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As your new Chair, I offer this welcome to BIG and another year of action and activity from the science communication skills sharing network.
Many of you will have had your first taste of BIG at the event in Glasgow others will be celebrating fifteen years as part of what has been called 'a benign cult'.
Whether new or old, I hope that you will join in BIG's other activities and read the wonderful BIG Chat email list. Look out for a new calendar of events as we hope to have a great programme of skills days this year.
This group has something of enormous value which cannot be bought, never wears out and provides never-ending support. That unique and priceless commodity is of course - you lot. I look forward to meeting and working with you all.
James Piercy, Chair
Holly Rogers: "One summery evening in July, as the doors of the local pubs were shutting, I was stepping onto a nightbus to Glasgow feeling somewhat apprehensive. I was about to begin my journey north to my very first BIG Event, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Would I have to recite a recipe for bubblemix before being allowed entry? Were my DIY skills up to scratch? Should I have packed some nitrocellulose? Fortunately, I had nothing to worry about. Not only is Glasgow Science Centre a really fabulous place, but everyone made us feel extremely welcome, and I learned far more than I could possibly have hoped! I tried to get around as many different sessions as possible, and never stopped talking – it seemed everyone had some advice or a story to tell. One particular highlight was David Hall’s vocal skills workshop, which very quickly saw us all lying on the floor, staring at the mysterious footprints on the ceiling. He taught us that you should use your full range of emotions, take lots of deep breaths, pace yourself...and always, always squeeze your lemon. Out of all the other sessions I managed to take part in, it was hard to pick out a favourite – I learned about refractive indices, juggling, and the joys of risk assessment. There were a good number of explosions, and a particularly memorable demo involving people snacking on insects...and unbelievably, I even managed to take lots of notes in between all the excitement. Of course, the moment everyone had been waiting for was the Best Demo competition. I hadn’t been brave enough to enter, but you could cut the atmosphere with a spatula as the Ruben’s Tube was revealed. As a violinist, I was pretty excited by Lewis’s neuroscience hoedown, but the hairdryer/teabag combo was a worthy winner. If you’ve not been to a BIG Event before, I can’t recommend it enough. The BIG Event in Glasgow may have been my first, but it certainly won’t be my last..."
Lewis Hou: "I arrived at my first BIG Event not sure what to expect, but ready to meet and learn from a group promised to be “people like me”: people who loved science and loved sharing this with people. I wasn’t disappointed. Beginning with a mathematically engineered icebreaker, the science communication geekery only went up from there over the three days. Sometimes it was more traditional, sharing innovative techniques teachers use in the classroom. Some were much more practical, looking at the importance of evaluation or thinking about funding for events. Others were just a riot, such as the improvisation workshop with Science Made Simple: communicating and team building just won’t ever be the same again (but rather based on the crowds random suggestions).Then there was the BIG Demo competition. Perhaps I didn’t quite know what I let myself in for when I applied, but after the first day of the meeting, I decided to ditch my tried-and-tested routine in favour of taking the opportunity to develop a long time pipedream of mine: a song about the brain’s effect on music. “Fiddling around the Brain” was thus born on the train back to Edinburgh Wednesday night, a calculated risk, but I wanted to be adventurous and I felt BIG would love a sing along. On all three counts I was correct, in that it was fun, people joined in but the intensity of the moment meant I forgot quite a few of the words. Still, I was content with something a wee bit different and with the seal broken, I’ll keep developing this in the future. I very much enjoyed the other demos as all the performers did very well and I learnt something from all of them: there should be more dances in routines, words aren’t necessary to communicate, jenga is unpredictable, and as the ultimate winners Marcin and Blazej proved, how there are always new, inventive ways of doing chestnut demos. And ultimately, that’s kind of the point. The BIG Event allows us to break out of our often insular bubbles of public engagement, to meet and share ideas with other Science Communicators who often have very different ideas of how to engage with the public. As I begin to develop more of my own projects like Deadinburgh beyond my native Edinburgh International Science Festival or Edinburgh University, the more I realise that sharing, debating and collaboration is how we develop as communicators, keeping it fresh, relevant and jolly good fun. And that’s the joy of Science Communication after all. This July I received a bursary to attend the BIG event in Glasgow. It was an absolutely brilliant time and a fantastic opportunity for a person entering into the wonderful world of science communication, such as myself."
