Tag Archives: Conferences

My better-late-than-never reflections on #BIGevent12

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend my first BIG event (I left the country straight after, hence the belated musings). BIG (the British Interactive Group) is, according to its own website, “the skills sharing network for individuals involved in the communication of science, technology, engineering and maths.” So far so good: There is nothing that does not appeal to me about this description. I had heard many good things about the BIG event (the group’s annual conference) from the Twitsphere and my colleagues at the Centre for Life, and I was excited. I was certainly not disappointed.

The conference this year was hosted by the National Railway Museum in York, which was an outstanding venue. The museogeek in me was delighted to enjoy the first-morning coffee surrounded by GIANT TRAINS.

However at some points it did feel like all 170 of us were sort of squished into a small corner of the venue at “mingle times” such as lunch, where we were encouraged to stand and eat which I realise promotes wandering and chatting but I do not eat and socialise well simultaneously. No one benefits from this combination. But the food was nice.

ANYWAY enough about the food and the trains – what about all the other awesome stuff that went on? And there was plenty of it let me assure you. The first thing that struck me about BIG was that it was unlike any other conference I had attended before. I know, I know, I said this about the British Science Association’s Science Communication Conference in May, but this was different in a… different way. First of all it felt like everyone already knew each other so being a BIG virgin, it was easy to feel left out but luckily I recognised a few faces (either from Real Life or Twitter) so I found it fairly easy to barge my way into conversation. Secondly, the attendees did not look like conference delegates. I felt like I’d walked into some sort of science geek convention rather than an annual conference. At the conferences I am familiar with, people dress formally and keep an eye out for the prestigious people in their field in order to shmooze with them later on over a causal glass of wine or a sausage roll. Here, it was more a case of people who love and get excited about science running up to each other and saying “OMG SCIENCE IS AWESOME!” and the other person replying with “OMG I KNOW, RIGHT??!” I felt very at home.

Now on to some of the sessions I attended…

Wednesday

Exploding Custard: Ian Russell

I was very excited about attended this classic science show. I had heard a lot about Ian Russell, who has been performing this show for 22 years, and was looking forward to meeting him. He did not disappoint; I instantly warmed to him and found the show fun and engaging. The theme of the show is that children are better at science than grown-ups and he encourages the audience not to be afraid of being wrong when hypothesising what will happen during a demo. Unfortunately there were only a few children in the audience and a LOT of BIG delegates so I did not envy the position Ian was in, this was certainly not his typical audience. The only criticism I would have of the show itself, and it’s one that has been echoed by others, is that some of the demonstrations could have done with just a little bit more explanation. On the other hand I completely understand Ian’s reason for simply demonstrating rather than explaining: He says he is not there to explain phenomena, rather to elicit curiosity, to encourage the children in the audience to go home and try similar experiments themselves. Still, a little bit of information on the phenomena demonstrated would perhaps enrich the whole experience of the show, without infringing too much on the pace and energy of the demonstrations.

Science of Toys: David Ward

This session started off very well for me personally. On each table there were Meccano sets and pieces of wood, it all looked very intriguing.  David began by asking about four people to play with the “ball in a cup” toy – and I was one of the lucky ones who got a shot, and was the first to get the ball in the cup! YAY I WON I WON. And I got to keep the toy. Delighted.

Unfortunately the rest of the seminar did not go quite so well. David kept switching between explaining the history and science of toys and talking about how a BTEC Awards in Leadership works and quite frankly I feel like I learned nothing about either subject. The aim of the presentation was very unclear and as others have noted, the powerpoint presentation was disappointing, with clip-arts and comic sans galore (for those who don’t already know, I have personal beef with shoddy presentations. Some things are unforgivable). I did get to make a “climbing monkey” from a few bits of wood, along with Matthew from W5, who admittedly did most of the work as I moaned about not understanding what we were supposed to do. Overall a confusing session which didn’t teach me anything and made me feel a bit stupid but I did go home with toys so…

Creative Physics: Samantha Durbin & Alex Brabbs

I really enjoyed this session. We got to make a galaxy sun-catcher using sticky-back plastic and glitter glue, a planet (which could be either low or high density I’ll have you know) and my personal favourite, a particle collision mobile. It inspired ideas about the sorts of activities that can be easily carried out with children and families which would also promote discussion about physics – it certainly got us talking. Highly enjoyable.

The first night ended with the chance to ride a steam train, barbeque food and a load of stand-up comedy. The highlight of the night for me was when Dr Lewney (yes, pronounced Doctor Loony – there is a man who was destined to end up a mad scientist rock star) got us all singing a physics version of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody (I’m just a little quark from a quark family…). I hope and pray that someone out there recorded it but so far I haven’t been able to find it. If you have it, please send it to me!

