Monday, 31 July 2017

STEM Ambassador training - a refresh

It’s been a long time since I blogged on here: in the last year I have graduated from the University of Birmingham, worked for 8 months in a publishing company (Taylor & Francis) and started a new job at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). It’s been busy!

Since starting at STFC, I’ve been keen to get back involved with some of the many public engagement activities that go on at the Harwell Campus. As part of this, I contacted the STEM Ambassador team and asked if I could transfer my “ambassadorship” over to Oxfordshire. The process was quick and simple, and my DBS check was still valid, so I was ready to go. However, after such a long break I wasn’t sure that I was ready to go... I went along to an ambassador training session to remind me of how to get started.

The session started with introductions, and asking us about our experiences recruiting STEM staff and what had inspired us to work and study in STEM. The answer was much more “who” than “what” as many people said that it was teachers or other role models. Well, that was apart from those who put it all down to Star Trek!

We were shown some interesting figures showing the decline in the interest in science in children: this drop off starts as early as 10 years old, which I was surprised by. I also didn’t know that UK schools are no longer required to provide a dedicated careers service, and I felt grateful for the support I had received when approaching the end of my time at school.

We broke up into groups to discuss what we thought the benefits of the STEM ambassador scheme was for young people / ambassadors / teachers. I enjoyed this discussion as it reminded me of all the good experiences I’d had working in STEM roles with young people, and that was just the boost I come to the session to get.

Our next task was to form groups and take part in an activity: building Bristlebots! This was a lot of fun, and followed by a race between teams. Sadly ours was way off the podium, but it was a good opportunity to meet the other people attending the session. Our compliments and criticisms of the activity were then discussed, leading into being given some guidelines for producing our own activity.

STEM ambassador activities can be organised by the school or STEM themselves, but if, as an ambassador, you do have an activity you’d like to present to young people then you are welcome to put it together and take it into schools. As groups we were invited to have a quick chat about what activities we could take into a classroom. I was sat with two construction engineers, so we discussed the many ways you can build structures out of (uncooked!) spaghetti and marshmallows.

The website has changed since I became a STEM ambassador, and so going through the activity searching and recording process was useful. And then it was the end of the session! I even managed to speak to the STFC public engagement team on my way out and arrange my first activity here. Now I’ve had my refresher training and been reminded of what I’d done before I can’t wait to get started. And then I might even have enough activities to get this blog up and running again...

Monday, 6 June 2016

Presenting to U3A (the University of the 3rd Age)

Sometimes an opportunity arises that you just can't resist...  
"The University of the Third Age (U3A) movement is a unique and exciting organisation which provides, through its U3As, life-enhancing and life-changing opportunities. Retired and semi-retired people come together and learn together, not for qualifications but for its own reward: the sheer joy of discovery!"
My Grandma used to love her U3A meetings, and so when I heard someone from the materials group was going to speak at one, I just had to invite myself to join him! 
This led to Ben de Laune and I arriving at the front door of a house in Birmingham last Thursday with our demo kits strapped to the back of our bikes and a laptop with some presentations loaded, unsure of what to expect. 

We were welcomed by our host, Monica, and started setting up ready to present. As requested, we had brought printed handouts, although Ben was starting to worry he might have printed the font a bit too small... 

The meeting was 2 hours long, and we presented one at a time with a tea (and biscuit) break with discussion in the middle. Ben presented first on his work, and then I followed. There were 7 in the audience, ranging from people with no scientific background, to a former chemist! Despite this, everyone engaged with our presentations and asked some questions that proved they'd been listening. Very different from academic conferences, when you have to ignore the snoring from the back!

We had a great time, and it seemed as though everyone else did too - here is our feedback from Monica:
"Thank you very much for coming to our meeting on Thursday.  As I hope you could tell from our interactions, we thoroughly enjoyed your presentations and thought your research projects very interesting.  You were both adept at getting down to our (mixed) level.  We would like to keep you on file so that we can track what you are doing.
Thanks again, best wishes and cheers"
The Birmingham U3A group are looking for speakers, so if you're interested get in touch and I'll put you in contact: it's a great experience!