Elizabeth Pearson: "The BIG demo competition was, as many would agree, a fantastic event and one I enthusiastically took part in. It was wonderful to see the best in the business, and those on a similar level to myself, show what they’ve got. With talks ranging from a whimsical (and scientific) way of making a nice cup of tea with a balloon and a hair dryer to a sexed up Van de Graff there were all manner of styles and subjects to learn from. I thoroughly enjoyed competing myself (I didn’t knock anyone out with my poi galaxies!) and it got me talking to a lot of new people I might not have otherwise had the opportunity to see. Other highlights included explaining the life cycle of ants as thriller/angry man/erotic novel as part of David Hall's voice workshop, learning more about what can be done to promote astronomy with the UK Dark Sky Discovery crew and a very entertaining improvised comedy work shot. Somehow Huw James and Matthew Tosh even managed to make risk assessments seem exciting and entertaining. As a keen writer I was keen to learn more about how I could combine both my love of literature and science and was inundated with ideas I hope to put into practice in the future. As well as all the new ideas and inspirations it was wonderful to get to meet all the wonderful communicators I had heard talked about in the past or conversed with on twitter. It really made me feel like I was becoming one of the science communication community and gave me the confidence to go forward and pursue this career. I would highly recommend this event to anyone who is looking to get into this line of work, it was nothing but helpful."
Michael Smith: "A colleague of mine went to the BIG Event 2012 and came back full of ideas and inspiration, so as the 2013 event was only in Glasgow I thought I’d see about going. I enjoy being in the company of other Science Communication professionals, hearing about the exciting projects other centres are working on, see what great demonstrations the makers are making, sharing stories and meeting both old and new friends. The BIG Event didn’t fail me on any of those fronts. Highlights for me included the Centre for Life’s Dino Maths workshop, attempting to deduce whether the footprints of our particular dinosaur showed a beast enjoying a leisurely stroll or undertaking a more strenuous effort (and the ‘polishing a turd’ joke never gets old). I also found the last session of the event, Evaluate your presentation with 3 little questions, to be very thought provoking. It saw James Soper propose to start a debate about we as a sector having a framework by which all pieces of science communication can be evaluated, whether that be a science show, a written article or a broadcast piece. The 3 questions of the title are:
I look forward to seeing if that has been developed upon by BIG 2014. The real highlight was the Best Demo competition, a great atmosphere to the evening and a star turn from the BSL interpreter, a language which is clearly no less rich in metaphor than the spoken version. So thanks to BIG for allowing me to attend the event, and to all those whose sessions I greatly enjoyed. Looking forward to BIG 2014, as they say in Glasgow, cannae wait".
Dr Kirsty Ross: "As a scientist, I’m used to going to conferences. Usually there are dull sessions when you can slope off and do your own thing. That was definitely NOT the case at the BIG event! I barely got the chance to visit the excellent exhibits at the Glasgow Science Centre as I was too busy running from one fascinating session to another. It was the most fun conference I have ever been to. As a BIG Event virgin, I was a bit nervous that it would be full of cliques but the BIG Event Mingle by the Whispering Dishes put paid to that concern. Everyone was so welcoming and I was even brave enough by the end to speak up at the “What does BIG stand for?” session following the AGM. Particular highlights included Valerie Mellon’s keynote on creating the children’s TV show ‘Nina and the Neurons’, ‘Communicating science through comics’, ‘Looking local’ and ‘Adults after hours’. Of particular interest to me were the discussions that surrounded the ‘Evaluation, evaluation, evaluation’ session led by Stephanie Sinclair of the Wellcome Trust. As scientists we are (quite rightly) increasingly asked to provide pathways to impact statements in our grant applications. I appreciated the opportunity to discover that we are still finding our way with regards to evaluation and that there is always room for improvement (and decent definitions of impact!). Many thanks again to BIG whose bursary made my attendance possible. I will definitely be back next year (and dragging many of my colleagues along for the entertaining and informative ride)."
