By Mark Fernandes, IFR Research Scientist.
Big Bang is THE major event for science engagement with schools. This year, the IFR stand’s theme was “food for sport” which has a multiplicity of links to IFR science. For example, I managed to work in the gut bacterial population as part of basal metabolic rate and other factoids e.g. bacterial cells outnumbering the mammalian cells in the human body, vitamin B12 production and the role that gut bacteria play in our immune system (with an obvious link to an athlete’s health). It also permitted the opportunity to relate the interaction of calorific intake, lifestyle, environment & genetics upon obesity. Additionally, I was able to show that when looking at quoted average figures e.g. in newspaper articles, people should also consider measures like the Standard Deviation to avoid being misled. I was also able to explore other routes of communicating science (in this case Crosswords & songs).
Big Bang is an excellent opportunity to communicate with the ultimate funders (both current & future) of our work – the public. It was exhausting but very fulfilling and the children’s (and parents & teachers) enthusiasm is infectious. Also this year, I listened to a grandfather expressing his pride about his grand-daughters love of science (She was wearing one of our BBSRC lab-coats and doing a calorimetry experiment) and saw several children playing on our healthy & unhealthy fats activity mat (based on snakes & ladders and this was the project of a university student, Nicole Ward, who had worked with our Communications team).
It is also great for networking. I met pupils who have a successful STEMclub (BIS-sponsored STEM Ambassadors have been asked to help set up STEMclubs in schools), pupils taught to be Science & Maths buskers, Google reps, UK Space agency (Mission X : which has a focus on diet & health as a requisite for astronauts) and many more.
My BBSRC School Regional Championship is aimed at putting the topics of Food security & Basic bioscience underpinning health into secondary schools. Outreach activities like this are a pretty good fit for this role and would serve researchers, whose grants include outreach requirements , equally well.
Of course, the IFR stand was very much a team effort (Both at the NEC and before-hand) and my other Norwich Bioscience Institutes (NBI) colleagues were Neil Shearer (IFR), Dee Rawsthorne (NBI), Dave Hart (IFR),Caroline Spinks (IFR),Charlotte Armah (IFR), Jenni Rant (JIC), Dawn Barrett (NBI), Sian Astley (IFR), Kate Bailey (TSL), Steven Lewis (IFR), Paul Pople (NBI), Angie Walker (NBI) and Louise Wakenshaw (IFR) who variously staffed the stand, came up with really good stand ideas and really engaged with the Big Bang Fair attendees. Communications also did an excellent job with the convoluted logistics of getting everyone there (different people on different days), sorting out the accommodation, publicity and much, much more. IFR got a large amount of public presence for a very small expenditure through this event.
To those of my colleagues who have not yet been involved in this kind of public engagement I heartily recommend it. I have always had excellent briefing packs (useful when the outreach topic is outside your speciality) and the benefit of advice from experienced outreach practitioners.