BIG enews
Winter 2013 edition – Issue 25

In this edition

Happy New Year to our 500 members! The festive season is well and truly behind us and we look forward to the exciting BIG year ahead.

It's been six months since last year's BIG Event which means that the planning is beginning to step up a gear. We are so pleased to be heading to Scotland for the first time this summer. The call for session proposals will be closing imminently and Rachel Mason explains below why you should take the brave leap to submit your idea.

Sarah Vining

The BIG Event – why you should jump right in

Rachel Mason, BIG Event Organiser

If you’ve been to the BIG Event before, you may have noticed that the people who get the most out of it are those who contribute to the programme. This is a call to members who are feeling a little shy about proposing a session at the BIG Event. We know you’re worried your idea might not be fabulous, that no-one will be interested, or you’re feeling a bit modest. Put all that aside - BIG will support you.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, as I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going along to, but the first time I ever went to the BIG Event I went not as a spectator but as a contributor to the programme. No, no. I know how it happened – the person who booked me in, booked me RIGHT in.

That was a good while ago now but I certainly am glad I didn’t go just to watch. I was booked as part of a project which took a part-promenade-theatre, part-science-discovery-housetent on a tour around Welsh beaches but took a detour to do a gig during the BIG Event at the Observatory Science Centre in Herstmonceux (not quite a Welsh beach but with much of the atmosphere). Don’t ask me if it was any good as I can’t remember now. I did get to wear a pink boiler suit with a rotary whisk on my belt; that I remember.

It was a grand experience and gave me the best opportunities to meet other people doing similar work while having a good mess around with the stuff they were doing. More importantly at the time, I met people who I might tap for a job once my MSc came to an end that summer. What a good idea it was and thanks to the BIG member who propelled me along. That was about 15 years ago now and I have not been short of job offers since. If you are reading, propeller, you know who you are and thank you.

If you don’t have someone to coax you along though, you may have to give yourself a shove. If you are involved in a STEM engagement activity that you would like to share with others - because it’s brilliant, because it’s in progress or because it needs love and support from like-minded people – then this is your shove. Here are one or two reasons people tell me every year that they have not proposed a session, with one or two reasons why they (you) should:

  • I don’t have a fully formed idea. That’s fine, you can submit a session proposal and continue adding to it as new ideas and contributions come to you. Learn more and propose a session here
  • I need others to contribute to my session and I don’t know anyone. OK, propose the session and ask for contributors. You can do this on your proposal and ask other people on BIG-Chat to chip in. Sign up to BIG Chat here
  • I’m worried that no-one will find my work interesting. Well, if you find it interesting, chances are, it is. You might be surprised to find what a very generous audience BIG members make.
  • Everyone else seems to have much more experience than me. Mm hmm, maybe some do but that’s the way it will stay if you hide it under a bushel, eh? BIG is all about using the experience of others to improve your skills, whatever level you’re at.
  • I might look silly. You might. What can I say? The rotary whisk doesn’t seem to have done my career any harm.
  • I think I’d need to talk to someone about my idea first. Good idea! Put your plans on BIG Chat if you feel like going public - that’s what it’s for. Talk to me quietly if you need a priest.

This year’s session proposal system is a bit different from previous. It has been set up so you can work on a session over time, gather feedback and offers to contribute from others and generally be creative. You can also see the programme form over time as delegates sign up and add their contributions.

This is how it works: you all propose your sessions and a group of members see what will hang together as a good conference. We then let you know if you have been accepted, we ask you to join forces with another session or we politely let you know that it doesn’t fit in this time around. Generally though, things do hang together well.

That’s it. Start creating the BIG Event you want to attend and propose your session.

Sci-Comedy Skills Event 

We've had many a discussion on BIG-chat over the past year about the skills required to make science communication presentations a bit funnier. Well we've responded and come up with a great workshop at a bargain price to share with you the tools and perspectives drawn from stand-up comedy to add to your repertoire of speaking skills. The day features practical, creative and inspiring exercises and activities alongside analysis of videos of stand-up comedians.

Trainer Chris Head works with new and experienced comedians, corporate clients including Google, BNP Paribas, the advertising agencies BNP and Lida, and has previously worked with groups of science communicators (including Matt Parker, Maths Inspiration and Festival of the Spoken Nerd) on incorporating stand-up skills into their work. 

We've kept the costs right down so that the course is only £45. It will be held on 22nd February in Manchester. Find out more or book your place here (Note: at the time of writing there are only 6 places left!).

The day will help you to...

