Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Cheltenham Science Festival – a lesson in public engagement

By Rebecca Williams (@volcanologist)

Last week I was part of a University of Hull team who went to Cheltenham Science Festival (CSF), one of the biggest science festivals in the UK. CSF is a six day event of talks, demonstrations and general science fun aimed at everyone from school children to retired adults. We were involved in activities across this spectrum. The GEES team had a River in a Box display in the Discover Zone to show how rivers work, headed by Dave Milan and Dan Parsons, and delivered by an army of awesome postgrad students. Dave Milan debated 'A waterproof World?'Dave Bond and I gave a talk on mass extinction and volcanism. March Lorch and Phil Bell-Young seemed to be doing a million things from workshops for school children on ‘your body the chemical analyser’ to a talk on ‘iPads and avatars’ - the motion capture monkey who stars in this had been entertaining the Green Room with his antics, including a few celeb scientists!
The GEES' 'River in a Box' at CSF. Photo courtesy of Chris Unsworth (@unsteadyriver)
For me, it was one of the first times I gave a talk to a true ‘public’ audience. I do a fair amount of public engagement and outreach activities. I do schools events, I run a Twitter account and have done chats to school children using it, this blog’s original intention was for a general audience, and I’m booked in for talks this year at both the Hull Geological Society and the Rotunda Geology Group (Scarborough). This was the first time though that I was giving a talk to a genuinely unknown audience, who didn’t have a particular interest in geology. And they were paying!
Can volcanoes wipe out life on Earth? Mine and Dave's talk at CSF. Photo courtesy of Leiping Ye (@Leiping_Ye)
Dave and I were quite happy with our talk. It showcased some of Dave’s NERC funded research and we’d developed a pretty cool ThermiteVolcano especially for the event, with a lot of help from our pet chemist Mark. We got lots of great questions and were followed by a group to The Times Talking Point for further discussion. People in the audience have contacted me since to say how much they enjoyed it.
Some of the FameLab International Final winners (Alumni and Audience awards) being presented with their prizes by Prof Alice Roberts
That night though, we all went along to the FameLab International Finals and I was blown away. If you don’t know it, FameLab is a competition of science communication, a kind of XFactor for scientists. Contestants get 3 minutes to entertain and educate the audience about a particular scientific concept. This year, finalists presented science stretching from how language works in the brain (done in sign language as well as spoken!) to how exercise can boost stem cells to combat dementia to how honey bees can be trained to detect explosives and drugs (and are better than sniffer dogs!). The science is not dumbed down, nor is it jazzed up. It is explained beautifully and clearly, sometimes with props and sometimes without.

This got me thinking back to my talk. Did I really need all those powerpoint slides? Did I really need all those facts and figures? Events such as the brilliant Cafe Scientifique movement would argue that we don’t need powerpoint at all and my experience at FameLab would back that up. So, what next for my engagement activities? Mark has finally convinced me to give the Beverly Cafe Scientifique a go, so I’ll see how I’ll fare without my powerpoint comfort blanket. Dave and I are planning on doing our ‘Can volcanoes wipe out life on Earth?’ talk in Hull this year, maybe as the Christmas Lecture. In the meantime, I’ll be taking part in ‘I’m a scientist...get me out of here!’ over the next couple of weeks, an exciting chance to chat science to school children.
Cheltenham Science Festival - I loved the giant molecules scattered about the place
I’ll leave you with a question though. Engagement isn’t about us, as GEESologists, it’s about you guys – the people reading this blog and coming to these events. What do you want to see, hear or read about? And how best can we tell you about it? Let us know your thoughts!

A quick shout out to those awesome postgraduate students: Leping Ye, Chris Unsworth, Claire Keevil, Dave Jordan and Xuxu Wu. Special thanks also to Cameron Webb, who only popped down for the day to see our talk and ended up getting roped in to help!

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