BIG e-news: Summer 2016 edition - Issue 36


The BIG Event is on the horizon and with 130 people booked already to join us in Belfast this July, there are only a few places left. So if you’re thinking of coming along, now is a good time to firm up your plans. Low cost flights (for those of you not already living on the most hospitable island in Europe) are available from all UK airports to Belfast City or Belfast International Airport. If you are already in Northern Ireland or RoI, you’re even better placed to come along.

The conference is relevant for designers, presenters, educators, students, front of house staff, evaluators, educationalists, funders, and anyone involved in public engagement with STEM. Many people working in the STEM engagement field have little opportunity to cross paths with their peers, so the BIG Event was designed with exactly this in mind.

More than 40 workshops, discussions, shows, and even a sprinkling of sessions that simply can’t be categorised; this is the place to:

  • share skills and experiences
  • develop professional links and keep up-to-date with the STEM engagement field
  • hone your skills and recharge your professional batteries
  • pick up great ideas and show off your talents to peers
  • meet your next employer

Register and find out more here

During the BIG Event we will be electing the new committee for next year. In particular, we will be on the hunt for a new Chair. Are any of you interested in representing your peers? Start thinking now, and look out for the call for nominations in the next couple of weeks.

Sarah ViningAdministrator


 Josh Award winner announced!

 You heard it here first! Mathematician  Katie Steckles has won the 2016 Josh Award.    She plans to turn the Museum of Science and  Industry into a giant hand-made, crowd-  sourced image during this year’s Manchester  Science Festival.

 Katie's winning application suggested festival  visitors help colour thousands of individual  ‘pixels’ that will make up a picture in  one of  the museum’s windows representing  how  digital devices such as computers, tablets,  and  phones display images.

 The project will also look at the mathematics  behind how devices store images as a series of  numbers that create the different colours on  screen. There’ll be a close-up look at the pixels in your own phone’s screen and a photo booth that transforms you into an Excel spreadsheet of colour values.

The Josh Award is the UK’s national award in science communication, established to recognise and support up-and-coming talent in science communication. The award provides the opportunity to become the science communicator in residence at the Manchester Science Festival 2016, in partnership with the University of Salford, Manchester developing and delivering a new project or event while showcasing best practice in the field of science communication. The winner receives support to nurture their development in the field and their involvement in the Manchester Science Festival from both the Festival team, the University of Salford’s Science Communication cluster, and the BIG STEM Communicators Network.

Katie said of winning the award, I'm delighted to have received this award, and I'm very much looking forward to the project in October. I've worked on events with Manchester Science Festival many times in the past, and am extremely proud to be Science Communicator in Residence with such a great organisation.’

Antonio Benitez, Director of Manchester Science Festival, said, ’We are delighted that Katie will be the science communicator in residence at the Manchester Science Festival 2016.  Katie is a very inspiring science communicator and a great ambassador for Manchester Science Festival. The Festival team is looking forward working with Katie to develop and deliver this exciting new project showcasing best practise in the field of science communication for this year’s festival’

The is the third year that BIG has been co-organising the Josh Award. We saw some very strong entries and choosing a winner was not easy. The award panel were impressed with Katie’s plan for an event at the Manchester Science festival and with her commitment to bringing mathematics to the fore in everyday life.

Barriers to engagement with STEM: the experience of First Campus secondary schools

Helen Obee Reardon, First Campus

This is a very potted version of a consultation with First Campus schools run last academic year. We’d had increased issues with schools not engaging and last-minute drop outs so I decided to consult with a view to changing things to make engagement easier for the schools. The First Campus STEM programme works with schools with a high proportion of pupils from Communities First (deprived) areas to raise aspirations to go on to study at university; for the full explanation please visit here. Eight responses were received from about 40 schools.

Half of responding schools are not permitting KS4 or even KS3 groups out of lessons for relevant STEM activities which has potentially a huge impact on curriculum enrichment. 

