The BIG STEM Communicators Network BIG Event is a three-day conference to share skills and experiences, develop new links and keep up-to-date with what’s going on in STEM engagement. It’s a great chance to swap skills and ideas with some inspiring professionals.

This year’s event was held at the Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium, (with their amazing new Explorer Space exhibit more on that later) which was a great backdrop to sessions as varied as astronomy for the visually impaired to storytelling in science.

What was there?

Where else could you enter under a solar-powered aircraft designed to stay flying for days (that bore a striking resemblance to one of Lanchester’s patents from 1907) before wandering through a colon and then downstairs into a area that takes you into space that feels like a cross between being on board Red Dwarf and one of the Crystal Maze zones! Plus a fantastic (and thankfully cool) planetarium where events like the Best Demo competition took place.

What I did

It was straight into the sessions and the first one was about commissioning kit for exhibitions.  The panel had a wealth of experience which they shared freely.  Dave Watson from Cheltenham Science Group shared his desires to refresh exhibits for repeat visitors (something we intend to do as well) while balancing the experience for new visitors. There was also plenty of advice for large and small projects with a suggestion to separate design from fabrication for interactive exhbits.

The next session on public engagement (PE) was interesting given the wide range of contributors from universities to science centres and other organisations.    We started by plotting some of the activities that we all carry out on PE triangle with Transmit, Receive and Collaborate being the corners.  Perhaps unsurprisingly most of the activities tended towards ‘transmitting’ information, which while not necessarily being a bad thing, did make us reflect on some further questions about public engagement. We split into groups and tried to answer some more of  the how and why of PE and get away from broadcasting to a more effective form of engagement.

Perhaps one answer could be found in the next session that concentrated on ‘The tales we tell’.  In this challenging but great hands-on session we explored how stories can be woven into some classic science demonstrations.  As our table had a smattering of biologists we chose extracting DNA from fruit and came up with these stories that could be incorporated.

But the fun really started when the task was to combine this demo with two others into a ‘coherent’ performance- in just 10 minutes.

The process firstly showed how much clever creativity can be produced by an enthusiatic group in an incredibly short amount of time (one participant said that planning a show can take months and almost as much work was done in this session) and secondly demonstrated that almost anything is funnier with ‘Space Strawberries’!

But the serious points were that ‘standard’ demonstrations can really be brought to life with a great story behind them and be given a twist to cover many more topics than the basic science.

The day finished with the spectacular ‘Best Demo Show’ which was a brilliant selection of ‘wow’ moments on a wide range of topics from clever stats to burning foam and kiwi powered Frankenstein’s monster!

The next day began with a fantastic session with Jen Gupta explaining the Tactile Universe project which aims to bring current astronomy research accessible to the blind and vision impaired community.

This has been done using 3-d printed galaxies using open source software that can turn any black and photo into a plastic panel.  This is then combined with the picture and description to help someone who is visually impaired to sense understand the image more clearly.  The work done in the project has been painstaking and further developments to overcome things like the time taken to print each panel (8 hours) and the resolution needed mean that the latest versions are resin blocks made from silicone casts of milled blocks.  The interesting aspect is that any image could be used which could unlock some of our collection to those with visual impairments, something we will definitely explore hopefully with the Coventry Fab Lab.

In  between sessions we got to experience the new Explorer Space exhbit which is an outstranding example of a hands-on exhibit that works exceptionally well in an atmospheric setting. An interactive globe, programmable rovers, infrared camera and lots more practical exhbits really  encouraged vistors to explore the science and technology behind the popular topic of space.

Another story telling session with Jules Pottle and The Brooklands Museum which showed how the wartime conversion of the race track to aircraft factory has been told through the eyes of a girl working there.  These stories are told by volunteers to visiting groups and are based on real interviews and memories of the time and again are another way of bring the subject to life – a theme of this event, and something we do every day with Lanchester and his life and work. Although they may not be a direct transcript of history, they do a very powerful job of getting across the message of the environment and people in and around Brooklands through the war.

The last session was a blend of practicals and storytelling giving an insight into the life and work of Robert Boyle with the fantastic Eoin Gill from the Calmast STEM Hub using Boyle’s own language to link classic demonstrations from his discoveries. Another multi-faceted genius very much in Lanchester’s vein (but with the advantage of a hefty inheritance to spend), the stories behind his fundamentals ideas of chemistry and physics – from the concept of elements, to the invention of the vacuum pump that led to formulating Boyles Law – were woven together to help put his achievements into context.

I’m not sure we will be donning a trademark Lanchester moustache but it was interesting to see how Eoin got into character to give a new perspective on this remarkable scientist.

The final, final session is a bit of a Big Event institution – I Saw This And Thought Of You (or ISTATOY), a chance for attendees to highlight things they have come across over the conference or just share something new.

Overall it was a packed couple of days with lots of good content to absorb and take back to base.  New contacts were made and the networking can carry on over the next year, with some great ideas to put into practice – until BIG Event 2019!

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