Ben Craven, Executive Committee
This year’s Best Demo competition provoked a mighty discussion on BIG-Chat. The demos, the performances, the judging, and the very nature and purpose of the competition were all up for debate.
As usual, opinions varied widely. A prominent issue was a perceived mismatch between how the competition is represented to the world, and what actually happens. There are as many philosophies of Best Demo as there are BIG members, but here are two caricatures:
Caricature 1: Best Demo should be a prestigious competition that showcases the cream of the science communication crop. Winning it should be a big deal, rewarded by a trophy. The criteria on which demos are judged should be explicit and made clear both to competitors and to those doing the judging. If your demo goes wrong on the night, you should join the French Foreign Legion.
Caricature 2: Best Demo should be a relaxed bit of fun which happens to have a winner (probably rewarded by a bit of token tat from a science centre shop). There should be no judging criteria – the judges should be free to decide based on the idiosyncratic and unpredictable charms of the entries. Trying out unreliable demos should be accepted and when things go wrong there should be no worse social penalty than temporary embarrassment.
Of course, you can pick’n’mix from these two extremes, and I imagine most people would want to do that. (I certainly would; in fact my own philosophy of Best Demo isn’t even internally consistent.)One thing is clear: it would be a good idea to make sure that competitors, audience, and judges know what to expect from Best Demo. To do that, we need to decide what Best Demo’s purpose in life is. The BIG Exec will be earnestly debating this issue in upcoming meetings.
The Best Demo competition was won this year by a gently amusing duo from Copernicus Science Centre in Poland - Marcin Chydziński and Błażej Dawidson, for their tea-flavoured twist on aerodynamics. Gratulacje to you, gentlemen! The Best Demo competition trophy has already left British soil and is winging its way to Warsaw.
The Wellcome Trust believes that informal learning stimulates interest in science, as well as an appreciation of its social, cultural and historical context.
Informal learning experiences can also improve attainment levels and build learner’s knowledge and skills. We have collated the evidence underpinning these beliefs and produced an infographic highlighting this evidence.The Wellcome Trust Review of Informal Learning, published in 2012, examines the informal science learning sector in the UK and its value to science education. It calls for better evidence to support advocacy of informal learning. Our infographic has been created for advocacy purposes and is freely available to view, use and share.
If you use the infographic or have any feedback, please do get in touch. We plan to update the infographic over time as the evidence base grows.
Dr Paul McCrory, learn differently ltd
Science demonstrations are often criticised for their passive nature, their gratuitous exploitation and their limited ability to develop scientific knowledge and understanding.
In some of today’s active-learning-obsessed classrooms, demonstrations are getting a bad reputation compared to hands-on activities.Our detractors often condemn spectacular demonstrations as a disingenuous way to motivate students to study science.
If the emotional engagement derives from a showmanship device which is external to the science, then I would agree that such external hooks need to be used very judiciously to avoid giving the damaging impression that we need “to make science fun”.
If, however, the engagement arises from hooks which are inherent to science so that you are merely “letting the fun inside science out” (e.g. explosions; colour changes; the suspenseful delay until a chemical reaction occurs) then I find this criticism harsh. Are we to ignore some of the most viscerally appealing aspects of science, simply because they do not represent all that there is to a career in science?
It is fair to say, though, that such demonstrations could often be better framed in a broader context which celebrates some of the other, more intellectual, rewards of understanding science. I’m passionate about the power of science demos in, and out, of the classroom. For me, demonstrations can be emotionally engaging science theatre. Their unique power lies, like theatre, in their impact on the communal emotional engagement and focus of the audience. The image shows Tom Pringle (“Dr Bunhead”) showing the beautiful phenomenon of a fire tornado (Ben Russell, Deadline).