Teachers were interested in exam and revision skills being taught throughout the year groups; it’s great to see teachers wanting these embedded throughout the school and it could have a big positive impact on both attainment and pupils’ wellbeing.

Teachers wanted us to emphasise the importance of literacy and numeracy skills which is a bit surprising as you might expect this to be a recurrent theme in school. Pathways and opportunities for girls in STEM were less important, perhaps understandably.

Respondents wanting to know the entire programme at the beginning of the academic year and asking for risk assessments to be sent up-front rather than on request were real shocks and hadn’t been flagged up by teachers previously. Both of these are linked to the amount of time required to upload information to the school trip computer system and getting permission to take pupils out of school (now six weeks or more).

Two major barriers were cost and time it takes to do the paperwork. Cost was concerning transport and cover, the latter being a complicated issue and not one First Campus can help with. We’ve changed our processes to provide as much for information and support for teachers as possible, including letters for parents and a briefing if the booking teacher is not accompanying the group, saving them time where we can.

The biggest change is producing a leaflet with details of the entire programme for the whole academic year. This has proved very popular not only with schools but to raise awareness of First Campus and our STEM programme with other organisations. Within this we flag up projects with links to industry/university, building STEM and wider skills amongst other things teachers have requested. Autumn term activities are sent out in the preceding summer term.


Know your audience: watermelon or c'onservative?

Tania Wilkins, University of Oxford

In the majority of mainstream communication theories, principles and guidance, ‘know your audience’ is repeated ad nauseam, almost as a mantra. My recent attendance at a climate change masterclass with @climategeorge from Climate Outreach, left me with the sense that, as communicators, we had forgotten our own discipline.

I was reminded in no uncertain terms that it is not about using language that resonates with the ‘watermelons’, rather that we need to understand the values of the majority centre-right population who need mobilisation to take action against the impacts of a changing climate.

Okay, so firstly … I suspect you’re asking ‘what is a watermelon?’

I wasn’t aware of this term, but it refers to a greenie on the outside with an inner red just screaming to come out. Humorous? Yes … but it’s a barrier in contemporary climate change communication.

And c’onservative? Let me explain that too – it is a new word, invented by Mr Marshall himself to explain the centre-right who have conservative values but do not necessarily vote for the Conservative party.

So now down to the very necessary understanding of a values-based approach to communicating with this large proportion of the constituency.

In the facts and figures that George threw at us during the intensive masterclass, it became apparent that a large portion of those who sit amongst the ‘middle’ of the charts actually know that something is up with the climate, but lack a conviction in the science. In creating long-term social and political change to positively impact on the planet, there needs to be a far greater emphasis on reaching c’onservative values.

And what are these values? The research into these shows far less emphasis on the ‘big business’ that is often attributed to c’onservative folk. Instead, there exists a very strong narrative around aspirations of enjoyment and happiness, of people making a go of it themselves, standing on their own two feet, of consistency and respect for authority.

In considering this against previous climate change communication, with images of stranded polar bears, cracked earth surfaces and children telling the adults off, you can perhaps start to see that the climate change community haven’t really understood their audience at all.

With c’onservatives generally being sceptical of grand theories and ideologies, using the polar bears and big statements about intergenerational equity just misses the mark … time and time again.

To find out more about these c’onservative values, read the rest of Tanya’s blog here


 The Trouble with School Engineering  Projects 

 Paul Treble

 As a STEM Ambassador I have taken part in a number of  events, organised by others and usually aimed at KS3  students, where they are set an engineering challenge such  as building the tallest tower to support a wooden egg,  building a shelter that they can all get into or designing and  marketing a car. These have all been done in the space of a  single day with no prior preparation by the students who  usually flail around trying to make the best of the junk  material that s to hand. This exercise is expected to develop  team working skills as well as engineering expertise though  the students are not told this at the start and have no prior  guidance. Neither is there an opportunity at the end to reflect  on how individual teams have worked together and  performed.

