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Hands on science

24 April 2013

Gaining experience of public engagement through a British Science Festival scheme

As a postgraduate in the School of Biochemistry I helped run a stand at the interactive University of Bristol Discover festival held in Broadmead shopping centre in March 2012. Keen to build on this positive experience, one member of our group, Sarah Miles, wrote a proposal in response to an advert on the British Science Festival website for researchers interested in running an engagement event aimed at secondary schools.

With the proposal accepted we set about designing the workshop around activities combining art and science. Then, come September, with the Festival in full swing we headed up to Fraserburgh in Scotland to do our part in bringing the Festival out to school groups.

Having arrived at the school we discovered we would be working with a mixed age audience from year 7 to sixth form – being adaptable was a key skill but we rose to the challenge! We started the session with a 10 minute presentation on the use of microscopes in research, which included images acquired from the Wolfson Bioimaging Facility in the Faculty of Medical and Veterinary Sciences.  We then split the class into small groups - each group had the use of a basic light microscope, and a histology slide representing the tissue in a part of the body. Examples included the cerebellum, kidney, stomach and the oesophagus. We provided them with a wide range of art materials including paints, tissue paper and crayons and asked them to create a A3-sized picture of what they could see. We let them be as creative and abstract as they liked!

The aim of the workshop was to help students learn how the structure of organs and tissues in the body relate to their function – while doing something creative. We felt this was a good way for young people to learn, and for them to be able to study mammalian tissues in detail. They were provided with a fact sheet about the part of the body they were drawing and at the end of the session we asked them to come to the front in groups and show their work to the class.

I felt that the students enjoyed this hands-on session. My favourite part was the interaction I had with everyone while they were drawing. This enabled me to discuss science in a more general sense, answering the questions they had. I feel that one of the most important aspects of being a scientist is the ability to communicate science effectively but also to listen to the views and ideas from non-specialists, in this case, school students. My hope is that they will be inspired to take an active interest in science as they carry on through their school careers.

Since we ended up working with a wider age range than expected, from year 7 to sixth form, I began to learn how to adjust to different levels of ability when talking about scientific concepts.

When we weren’t running the workshop, we went to many events at the British Science Festival itself – there was a great atmosphere, and it was good to see so many people being enthused by science. I would definitely recommend this Festival to other researchers, as there are so many good public engagement role models who were able to give great examples of how science can be made accessible to the general public, not just to students.

We’d love to take this workshop elsewhere. We made valuable contacts while we were at the Festival, including people involved in other science festivals nationwide, so who knows!

Becky Brooks, postgraduate researcher, School of Biochemistry