Thursday

Keynote Speech: Paul Jepson

Like I said, BIG is unlike any conference I have attended before, and I couldn’t help but feel it was just trying too hard to be alternative by having its welcome address and keynote speech on the second morning, rather than the first. But hey, that’s how they roll. Andy Lloyd, the chair of BIG welcomed the first-timers by saying “We may have tricked you into thinking you were attending a conference but in fact, you have just become members of the British Interactive Group…” There was a really nice feel about the room… Like a big support group for science addicts.

Paul Jepson then gave an uplifting keynote address emphasising that we need to move away from the doom-and-gloom approach when engaging the public with (particularly environmental) science. The most poignant thing I remember from the speech was when Paul showed a picture of an idyllic nature scene from the 1850s and said “we have to stop romanticising the 1850 images of wildlife and get people engaged with modern ecology”. I could not agree more. Technology is allowing the public to become more actively involved in scientific research – Paul stated that the Galaxy Zoo project allowed 130 years – ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY YEARS – of research time to be carried out in 18 months. All because of voluntary public participation. That blew my mind. The other two quotes I jotted down (okay, tweeted) were: “We [science communicators] just need to re-find humour and loosen up. Just keep laughing.” and ‘We are at the beginning of a very exciting decade for science communication’. Pretty much sums it up I think.

Freeze frame: Andy Lloyd, Jen DeWitt, Karen Baltitude & Katherine Pearson

This was an interesting session for me because the topic of discussion (and potentially scrutiny) was the new Curiosity Zone at the Centre for Life, which just so happens to be the gallery in which most of my PhD research will be carried out. Andy showed various video clips of the public using some of the exhibits within the gallery in order to get feedback from the panel (Jen, Karen & Katherine) and the audience about what they thought was going on at each exhibit, what was good, what was bad, etc. A fourth panelist, Mark Langley, was also supposed to be present but could not make it, so Jen fed back his thoughts which they had previously discussed. Because there were (effectively) four panelists, the feedback took quite a while, leaving little time for the audience discussion at the end, which was a shame because it was the part I was most looking forward to.  But nonetheless, it was interesting to hear how the Curiosity Zone was perceived by people from different backgrounds than ourselves and overall the response was very positive. So that made me smile.

Dealing with Feelings: Matt Pritchard, Ian Russell & James Piercy

This was by far one of my favourite sessions. Matt Pritchard (who is a SCIENCE MAGICIAN!!!!) began by proving that we could all remember a load of random objects on a screen – both in order and backwards – using a story-telling mnemonic and assured us that we’d still remember them all (in order and backwards) at the end of the session. We did, too. The star of this session for me was James Piercy. I had seen his stand-up on the Wednesday night and instantly fell in love with his energy and what I can only really describe as batshit-craziness. He was funny. He had made me laugh. And during this session he very nearly made me cry. James wears an eye patch and because of his eccentric nature I had genuinely assumed it was just a pretty cool part of him image. I wanted one. But he told us that he was wearing an eye patch because he had been involved in a near-fatal car crash the previous year – in fact, not long before the BIG event 2011. James then showed us a video clip of the talk he gave at last year’s BIG conference, which was on the science of what happened to his brain during and after the accident. It was difficult to watch because he was struggling with his speech and you could feel the emotions that must have been going around the room at that time. But he still managed to inject so much humour into the talk that I was left feeling nothing but warmth and admiration for this science communicator and I found myself thinking: I want to be like him and do what he does. And I guess that’s what science communication is all about, right? We use ourselves as a tool to showcase and sell science as being a Good Thing. And for me, James sold it by selling himself.

James then asked us about our crabs. By this he meant he wanted to know the one thing that gets you excited about science. His was the coconut crab.

I knew exactly what he was talking about. I have a stock of cool science facts in my head that are there for any emergency moment when conversation may run dry (regular readers will guess that these are mostly to do with animal genitals and sex lives… See here, here, here and here.) James handed us all post-its at the end of the session to write down our “crab”, and has compiled them all into a fact-filled blog post.

Best Demo Competition

I had been really looking forward to this: The famous BIG Event Best Demo Competition. All demonstrators were absolutely brilliant, and the show began with us all getting a shot of whisky – what’s not to love?! Like I say, all demos were brilliant but my personal favourite was Huw James who very nearly drowned himself FOR SCIENCE in order to tell us about Static Apnea (holding your breath). I know it wasn’t a typical demo but that’s what I liked about it – I connected with the demonstration emotionally and it will always remain with me. I’d advise you to read Huw’s own blog about the lead up to the demo and the experience itself, which includes the video.

