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Nature in the city

University stand with the giant jenga game

Learning about the web of life with giant jenga
Image by University of Bristol

Visitors to Bristol’s Harbourside on the first weekend in June 2009 got the chance to play a giant Jenga game, run a pedal-powered disco and find out what it’s like to be a bat. All this was part of the Festival of Nature, Europe’s biggest celebration of the natural world, and the University of Bristol’s staff and students were right in the middle of it.

The giant Jenga set was a big hit with children and adults alike, but it carried a serious message; 'nature relies on us and we rely on nature'. Just as the tower becomes unstable as more blocks are removed, so the loss of species can have unpredictable consequences for entire ecosystems. The pedal-powered disco was provided by Ecojam.org, the local green and ethical website set up by University of Bristol researcher Matt Fortnam. As for the bats, two PhD students in the School of Biological Sciences, George Ross and Violaine Drapeau, created an activity giving people the chance to test their skills in echolocation – the process by which bats find their way in the dark through sound alone.

These were just some of the experiences waiting for visitors to the University’s tent. Elsewhere they could chat with researchers in a science café, mimic the sounds insects make, and look into the jaws of carnivorous plants. One visitor said the University’s tent was “amazing – great fun and very educational”. The  educational aspect of the festival was enhanced yet further by its first ever schools day, during which nearly a thousand children took part in scientific and nature-related activities.

Elsewhere, the palaeontologist Mike Benton gave a lecture on how past extinctions like that of the dinosaurs may hold clues to the threats to our own future, and Alice Roberts – who presents the BBC series The Incredible Human Journey – chaired a lively debate on the subject of 'Living with Environmental Change‘. As with  the activities in the tent, this range of events helped people to understand the complexities of the issues. By combining fun with serious research, the University’s contribution to the Festival helped reveal the science behind important debates about the natural world and our place within it.

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Further information:

The sixth annual Festival of Nature took place on 6–7 June 2009. For more information about the Festival, visit: www.festivalofnature.org.uk. The University of Bristol is a member of the Bristol Natural History Consortium (BNHC), which runs the Festival of Nature. The University also participated in the BNHC’s first BioBlitz on 26-27 June – a race against the clock to identify as many species as possible in the Ashton Court Estate.