Friday, 3 June 2016

"Meet the Expert" at ThinkTank science museum

On Tuesday I went down to the ThinkTank with some other researchers from the Materials group here at the University of Birmingham School of Chemistry (@chembham) for an event they run every half term called "Meet the Expert". 
For this event, a group of researchers (in our case, 4 of us) get a spot on the museum floor to do some live demos and get people engaged with their research topic. 

We were talking about magnetism, superconductivity and electricity generation. And, more importantly, how the research in the department is developing new materials that may be important in these areas in the future. 

The use of liquid nitrogen turned out to be a big draw for the crowds, but I was impressed by the length of time people spent with us. They really wanted to hear more, not just see the "headline" demo and then carry on. We got some really interesting questions and comments from both children and their parents when discussing magnetism and superconductivity. My favourite comment was "It's not magic - it's science!" in relation to the floating magnet experiment shown below (explained here).

We found the best experiments were those that had obvious results, for instance a light becoming brighter when a cable supplying electricity to the bulb was dipped into liquid nitrogen, but also the models of the materials went down really well, especially alongside the real thing. 

We also had some electrochemistry experiments people could get involved with including a simple battery using copper and zinc, and some different water splitting experiments. This led on to my favourite topic: hydrogen! This is where I came in, showing off our model fuel cell car complete with refueling station (explained in full by me in this video).  

It turns out I am rubbish at steering remote control cars, but I managed to avoid tripping any visitors up! It was a great day - thanks so much for ThinkTank for having me, and to Professor Greaves, Dr. Horsewell and Dr. de Laune for letting me join in. 

Friday, 11 December 2015

Myth-busting the barriers to public engagament

Right now I should really be focusing on writing my thesis, but when I heard about an opportunity to spend a day discussing public engagement at the University of Birmingham I just couldn't resist... Especially when I saw that Professor Alice Roberts would be presenting - after finishing my placement with the radio show, a number of people have asked me if I want to be "the next Alice Roberts" so I thought I'd go along to find out the answer! 

The event was hosted in the mid-renovation Lapworth museum: a light and airy space that had a much more open atmosphere than the dark confines of a seminar room or lecture theatre. This meant that throughout the day I felt much more open to asking questions of the speakers. 

We heard from researchers at the university - each tackling a common barrier to public engagement. It was interesting to hear all the different examples, and their (sometimes conflicting) experiences of the support from the university media team. 

A very informative workshop from Paul Manners followed, looking at the case studies submitted to the research excellence framework (or REF - it's what university research departments are judged on). The national coordinating centre for public engagement had looked at all the case studies and analysed which had contained public engagement. It was an interesting review, and showed what kind of content a case study on a public engagement activity would need to have to qualify as "4 star". 

After some more myth-busting examples, we were joined by the pro-vice chancellor Tim Softley, who spoke about the cultural change that was needed, and happening, within the university to develop its engagement activities. 

We then heard the bureaucratic side of the story, from Jenni Chambers of the RCUK before she joined Tim, Paul and Alice Roberts for a panel discussion. This was really interesting, and covered a number of points, including how engagement could (or should) be measured, and whether schools and the local communities also required cultural change for enagement to be successful. 

The final session of the day was Alice Roberts, who engaged us all, even after technical problems meant she had to do without her powerpoint slides. She tackled the problem of image: that of the "mad scientist", and what we can do to reach out and change that perception. She spoke of the importance of removing labels: whether it be labeling a GCSE student as a "scientist" or "non-scientist", or a recent trend of the use of the word "geek". 

I found the event really engaging (ha!) and definitely a worthwhile escape from my life of thesis writing. I aim to help the public engagement group at Birmingham by writing up some of my activities for them to post on their blog, so I can act as a point of contact for other researchers looking to do the same. Watch this space! 

Friday, 30 October 2015

Naked Scientists: Week 6

Week Six:

I've been a bit useless at keeping this blog updated...