  • Get into your natural conversational tone, being in the moment with the audience so you come across as responsive, interactive and dynamic.
  • Discover how to give your content real life and impact – even when not going for laughs. The skills you will learn enliven, create interest, engagement and surprise, not just laughter.
  • You will also learn how to be more effectively funny when you want to be. How 'misdirection' is a simple and powerful tool for creating jokes and funny moments.
  • How to deliver and time funny lines. And how to recover if it goes wrong.
  • Deal with heckling and all of the challenges that can be thrown at you in public speaking situations, from small intimate groups to the largest and most formal occasions.
  • Create a 'thought process' and achieve a feeling of spontaneity.
  • Take a fresh look at starting and ending your presentations. Discover how a seemingly informal opening can work wonders before you get into the traditional opening. And how an unexpected postscript can really punch home and make memorable the whole speech.


Pilgrimage to Stagira

Dr Mark Lewney

And the award for “Science Attraction Least Likely To Have Been Visited By Any Other BIG Member In The World” goes to ... Aristotle Park, Stagira, Greece.

One cloudy day before I was due to perform at the Thessaloniki Scifest in October, my wife and I hopped in the hire car and toured the Halkidiki peninsula. We paddled on the beach where Aristotle grew up, taking in the mountains, islands and crystal sea which must have shaped his thoughts about the natural world. Then, further up in the hills, in the middle of nowhere, we found a little park where a bored attendant sat in a stone hut selling entrance tickets for a Euro each.

The exhibits were beautifully simple and built to endure the elements: a solar clock, coupled pendula, a giant Newton’s cradle, a water vortex column, rotatable illusion discs – that kind of thing. The only pieces actually related to Aristotle himself was his statue and some granite bars which played a pentatonic scale, and he would have marvelled at the telescopes pointing at the summit of the most Mount Doom-like mountain I’ve ever seen, Mount Athos. I also finally found parabolic sound-reflecting dishes which work, in the calm tranquillity of a garden.

It was a modest monument to the greatest thinker of all time, perhaps, but one that could be replicated in any park in the world. The whole collection could not have cost more than a kids playground, skate halfpipe or those silly training machines that nobody ever uses, and turned an unremarkable park into a place of wonder. I hope that one day parks will be seen as places where we can exercise our minds as well as our bodies.

You can find out more about Aristotle's Park and the exhibits it contains here.


Lab in a Lorry Update

James Bamford

The Institute of Physics’ Lab in a Lorry has been active since 2005 touring various regions of the UK. This year our two Labs have been in Scotland and North West England, while in 2013 Lab 1 will continue to tour Scotland and Lab 2 will visit Somerset during spring term and Wales in summer term. The ethos of the Lab is to allow the school pupils aged 11-14 years old to come on board and have the chance to do some experiments for themselves, while being guided by volunteer scientists and engineers.

We generally find pupils light up when they come to the Lab. They are allowed to participate in small groups and get their hands on all the experimental kit. This may not be something that always happens in the school classroom, so it gives them the chance to grow in confidence and experiment for themselves and work out what is going on. By talking to the volunteers who come and help us run the events, they can get a handle on how science works in the real world and how it applies to their lives right now.

Teachers love it because it is something different for their pupils to get involved with. While they will no doubt be providing exciting science classes, we can give them an extra boost and can get their kids inspired quickly. So that when they go back to the classroom they are keen to participate more. Obviously we have kit that is not available in the classroom, but also provide similar activities for them to build on after a visit. Volunteers have a chance to enhance their communication skills and have a fun time aswell while interacting with the kids. The instant feedback they receive gives a real sense of achievement and feeling of making a difference to the pupils and hopefully inspires them to continue with science in the future. By recruiting volunteers from a variety of backgrounds and ages, the pupils get to see that science is for everyone, challenging stereotypes and breaking down any barriers they may perceive.

For each year that a Lab operates, it will see around 10,000 pupils and visit around 50 schools and our two labs operate concurrently. To find out more or to get involved you can visit our website where you can find our tour itinerary.


Little Event: A review

Zoë Randell & Simon Jones, science made simple

On 7th January we went to Thinktank, Birmingham for the Little Event. The Little Event is a bit like the BIG Event – but littler! It’s an opportunity for early stage science communicators to come together, share best practice, and hear presentations from science communicators around the country.

The day’s events began with us all being given a film canister with an unknown substance inside. Using our powers of deduction, we had to group together with people who had the same thing inside their canisters. It’s harder than it sounds! However, as we were all science communicators it quickly turned into a discussion of using blagged film canisters for science demos.

The first session, delivered by Jennifer DeWitt from King’s College London, was about learning and evaluation. Do you use the Generic Learning Outcomes (GLOs) to plan and evaluate your science communication? You should!

Kenny Webster from Thinktank gave us an insightful and entertaining talk on interacting with the public. How do you talk to a member of the public who doesn’t respect your personal space? Give them a map of course! We were then asked to address each other with assigned personalities – Zoë tried to have a conversation with a person in desperate need of the toilet, whilst herself being rude and interrupting them. Simon was just hugely enthusiastic about everything. But he’s like that anyway so nobody noticed.