Friday

Make it or break it: Elin Roberts

Although I already knew a lot about what Elin was going to talk about (the temporary hands-on, make-and-take gallery that was installed into the Centre for Life in at the beginning of the year, not long after I started) I still thoroughly enjoyed the presentation and beamed with pride for both her and the Centre for Life generally as other audience members were frankly gobsmacked at what Elin had achieved in such a massive floorspace with next to no money. My favourite quote from the session: “Teach kids to make and they learn not to destroy”.

How to design good interactives: Ian Russell

It pains me to say this because I warmed so much to Ian as a person, but this session was disappointing. Ian admitted that the powerpoint presentation he was showing was about 6 years old, and it showed – it was full of nothing but clip-art – which is bad enough for most people, but a designer? What Ian said during his talk was quite interesting about who you need on a design team (the “politician”, the “big kid”, the “teacher”, etc etc) and at what stages each of these characters are useful, or not. At the end we got into groups to design a sketch of an exhibit that portrays a concept suggested by someone from the audience – Ian chose the suggestion of “natural selection”. Now I know a lot about natural selection, but nothing about designing interactive exhibits. Luckily (or not?) I had an exhibit builder in my group, so I basically sat and did nothing whilst he and another group member designed the sketch. I didn’t feel I learned an awful lot apart from I should stick to the communication side and keep well away from the workshop.

I saw this and thought of you: Ben Craven, Jonathan Sanderson and EVERYONE!

I loved this session, it made me feel warm and fuzzy inside. The idea behind it was basically: Have you seen/learned something since last year’s conference that made you think of BIG? Then share it with us! There was a really nice mix of people who got up for under two minutes and told the room something cool, fun, interesting or just weird. Jonathan Sanderson shared with us a little nugget of wisdom that I have been telling anyone who will listen since: When you wash your hands after going to the toilet, they never dry, right? The paper towels are too thin and the hand-driers (Dyson Airblades excluded) are not powerful enough. WRONG. There is a solution to this problem. Simply shake your hands about 12 times before you dry them. By that time, the surface water on your hands will be so thin that one paper towel will dry them easily – or one button-press of a crappy hand-drier. THANKS JONATHAN. FROM, THE WORLD.

I only wish that this session had been a stand-alone one, like the keynote address, so that everyone could attend. There was such a great energy in the room, but many other delegates were attending other sessions. This was the last session I attended and although it ended on such a high, afterwards it felt a bit flat because we all just sort of… left. If everyone had been in this one closing session I think it would have made it even better, so we could all have said our emotional goodbyes. *Sobs*

Thanks to everyone I met at #BIGevent12, I had an amazing time and I already can’t wait until next year.

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Informal learning: What’s that about?

When people think about learning, they often think about the kind of learning we all experience in school. We sit down nicely, we are given instructions in the form of a lesson, then we perhaps complete a project or a worksheet or a test in order to confirm that we have learned what we were supposed to learn.

But here is a pretty cool statistic that was brought to my attention at the Science Communication Conference (#SciCom12 ) last week: The average adult (this figure was specifically referring to American adults but it’s probably fairly generalisable to the UK too) spends a mere 5% of their lives in the classroom. The same report claimed that evidence demonstrates that most science is learned outside of school. So where are our kids learning about science? Well, from places like zoos, science centres, parks, museums, and through television programmes and websites.

My PhD research will be carried out in an environment which is all about informal learning; a science centre. Therefore it is of particular interest to me to know how informal science learning actually works. How does a museum, or a science centre, or an educational TV show, know that it is making a difference? This is exactly the question that was addressed at one of the Science Communication Conference sessions, entitled “Making a difference? Measuring the impact of informal learning“.

John Holman from the Wellcome Trust began by reminding everyone that you cannot measure impact if you do not know what you want to achieve. What does a science centre want to achieve in regards to learning? I can tell you what we’re not doing: We are not trying to do the same as schools. What would be the point? Schools do their thing in the formal learning world, and they do it well. Science centres, museums and other institutions try to encourage learning in a different way: Children get to explore and discover, in such a way that they don’t even realise they are learning. They are learning through experience, rather than through direction. However, whereas a school can measure the impact of their teaching directly and quantitatively through tests and exam scores, we in the informal learning field cannot. It is therefore much harder to show what impact we are having. Cognitive outcomes, such as those measured by tests and exams, may be easy to measure, but they may not be the most important outcomes.

So what is informal learning? Ben Johnson defined it as “anything that’s not curriculum”. Ben has been involved in science communication and education for over 15 years, working with schools in order to research, create and deliver drama based projects on various aspects of science. He admitted that he and others like him just do not have the resources to properly evaluate the impact his work has on the students, but there are steps that he does take in order to get some sort of useful feedback and an idea of impact. Ben uses observations of what actually happens in the sessions and also feedback from teachers, particularly what they say after a session (e.g. that the kids are still talking about the project a few weeks/months later). Ben also believes it is important to “embrace the anecdote”. In science we are always told that anecdotes are not data, but in some circumstances, a single case of a student giving particularly good feedback or an individual clearly getting something out of a project can speak volumes.