Demonstrations have enormous potential to:
I’ve tried to capture a rationale for the main benefits of science demonstrations in this paper written for science teachers, but much of this applies to the demos performed by science communicators too - see: In defence of the classroom science demonstration
So why are science demonstrations important to you? And how can we best defend the art and profession of science demonstration to our detractors?
I’m an Anonymous Researcher, and I lead a double life. What I do, and what I want to do are two different things, but I try to do both.
Both of them demand sacrifice, and I’m the one on the chopping block. I’m employed as a post-doctoral researcher at a University, but I know I’m not cut out for research in the long haul. So while I’m here, I indulge my other passion – public engagement. I believe that the future of funding for research in Britain relies on science communication, and so I’m looking to make the move full-time after my contract ends.
As this constitutes a change of career, it requires a lot of research and activity, which I do in conjunction with the research and activity that I actually get paid for. Recently, with the blessing of my Principal Investigator, I achieved the post of Public Engagement Ambassador at the University. Amongst other things, one of my aims was to carry out some exemplary public engagement work.
When my PI found out that I was planning on talking about his research, he hit the roof. I was accused of being unknowledgeable, selfish, wasting everyone’s time, and wasting public money. Lawyers were mentioned. I gave the talk anyway, but the final product was so oversimplified (at my PI’s request), I was almost embarrassed to give it.
So now, I carry out my public engagement work in secret. I come in before everyone else to make sure that I have enough time to fulfil my commitments to my job, and my commitments to my passion. I spend my days hoping that my PI doesn’t catch me with anything but a spreadsheet on my PC.
In the lab, I push buttons. I frown at meter readings. I peer into darkened chambers and hold my breath while tweezing wafer-thin samples. I read journals and silently chastise other researchers. I move data from here to there, and produce pages of graphs that will never be deemed satisfactory. Over lunch, or during long bathroom breaks, I blog. I tweet. I read. I comment. I teach. I write. I practise. I plan. I promote anyone’s research but my own. I walk the long way around campus to avoid being seen out of the office or the lab. I hold secret meetings in darkened rooms. I tell them I’m taking holiday when I’m actually attending science communication conferences. I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to encourage researchers into public engagement, and arguments for them to give their PIs to enable them to do public engagement. All the while, I cannot be seen by my PI to be doing any public engagement. I live a double life, by double standards.
Dr Heather King, King's College London
Is there more we can offer parents than a good day out for their offspring? FEAST, a partnership of some of Europe’s leading informal science institutions, believes there is.
FEAST, which started in December 2011, is a two-year collaborative project co-funded by the European Commission under its Lifelong Learning programme. The partners include NEMO in Amsterdam, Teknikens Hus in Luleå, Sweden, the National Museum of Science and Technology ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ in Milan, Techmania in Pilsen, Czech Republic, House of Experiments’ from Ljubljana in Slovenia, and King’s College London.
FEAST is coordinated by Ecsite, the European Network of Science Centres and Museums.The five science centre and museum partners in FEAST have devised a series of workshops based on existing good practice in science engagement and research evidence about how parents interact with their children during visits. These workshops were shared with the wider community through an intensive five-day course for museum explainers and facilitators in Amsterdam in September.
The course was led by project partners including Professor Justin Dillon and Dr Heather King from King’s.The five workshops focus on developing parents’ skills in facilitating their children’s engagement with science by developing their critical thinking skills and competences as informal science educators. The science topics included astronomy and space science, floating and sinking, robots and robotics, sound, and the design of vehicles. The most successful workshops differentiated clear roles for the parents so that they were able to take a more effective role in working with science centre staff to facilitate their children’s learning. Not only does this approach lead to a better experience for the children but also the parents feel that they have gained new skills and content knowledge as well as some ideas for activities that they can follow-up at home. Details about FEAST can be found here.
In 2012 the Wellcome Trust launched In the Zone – a national education and engagement initiative linked to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The project involved sending out over 32,000 kit boxes to every UK school, further education college, initial teacher training provider, science centre, and a network of 200 ambassadors. In the Zone also delivered two UK wide tours engaging over 200,000 members of the public with the science of their amazing human body during sport and movement, and a variety of smaller related projects.