Since starting at the Naked Scientists, I've interviewed people about beetles, magnetic materials, runners' high, lorries and slippery steel!

This week I somehow managed to be super efficient. In a flurry of activity between 4:30 and 6 on Monday afternoon I managed to get one of Chris' interviews scheduled and mine booked in for first thing Tuesday morning. This meant I was essentially one day ahead of myself all week which gave me a good opportunity to focus on planning my show.

I made quite a lot of phone calls to researchers in different areas trying to get and idea of what i should cover when discussing big data, and how to do this without any of the sections of my show repeating themselves. I also took a trip into Cambridge for the Festival of Ideas to see Data Shadow: one of their art exhibitions on personal data and privacy. It was really interesting, and prompted me to think twice about logging onto unknown wifi networks.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Week 5 at the Naked Scientists

After a rather disastrous week working on my PhD at the neutron beam source just south of Oxford I returned to the Naked Scientists (without the keys to my room in Cambridge, but that's another story...). 

This week there were loads of news stories,  and a lot of it from the UK, so we were busy doing research calls and arranging interviews. Unfortunately the researcher for the paper I was looking into was on sabbatical, so I was left searching for a local commentator.

As the paper was on materials chemistry, and that’s my area of research, I persuaded one of the post-doctoral researchers from my department to speak to me about the paper. It felt a bit weird doing an interview like this, knowing that you both knew the same information about the paper, but it was good experience to give something new a go.

I also did some research calls for my show, and it’s definitely starting to come together! 

Friday, 2 October 2015

Naked Scientists: Week 3

Week 3

After spending the weekend exploring Cambridge, Sunday saw my first visit to the BBC Cambridgeshire studio for our live show. I was expecting a dark underground room, but it's a nice airy studio and we'd filled it with lots of guests for our Q & A show. I had a lot of fun updating the twitter account with the answers our panel were giving to the varied questions sent in by our audience. 

Another Monday, and another collection of interesting news from around the globe to choose from. Alongside publishing online some of the news pieces from last week, I arranged to talk to one researcher in Canada and another in the USA. Both were great, and by the end of Monday I’d arranged interviews for both Chris and myself. 

An addition to a normal Monday was a request from BBC Cambridgeshire for a Naked Scientist to talk about a news story on their drivetime programme at 5:45. As is becoming usual, I volunteered! Graihagh and I chose a research paper that had come out that day on a research project that studied the UK Biobank data to see if there was a genetic influence on lung health and its relationship with smoking. It was a really interesting paper, and I had about an hour to prepare to talk about it on live radio! I felt much more prepared for this much shorter slot than for last week’s phone in, so it went much better. (Or at least that’s what I was told!) 

On Tuesday I managed to get my interview done, although had some real challenges with the studio connections. I ended up chatting to him for quite a while, which I knew would make my editing job harder! I then went to the #Camscicomm social, and met some more locals interetsed in science communication.

After Wednesday’s meeting. I attacked the edit and managed to get it down to the right time. I then put some time into starting to plan my show. 

As interns, we’re given the opportunity to produce one show on our own. This means we can choose the topic for the back end, as well as being in charge of collating any news stories for that week.
I had originally wanted to plan my show around renewable energy, but once I had mentioned my work with POST last year on big data, everyone seemed to get a bit excited. So I got in contact with my supervisor from POST, to ask her for any tips on interviewees.
The main problem is having too many ideas! As usual…

I’d also been put in charge of organising “Question of the Week” for next week, so started looking for appropriate experts who could help answer the question sent in by a listener. If anyone knows the wind speed needed to blow over a lorry then get in touch!

Thursday sees the writing of the news article to accompany the audio news piece, and this week a group lunch to say goodbye to one of the interns. I was particularly restrained and only had 2 pieces of cheesecake…

Friday began by finding out my new piece was in the script for the 5live science show. This was quite exciting! I don't think I'll be listening live at 5am, but definitely one for iplayer.