Over our lunch break we explored the exhibition floor and put our new interaction skills to good use. We had a lot of fun playing with the exhibits – here we are dressing up as a flower and beekeeper.

After lunch we discussed the history of science communication and its possible careers. This was delivered by Andy Lloyd from Centre for Life, who asked us to think about what things were important to us in our job, whether that’s closeness to family, opportunities to travel or responsibility of others. All this related keenly to the field of science communication.

The last session was delivered by James Piercy, also from science made simple.  We had a chance to do some presenting of our own and perform semi-improvised adverts for miscellaneous objects. How easy is it to persuade an audience a product is interesting– when you don’t know what it does?

As the Little Event drew to a close, we reflected on an exciting, social and highly enjoyable day. Upwards and onwards to the BIG Event in July!    

Calling Young Filmmakers

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is delighted to announce the return of our film competition Box Office Bioethics, inviting budding filmmakers and young thinkers to explore current ethical issues in biology and medicine - and get creative!

Last year saw some great contenders from schools and universities across the UK tackle challenging ethical questions around a wide variety of topics including abortion, GM crops, organ donation and public health. This year, we hope to see even more aspiring producers getting behind the camera.

The competition is open to students up to undergraduate level in the UK and Republic of Ireland, and may be of particular interest for students working towards an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ).

There are some great prizes up for grabs - winners will receive £200 in gift vouchers and their film will be shown at the Council's annual public lecture in London in spring 2013.

Films only have to be 3 to 5 minutes long and they can be about any bioethics topic, providing that it falls within the biological and medical sciences and the ethical dimensions of the issue are clearly presented and explored in the film.

Box Office Bioethics is open now and deadline for entries is 28 February 2013.

You can find more details and some useful material on our website, including a flyer and a short video about the competition. For more information please visit the site here.

National STEM Centre Saturday Drop In Sessions

Alice Coates

The National STEM Centre in York houses the UK’s largest collection of STEM teaching and learning resources, to support teachers in schools and colleges across the 5-19 age range.

The physical library holds over 15,000 contemporary print, multimedia, and hands-on materials from a wide range of well-known publishers. In addition, the archive room is where you will find treasures from the past – for example, a teachers’ guide that includes a classroom activity or practical protocol that you remember as being effective, and would like to share with colleagues.

Over 6,000 resources are also available online through the eLibrary, including collections from the Teachers TV archive, which you can access in full at

The physical library is open throughout the week (including school holidays and until 6pm each evening), and you are also now welcome to visit between 10am - 1pm on the first Saturday of the month from February to July. 

Please come along to:

  • find inspiration for new schemes of work
  • make departmental decisions about your curriculum
  • explore our extensive resource collection with dedicated staff on hand to assist you
There is no need to book for Saturday visiting. If you would like to use the library during the week, or have any queries about the resource collections, please contact me. Parking is available adjacent to the National STEM Centre, and tea & coffee is freely available in the library.

BIG People

Name: Marieke Navin

Job: Science Communication Officer at MOSI

A typical day at work consists of: I don’t tend to have a “typical” day as such. Today I’m having an admin day and catching up after Manchester Science Festival, Manchester FameLab and the last Saturday Science of the year, all of which occurred in quick succession! I can’t see my desk due to piles of paper, files and a box of painted, glittery 3D virus Christmas decorations.

What got you into this career?  Whilst I was doing a PhD I found I loved public engagement; as I was nearing the end I saw an advert for this job and seized it!

What is the best thing about your job? It is my dream job

... and the worst? Couldn’t possibly say in an open forum!

What is your favourite meal?  Thai red curry (extra hot)

What is your favourite smell?  My baby’s head

What talents do you possess?  
I can play a mean glass harp

What talents would you like to possess? I wish I was funnier. Science communication is more and more about making people laugh…I’m rubbish at that bit!

Which actor do you think should play you in the film of your life?  I would not give up my chance on the big screen for anyone, only I would play myself!

Which living person do you most admire and why? I’m going to say BIG’s own Wendy Sadler! I’m full of admiration for her amazing sci comm career, running her own business as well as being a brilliant mum

Most beautiful place on earth?  The grand canyon

What is your Motto for life?  Embrace change!

(since this article was submitted, Marieke has accepted the role of Director of Manchester Science Festival – congratulations Marieke!)

With best wishes from the BIG Executive 2012-13…

Andy Lloyd, Chair
Bridget Holligan, Vice Chair
David Porter, Treasurer
Ashley Kent, Secretary
Ben Craven, Ordinary Member
Rachel Mason, Event Organiser
and Sarah Vining, Administrator

© BIG STEM Communicators Network
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