The model for In the Zone was based upon a previous successful project; Darwin200 was delivered in 2009 and also involved a national school kits programme and numerous public-facing creative and broadcast projects.For both of these large-scale initiatives we commissioned independent external evaluations and are keen to share our learning with others. Additionally, we’ve created a top tips document, which we hope will provide food for thought to those starting out with engagement projects, act as a useful reminder to more experienced practitioners and keep us on track if we decide to take on another big challenge!
The full evaluation reports from Darwin 200 and In the Zone are available from our website. Please contact Leah Holmes at email@example.com if you’d like a printed version of the Top Tips. We would love to hear whether your experience matches ours or whether you have a different set of top tips to share – if you do, please get in touch.
Funding…It’s that essential thing many of us BIG members need to do the things we love doing and passionately believe will enrich the lives of others.
To get it often means we often have to stop our day to day work we love and throw ourselves into a whole new world of proposal writing and predicting budgets. Let’s be honest, it’s a pain, but when it pays off…yippee!Yippee!... is how I felt when I found out I had been successful in securing funding from the EC for a great, three year project called ‘ Make the link’. The project is all about integrating global learning into science and D & T teaching for 7-19 year olds. Through our work we hope pupils will:
Getting the funding has given the schools team at Practical Action the chance of working with two great organisation in the UK, Engineers without Borders and the Centre for Science Education, plus our partners in Italy, Cyprus and Poland.
On September 10th after ’a bit’ of hard work that yippee feeling changed to one of pride and excitement when we launched the first teaching materials produced as part of this project at the British Science Festival. Beat the Flood is a really versatile hands on STEM challenge and can be used in lessons, for STEM clubs or as basis for a collapsed curriculum day. It is accredited for the new CREST Discovery Award and there is a competition for schools with some great prizes as well. Pupils use STEM skills to design and build a flood-proof home. They are encouraged to carry out experiments to determine what structures (frame or shell) and materials (based on strength and absorbency) are most suited for their home. To test their home they stand it in water and squirt with a hose pipe. Like a lot of fun science it could get messy!
All teaching materials are free and on-line and we even have a poster we send out to schools who request one. So, with the launch so recent we are now waiting for the flood (sorry, couldn’t resist that one) of poster requests and teachers accessing our materials on-line. If you have the opportunity to spread the word about our new challenge please do. We are happy to send fliers and posters to anyone who wants them.For us the pain of going through the proposal writing process really paid off and we have the funding in place for a really great project. I hope that if you are about to embark putting a proposal together our story will give you hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
You can contact Julie here for more information or visit the website.
Due to popular demand, the Science Communication Unit at the University of the West of England is delighted to announce that their Masterclass in Science Communication will take place again this Autumn. And BIG members get a 10% discount off registration fees for the course.
The Masterclass is an intensive course created to provide professional development in science communication. The Masterclass draws on the existing expertise of the team that delivers UWE's popular and practical MSc in Science Communication. The Masterclass covers a range of topics including: the historical and social contexts of science communication, scientific literacy and public understanding, publics and engagement, face-to-face, media and online methods of engaging with the public. In addition, students are offered a choice of interactive sessions enabling them to concentrate on particular areas of interest.
The Masterclass has been designed for those with little or no experience in field of science communication and would be suitable for practising scientists wishing to enhance the public engagement element of their research, science graduates interested in science communication – or those seeking a career change, scientists/ teachers of science seeking continuing professional development and people working in Research Councils with a communication element to their role.
How to apply
This Autumn’s Masterclass will be held at At-Bristol during 18-21 November 2013 and will cost £750 per delegate (£600 concessionary rate for students, unemployed and low earners, 10% discount for BIG members and FameLab regional finalists).
If you would like to attend please complete the form on our registration page. Please note that places are limited and tend to book out quickly, so early registration is recommended.