I have thought from time to time that there has to be a better way and recently I was handed an opportunity to try a different approach at a local primary school. The topic for the term was ‘Mountains’ and I was invited by the teacher to come up with a project associated with mountains. After some thought I decided to put myself in the role of ‘External Consultant’ for a project building a mountain lift. I wrote a brief which was open enough to allow a wide range of designs from ski lifts to mountain railways and organised three visits to the school. With a colleague to help me we went for our first visit where we presented the students with the challenge and the materials they had to work with. These included scrap material together with some LEGO and KNEX. We also allowed the students to bring material from home if they liked. The students (in teams of 3) then had 3 days to design their lift and experiment as they wanted to with key elements of their design. The ‘Consultant team’ then went back to school where we interviewed the students in groups of 3 teams. Each team was invited to present their design to us and the other teams present. Suggestions and comments were freely offered before the students left to refine their designs ready for the building day. Towards the end of the building day we visited the school a 3rd time to view the results and talk to the students about how well the teams worked (one team had not got on and had broken up!), what they might improve given a second chance, what skills did they identify in their fellow team members etc.

This approach worked very well as shown by the results. All the designs really benefitted from the thought and planning that went into them. The co-operation between school and STEM Ambassador was excellent. The downside, of course, is that 3 visits were made to the school but being retired that is a luxury that I can afford!


The Curiosity Box: Serious fun with STEM

Renee Watson

 The shows, activities and events that we BIGGers do to  get people going Wow! are critical but what if we could  get more families choosing to do science at home? That  is my dream! I want to get science happening in every  household, first in the UK, then the world!

 Over the last decade we have come to believe that for  most kids, parents are the keeper of the keys when it  comes to an interest in STEM; they just need a bit of  confidence and some tools to make it as fascinating as  we know it can be. We know that children are curious  and we all want them to stay that way! Curiosity is after  all one of the magical ingredients that make a scientist.

 Enter the Curiosity Box our first attempt at  mainstreaming science in the home. It has taken 18  months of developing, planning, prototyping and testing  and a lot of wrangling on the question of whether a  commercial STEM product can work alongside our  desire to make STEM accessible to all. In the end, we decided that a monthly subscription  service that brings STEM subjects to life through hands-  on activities that can all be conducted at home would  open access to large numbers of families and that we  can use reserves generated to fund initiatives that open access to all.

(image by VivaciousMel Photography)         

The concept is simple; nurture curiosity, create awesome experiences at home that embellish the primary science curriculum and that develop creative thinking and problem solving skills. Easy for parents, serious fun for kids. We are focusing first on 7-11 year olds because we believe this is a critical age when a lot of budding scientists start to loose interest.

Every month will have a specific theme and subscribers will have everything they need to conduct the experiments along with comprehensive instructions and links to online resources for any particularly difficult aspects of the experiments. Each box will be specifically curated to help children learn beyond the experiment itself.

But we want the Curiosity Box to go much further than the science kits you can buy in shops by including:

  • Curiosity Champions!, collectible cards featuring scientists whose research is linked to the box theme,
  • Collectible science kit so that kids have the equipment to start doing their own experiments,
  • Awards for the most awesome experiments and most epic fails (mistakes WILL be celebrated!),
  • Limited edition Adults Only kits and
  • Online content to support parents and to point kids to other resources once their interest is sparked.  

This project is a big risk but I think it is our best shot at getting more science happening in the home, really taking a chunk out of the persistent misconceptions of what makes a scientist and helping parents nurture all those wonderful curious minds.

I love how supportive the BIG community is and I'm really hoping you will want to help make The Curiosity Box a success! We need as many people as possible to spread the word so we can get loads of backers for our Kickstarter campaign when we go live on 13th June. We would also love to hear from anyone interested in partnering with us or becoming a Curiosity Champion.