When working with children particularly, Ben stressed the importance of looking for evidence of thinking; i.e. when a child says something they have not heard during the session – a conclusion or a question that they have come up with themselves. This shows impact. For Ben, there are three things to look for when evaluating the impact of informal science learning: novelty, empathy and expression.

All of Ben’s points were really interesting, but what struck me as an academic working in science communication is that there is a missing link between research and practice. Emily Dawson reported that just under 14% of all research on informal science learning comes from UK researchers, which isn’t a bad statistic given the size of the country, but when looking at the quality of the articles (i.e. the top 60 cited papers) it becomes clear that there is just not enough good quality work on the impact of informal learning being done in the UK. The research that is being conducted, Emily stated, includes too few people (usually school groups) and in too few contexts (e.g. science museums).

So returning to the point raised by John Holman at the beginning: What are we trying to achieve through informal science learning? Penny Fidler, CEO of The UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres, believes that there are two answers to this question. The utilitarian answer is that we should be aiming to promote interest in science and encouraging young people. The cultural answer is that informal science learning is a creative and cultural pursuit, which is valid and important in its own right. What we really should be trying to achieve is to instill confidence in young people, and to assure them that they already have the skills it takes to be a scientist as long as they are curious and willing to try things out.

There needs to be more of a focus on the importance of informal science learning. If the average person spends 5% of their lives in the classroom, we need to make damned sure that the other 95% offers exciting, fun and engaging opportunities to learn science outside the walls of the school, and that such experiences are worthwhile and are having a meaningful impact.

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My awful notes from Lisa Jardine’s keynote address

The keynote address at the Science Communication Conference (#scicom12) was delivered by Lisa Jardine, the Centenary Professor of Renaissance Studies and Director of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at Queen Mary University of London. I enjoyed the talk, so much so that my notes from it were rubbish. But I think I noted down some of the most important parts, so here we go. This is an insight into the mind (notepad) of Loris.

Sometimes, doing and communicating science is a pain in the ass. Scientists must really just sometimes think, “what the hell is the point in trying to tell the public about all this really important research that I dedicate my life to, when people insist on buying and believing scare-mongering bullcrap like THIS over my professional opinion?”

This is a real problem and a barrier in science communication. As horrendous as it may seem, it’s almost like the people who want to sell lots of newspapers sometimes couldn’t give a flying beaker about scientific accuracy. Apparently scare stories sell more copies or something.

Scientific issues affect the lives of each and every one of us, whether we like it or not. It is therefore incredibly important that we try to achieve an active and ongoing communication between the scientific community and the general public: not a one-way, directional lecture from scientists to the pubic, but rather a dialogue in which both sides look at a concept that may be controversial, each express their concerns and together they review the state of the evidence. Ahh to live in an ideal world.

No one wants to be patronised. I hate being condescended, it makes me a very angry little primate. If I, as someone who knows absolutely nothing about art, went to an art gallery in order to find out about a particular technique or artist and I found the staff there sensed my lack of knowledge and presumed I was an ignorant moron and therefore spoke to me as if I were an idiot, the chances are that I would leave with a very negative and distrusting view of that particular artist, technique or community. It’s the same with science. When talking about the impact science has on the public, we first have to think about who the public you want to reach actually are. Young people? Old people? Families? Infants and babies? Children? Scientists from another discipline? There is no one public, there are many different publics which are made up of many diverse individuals. It is not enough to assume that the public is simply “non-scientists”: Everyone is someone else’s public. And no one wants to feel stupid. Two-way involvement, openness and trust have to drive the future of public engagement with science.

This is one point that I always talk about when discussing science communication. If you don’t convince your public that your research is important to them, why the hell should they care about it? I particularly like the quote at the bottom, which comes from Lisa’s father Jacob Bronowski (a major science communicator in the 1970s, famous for the groundbreaking BBC documentary The Ascent of Man). I was delighted to hear that Lisa’s thoughts on how to convince the public that your research is important are exactly the same as my own:

I meet a lot of science PhD students and am always so surprised when I say “ooooh so what is your project?” and they reply with “oh it’s just like… it’s boring.” I later find out, through more probing, that they work in a lab and poke around neurons from rat brains in the hope of finding out more about the neurology of addiction. Or perhaps all they do all day is put people in fMRI machines to investigate how the brain reacts to pictures of certain faces. SAY WHAT? THAT IS AWESOME. You don’t think so? Really? Look. If you are not excited about your research, then do not expect anyone else to be.

The final thought the wonderful Lisa Jardine left me with was this:

So I did.

I should really get an iPad or a smaller laptop so that I no longer have to rely on pen and paper notes. As you have witnessed, it’s not very effective.

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