A typical day at work consists of: Checking that simulations left running overnight are either still going or have completed successfully, project review meetings, analysis of experimental and simulated data, doing literature reviews, small amounts of project management, writing basic scripts to help with data analysis or extraction, writing test proposals and technical reports, supervising testing at external test houses, giving schools talks, conducting the company choir at lunchtimes… I tend to squeeze in either a swim at the local pool or an IET teleconference during my lunch break. Much of my evenings and weekends are spent in the radio studio recording interviews, reading news bulletins or editing episodes of the soap opera I produce.
What got you into this career? Luck. I graduated from university with a degree in maths and physics not knowing what I wanted to do. I joined EADS on a graduate training scheme to try out different aspects of engineering and my second placement turned out to be in a team who blow bits of aircraft up with lightning to see what happens. For some reason this appealed to me and I never left… I got into radio when I was a student, presenting a jazz show and now also do weekly breakfast and science programmes as well as an occasional quiz programme. The rest of the “extracurricular” activities listed above are as a result of me not being able to say no when asked to do things…
What is the best thing about your job? It’s research – we never know exactly what the results will tell us which is exciting. It’s also rewarding (as well as a little bit scary) that results from my research will end up on aircraft that millions of people will fly on. I also get to do a lot of public engagement stuff – most of it in my own time but as my job sounds cool/interesting anyway, I don’t have to work too hard to make it appeal to a wide audience.
... and the worst? The useless IT systems we have to deal with in order to do what should be a simple task such as fill in a timesheet, book a conference or get some software installed…
What is your favourite meal? Difficult. I love my food. I think it’s easiest to pick my favourite meal to cook than to eat – that’s pork in a red wine, mushroom and cream sauce. It goes in the oven on a low heat for about 90 minutes and the smell of the red wine cooking fills the whole house!
What is your favourite smell? Also difficult. Either a good outdoor hog roast or Cadbury World…!
What talents do you possess? I can play the trumpet well and used to be able to play the piano to an OK level. I can present jazz and science radio shows well and breakfast shows to an OK level (I struggle to sound enthusiastic about this “chart music” malarkey…). I’ve recently started calling ceilidhs which is a steep learning curve having never danced one! I’m also very good at taking too many things on and being too busy to sleep.
What talents would you like to possess? Time travel. See above. Also, creative writing – I am quite jealous of the script writers of the soap opera. I don’t have the skills to be involved in the script writing process for our radio soap but would love to have those skills. Unfortunately, I either can’t think of interesting story lines or I can’t think of interesting ways to express them! So I stick to the audio production side of things which poses its own creative challenges!
Which actor do you think should play you in the film of your life? Er… I don’t think anyone should make a film about my life! It would be a box office flop!
Which living person do you most admire and why? I don’t think I can actually pick one person I most admire. There are lots of people I admire for different reasons – I admire lots of BIG and science communication people for the innovative things they do and willingness to help others. I admire many of my Radio Cardiff ‘colleagues’ for the amount they put into the station (we’re all unpaid volunteers there). I admire several fellow IET volunteers for the amount they give back to the engineering profession. And I admire many of my EADS colleagues for their incredible technical knowledge and expertise. Oh, and the entire cast & production team of the Archers for providing me with 13 minutes of delightful escapism six nights a week since I was about 14 years old… (damn, did I say that out loud?!).
Most beautiful place on earth? I’ve never quite managed to venture outside of Western Europe so nowhere too exotic. I love France in particular and I think my favourite places I’ve visited there have been Perpignan (for the mountains) and Annecy (for the lake). However I’m off to Corsica shortly to do a week of schools science workshops there and that may make it to the top of the list judging by what others have told me.
What is your Motto for life? “Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life” -- this is actually a quote from the great drummer Art Blakey. But I think it’s true – it’s just as good a cure for everything as a good strong cuppa is!
James Piercy, Chair
Bridget Holligan, Vice Chair
David Porter, Treasurer
Ashley Kent, Secretary
Ben Craven, Ordinary Member
Stephanie Sinclair, Ordinary Member
Rachel Mason, Event Organiser
and Sarah Vining, Administrator