middle of the airflow from the blower completed the job.

In use the train is first put in the wind tunnel so that the flat end of the carriage is facing the fan. The train is pushed right up to the fan, and the fan is switched on. The airflow blows the train along the track and right out of tube. Now the train is put in the tunnel the other way round, with the pointy end facing the fan. Its pushed up to the same starting point, and the fan is switched on again.  This time, the train stays pretty much where it is, as the long streamlined nose produces much less drag than the flat end of the train. This produces a suitably dramatic conclusion to the experiment and strongly establishes the idea that it is the shape of the trains front that determines how much drag is felt. The experiment also meets the criteria for being a fair test, and can be understood to be a properly scientific test, as it is obvious that we have only changed the shape of the  end of the train facing the wind, everything else staying the same. Using air is also more convincing than using gloop, and avoids awkward conversations about viscous drag!

It would probably improve the prop if I got round to fixing some streamers to the open end of the wind tunnel to show that air is rushing out of it - at the moment I just rely on the ear-splitting racket of the hoover to convince people that air is being blown down the tube. It would also be a good idea to fix some levelling feet and a small spirit level to the base so that I can get it accurately level, as the performance of the demo is sensitive to small gradients, and Ive already found at least one school hall with a sloping floor which needed me to improvise madly with folded paper wedges to get the thing level enough to work properly.

If anyone out there wants a copy, just ask...


Glasgow Science Centre BodyWorks PhD project

Elaine Malcolmson

Some of you may be interested in the PhD project I am working on at the University of Glasgow. The project is based around Glasgow Science Centre’s outreach programme, BodyWorks.

BodyWorks is about “our amazing bodies” and includes science shows, interactive workshops, and exhibits. The programme has been designed to complement the Curriculum for Excellence Science and Health & Wellbeing outcomes in Scotland.

We are using the BodyWorks exhibits to explore working knowledge and how individuals construct knowledge by adding experiences, learning, opinions, etc from different sources together. An insight into this working knowledge and the resources people use to gain this knowledge will provide valuable information for the future development of activities and exhibits in science centres and museums. It will also help in the understanding of how learning from free-choice education can be integrated into formal education and how formal education can provide skills for free-choice education.

You can read more about the project (and other related bits and pieces) at

‘CREATE AND INSPIRE’ at Dundee Science Centre

Linda Leuchars, Science Learning Manager

Dundee Science Centre’s (DSC’s) mission is to be a science learning resource for the community, contributing to the development of a culture of engagement with science and promoting science as an aspect of local culture. The Create and Inspire project was key to developing DSC’s role in empowering scientists to be science communicators and to providing our Science Learning Team with new professional development opportunities. We ran a series of this three month public engagement project from November 2009- July 2010, following submission and reward of a Science in Society Scottish Government funding bid for the project in summer 2009. Each three month project consisted of:

  • 'Create and Inspire' science communication training day
  • Inter-professional knowledge exchange sharing sessions
  • 'Science in the City' public engagement events

We created our own training event for researchers, and used this to help researchers learn about the style and ethos of science communication in the science centre context.  Researchers were trained, but then given the freedom to use their own creativity to devise engagement activities, with the support of the science centre.  It was great to find that the researchers found the training day enjoyable and inspirational, and that all delegates would recommend this training to their colleagues.

The inter-professional sharing session gave the researchers the opportunity to trial the activity developed, with our professional science communicators- the researchers really valued this opportunity. Our Science Learning Team also enjoyed finding out about current research being carried out in the area and found an increased confidence in discussing the different displays with visitors during the Science in the City events. 

The Science in the City events were the culmination of the project: a chance for the delegates to engage the public with their research through hands-on activities, posters, experiments and games.  Researchers engaged the public with a wide range of scientific topics, including, for example, drug discovery, forensic science and primate communication. Events were held on weekdays and over the weekend to ensure we catered for different audiences, and one also took place at one of our adult-only ‘Reclaim’ evenings, where the science centre is open free of charge for adults to socialise and enjoy science together.

Following the event, researchers expressed an increased confidence and capability in the creation and delivery of public engagement activities and have since contacted us to participate in future events. Furthermore, several delegates are now taking part in our ‘Scientists on Tour’ project, which provides researchers with science communication training and secondary school outreach.

Following the success of this project, we have scheduled dates to further run the 3 month project in 2010-2011, the first session of which is fully booked - further highlighting the role of science centre’s as central hubs for public engagement with local researchers, helping to celebrate science and embed science into local culture.


BIG People: Brian Macken

Job: Schools Outreach Officer, Science Oxford

A typical day at work consists of: One of the nice things about my job is that there aren’t a huge amount of typical days. A lot of the time I’m going out to a school to run one of around 30 different shows and workshops we offer; or I might be running a session with a school group in our hands-on centre; or I might be looking after our kit; or I might be writing new workshops or shows…there’s a lot of variety.

What got you into this career? Well, after my theoretical physics degree I realised that my favourite part was when I was talking about the science (and not necessarily when I was, er, doing it), so I went and did a Masters in science communication at Dublin City University. The course was great for trying out different aspects of sci-com, and I found my best module was the one where we did science shows and visited science centres. The teacher of that course gave me a job in the ‘Science Bus’ going around the schools – and now here I am!

What is the best thing about your job? The variety. I really do get to do a lot of different things, and if I do start to get bored then I’m encouraged to be creative and try new approaches and ideas.

... and the worst? Having to get up early to get to a school in time to set up becomes old pretty fast.

What is your favourite meal? A burger and chips, with lots of vinegar on the chips, from a good, if *slightly* greasy, chipper.

What is your favourite smell? A nicely cold Autumnal day. You know the one.

What talents do you possess? I don’t know about talent, but I’m interested in writing for the stage enough to do it a lot in my spare time. The theatre group I’m a part of are letting me direct my own adaption of GK Chesterton’s ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ in the new year, so I must be okay at it? I know false modesty is tedious, but I’ll wait until I see some reviews and audience reactions before I start to call anything I do even close to a ‘talent’…

What talents would you like to possess? I’d love to be able to play the piano, but it keeps dropping further down my list of things to learn…

Which actor do you think should play you in the film of your life? Roy from The IT Crowd at least has the proper accent. This would be important, as Irish is one of the most maligned accents in movie history.

Which living person do you most admire and why? Two come to mind - I would kill to be able to write dialogue 1/10th as well as Aaron Sorkin and Jon Stewart is a fantastic, and hilarious, person.

Most beautiful place on earth? Anywhere you have a good, light-pollution free, view of the night sky.

What is your Motto for life? My friend Niall insists it’s ‘Wait, what?’, but the phrase I have stuck to my door (so I see it whenever I go out) is ‘Everything stinks until it’s finished’, which is a Dr. Seuss quote.


With a very Happy New Year from the BIG Executive!

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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