To find out more, email me here 


Athens Science Festival 2016 trip

Sarah Keer-Keer, Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology

 We flew three researchers (Ilaria Amendola and Natalia  Torrea – Stancheva lab, and Ioanna Leontiou – Hardwick  lab) and two public engagement workers (Maria  Fanourgiaki and Sarah Keer-Keer) out to Athens for one  week this March. Three of us stayed in AirBnB  accommodation in Gazi near the science festival campus,  the other two stayed with their Athens families.

 Through our staff and helper who were Greek, we  contacted and worked with two local scientists, training  them to work on our activities: Aggeliki Kalisperi and Elisa Alexiadou. They both spent many hours and days busy with visitors, patiently explaining our research to the public. Thank you Aggeliki and Elisa! I think meeting and working with them is one of our favourite parts of the trip.

We spent one afternoon training and working with around 25 volunteers and ambassadors from the science festival. We met three times with Athens Science Festival staff to show them our activities, train them to use the equipment and leave them with equipment and posters etc for their own use. We are now intending to work together to apply for Erasmus+ along with a contact from one of the researchers on our trip.

We took with us the equipment and consumables to run Life Through a Lens workshop (lite version) using tablet computers, clip on microscopes and platform microscopes. We also took equipment to run the same activities as a drop-in for three days. The platform microscopes are an open source innovation considerably improved by the Enlightenment project at Heriot Watt University. The Clip on microscopes are available online, but we bought and tested about 20 before we found the best ones to work with.

Maria translated our workshop into Greek live, and we all knew some words of Greek. We saw one class of 20 pupils (10-11 years old) and two teachers for a workshop. Our school session were well received by pupils and teachers and rated 4.58 (on a scale 0-5 where 5 is the best). Our second scheduled class had to be cancelled when two classes were booked in and could not be separated. Instead that afternoon we ran a training session with local staff. 

On our second day we ran drop in activities for 295 visiting school pupils. Drop in activities were rated 4.55 on the same scale. 

Over two weekend days, we ran drop-in activities with the public. We worked both in Greek or in English with some Greek words, depending on our background. Attendance was 638 Day one and 1121 on day two. These days went really well, although we felt we could have seen even more people with more space. The activity that we devoted the most space to was the one about our Epigenetics research, its not an easy subject to convey to the public, but we got really good at it, able to work with as many as 14 people at one time for discussion and activities. Drop in activities were rated 4.75 and 4.96 (on a scale 0-5, where 5 is best). 

We used our standard paper evaluation sheets for schools and public, translated into Greek. We also had a wall chart, where people could place stickers to rate us. 

Public attendance experience and feedback

  • Day 1 Schools – 295
  • Day 2 Public - 638 
  • Day 3 Public – 1121

Average dwell time of visitors approx. 12 minutes.

Evaluation sticker board

Drop in activities sticker evaluation (see fig 4). Average ratings were: Friday 4.55 (n=44), Saturday 4.75 (n=92) Sunday 4.96 (n=26)

We collected 45 paper evaluation forms filled out in Greek and translated for data analysis.

Overall rating 4.88 (0-5, where 5 I the best)

Average age of visitor – 22.5 years

Average dwell time – 20.39 minutes 

Athens Science Festival is run by SciCo and they also run science festivals in Thessaloniki and Cyprus. 


Inspire thousands of future scientists and engineers: Big Bang Fair 2017!

Jenny Karlsson, EngineeringUK

The Big Bang Fair is calling for companies, activity providers, education institutions and show organisers to play their part in next year’s Fair, which takes place at the NEC in Birmingham from 15-18 March 2017.

Celebrating its ninth year in 2017, The Big Bang UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair brings together the STEM community in a collective effort to inspire over 70,000 young people, their teachers and parents across four days each March. 

There are many ways to get involved with The Big Bang Fair, from interactive stands and workshops to theatre shows and busking. We have options and packages to suit all forms of science and engineering communication, including grants for sole traders. 

  • 75% of stated that The Big Bang Fair is better than most or better than all other events in the skills space with 22% stating it was similar to others.
  • 98% of activity providers at The Big Bang Fair 2016 stated they would like to return in 2017.

If you are interested in playing a part, please contact activities@thebigbangfair.co.uk for more information or to express an interest.

Headline shows

The Big Bang Fair is looking for headline shows to feature on its 1,500 seat main stage for 2017 and/or 2018. The show must contain interactive elements and engage and inspire young people in science, technology, engineering or maths, ideally with links to the curriculum. Proposals should be submitted by midnight 31 July here

Around 200 organisations from across industry, education and the third sector work together as part of the Big Bang Fair each year to bring alive science, technology, engineering and maths and show young people (aged 7-19) the exciting and rewarding opportunities out there for those with the right experience and qualifications. 

Terry Harvey-Chadwick, SV Educational Services said: “Exhibiting at The Big Bang Fair was a fantastic experience and proved very successful. As a sole trader, these types of event can be a very expensive marketing exercise but I was able to put together a team and get funding from The Big Bang Fair to deliver my activity. I estimate that our Science of the Vikings display reached about 5,000 people during the Fair, leading to additional work as a direct consequence of attending.”


Looking for a new challenge?

Ben Hellier, Practical Action

Design For A Better World is an exciting new global design challenge and competition for students aged 11-14 years.

Developed by the international development organisation Practical Action, the design challenge offers students the opportunity to explore the new UN Global Goals and to develop ideas for how science and technology can address some of the global challenges that people and the planet face today. 

The challenge offers a: 

  • Range of real life global contexts including renewable energy, sustainable cities, water and food security
  • Design project that meet the requirements for the new key stage 3 Design and Technology curriculum
  • Set of FREE teaching materials including teacher’s notes, pupil worksheets and links to videos and case studies that explore existing sustainable technologies.

The competition deadline is the 16th December 2016. For more information click here.


BIG People: James Soper

Job: Live science presenter

A typical day at work consists of either on the road travelling to a school or festival to perform shows or in the office setting up the next tour. 

What got you into this career? Someone at Glasgow University needed to put on a series of hour long shows for 300 primary school kids. They thought it would be easier to find a performer who could be trained to present science than a scientist who could be trained to present to such large audiences. 

They knew me through my previous performing work, they knew I had a science degree at the Uni and I was working on a PhD and so I was seen as a good candidate. 

They must have been right as I'm still doing it over twenty years on. 

What is the best thing about your job?  The responsibility- I conceive my shows, I research them, I write them, I find the props and demos for them, I advertise them, I perform them, I then deal with all the paperwork and then I cash the cheque. Knowing I've been responsible for all that gives me an amazing sense of achievement. 

... and the worst? The responsibility! If anything goes wrong there's no one else to blame but me. 

What is your favourite meal?  Fish and chips from Frankies in Bray, Shetland. It's the UK's most northerly chip shop, you can see the boats the fish came from through the window and Shetland is where my wife comes from. 

What is your favourite smell?  A blown out birthday candle because it means I'm going to get cake. 

What talents do you possess?  Professionally I've been told prop wrangling and building demo chains. Personally I'm a pretty good cook. 

What talents would you like to possess?  I bought myself a piano for my 40th birthday. I wish I was more talented at that. 

Which actor do you think should play you in the film of your life?  Seriously? I can't get people to listen to what I did last week, no one's making a film of my life. I'm not fussed about the actor but can I get Aaron Sorkin to do the screen play?

Which living person do you most admire and why?  I'm in awe of so many people. Most recently it's been the families and journalists who've fought so long for the truth about the Hillsborough disaster. 

Most beautiful place on earth?  Easy. The plaster casts gallery at the V&A in London. 

What is your Motto for life? Start from the middle of the maze and work out. 


With best wishes from the BIG Executive Committee 2015/16…

  • James Piercy, Chair
  • Bridget Holligan, Vice Chair
  • Lucy Moorcraft, Treasurer
  • Ben Craven, Secretary
  • James Soper, General Member
  • Doo Spalding, General Member
  • Rachel Mason, Event Organiser
  • and Sarah Vining, Administrator

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