AT this year’s Science Olympics, the best performer jumped so high it crashed off the roof with a thunk. A swell of cheering rose around Rutherford Hall as it happened. Each team had been tasked with mixing up a reaction in such a way that a cork popped out of bottle at high speed.
Clearly, one team got the hang of the mixing pretty quickly.
“It was a pretty high ceiling,” says Anne Willis, who organised the event to show the eye-boggling power of chemistry.
The Chemical High Jump wasn’t the only event that allowed Year 8 students from across Newcastle to tinker with an exciting subject. Students performed challenges such as getting a colour- change reaction to take place in exactly 70 seconds, and to cool a mixture down to 6C.
“We were getting kids to compete with children from other schools, and they always like a bit of competition,” says Willis.
“The kids came out really fired up and talking to other people about it. It’s definitely something we should consider running in a similar format in future years.”
The Science Olympics was a small part of the huge programme of events that made up this year’s ScienceFest, but it’s a good example of what the festival has tried to do, each and every year since 2003.
This year may not have had the budget, or the giant headline acts, of previous years. But if one or two children fell in love with science by popping a humble cork off a roof, the organisers will have done their job every bit as much as if they’d ridden a robot Statue of Liberty down Dean Street.
“ScienceFest offers everyone, whether they’re five or 95, the chance to join in and become scientists,” says Dr Mike Jeffries of Northumbria University.
“If they can look back on the day and remember that they had fun as a scientist, it gives them confidence when dealing with science, which is often perceived to be a challenging subject.”
Dr Jeffries is from the university’s School of Built and Natural Environment. He used teddy bears to explain the subject of evolution to schoolchildren. It’s probably not something he has to do every time he explains his research, but it’s a sign that scientists from all sorts of fields are looking at how to share what they do with as many different people as possible.
Newcastle ScienceFest is all about scrubbing away the notion that the world of science is an exclusive treehouse, off-limits to anyone without a PhD. Attractions on show included a lifelike polar bear puppet called Bjorn, a discussion on the difference between human and robot languages, screenings in the planetarium and a ramble along the shore at Cullercoats with marine biologists, not to mention a kitchen-table science demonstration by Ian Russell, known as Exploding Custard.
On top of that, ScienceFest visited the Gateshead Metrocentre, held lectures on subjects such as the chemistry of the senses, brought in leading North East scientists such as Professor Sir John Burn to discuss their work, and laid on “late-night” events featuring cocktails, lasers and comedy.
“I was counting up the number of events and we had something like 80 over eight days, in about 30 different venues,” says Centre for Life chief executive Linda Conlon.
“We probably had a budget of about £45,000 to play with this year, including the cost of getting someone to coordinate the activities.
“We had to work very hard with key partners including Newcastle Science City and Northumbria University.
“It was incredibly important not to have a hiatus in 2012, despite the limitations of the budget. It was always our ambition to keep the momentum going, and in the end it was more than just a mini ScienceFest.”
The festival had to face some harsh truths in 2012 and limit its ambitions accordingly. Regional development agency One North East contributed £220,000 in 2010, but no longer exists.
With a radically deflated budget, ScienceFest had to go ahead without the Maker Faire, the exciting and popular showcase of creations great and small which normally took place during the festival.
Conlon hopes to have the Faire back next year, and admits its absence changed the nature of the programme this year.
“We made a conscious decision not to do a mini one this year because we didn’t want people to make an unfavourable comparison with last year.
“Having things like the Maker Faire and the extra money helps us to bring in the star acts and to create buzz. It gets people coming in from outside the region.
“Last year, we had people coming from the USA and Northern Europe, and we didn’t really have that this year. It was more of a local festival. We had about 60,000 visitors last year. It was more like 20,000 this time.
“I’d like to see us working with the region’s universities and with others to see if we can jointly agree a strategy for the next science festival over the next three years. It will need some support financially, particularly if we’re looking to get Maker Faire back.”
While the lack of headline acts meant the festival’s profile was lower this year, it was important to continue. The British Science Festival is coming to Newcastle in September 2013, and the motivated science communicators of the region were keen to keep appreciation for science bubbling away ahead of Europe’s largest public science event.
As Northumbria’s senior chemistry lecturer Anne Willis also points out, it’s crucial to keep encouraging young people to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics qualifications.
Willis says that organisations such as the North East of England Process Industry Cluster are warning of ageing workforces, and so it’s important to inspire young people to follow in their footsteps.
“A lot of universities focus their outreach on sixth-formers,” she says. “I believe it should also focus on the top end of Key Stage Two or the bottom end of Key Stage Three, before they’ve made their minds up and compartmentalised their brains.
“I want to get them round to the fact that science lets you enjoy yourself and contribute something to society. When I think about outreach I always try to focus on something that makes it relevant to a career or a job. When you study chemistry and science, you develop abilities to work in a team, concentrate and be an independent learner.
“Most schoolchildren really enjoy science lessons. When I go into schools it’s often among their favourite subject if it’s being taught in a hands-on way. Of course, it’s really nice to present stuff to kids when parents are around.
“Parents have such an influential role in choosing the subjects the children pursue, and if children are getting the wrong information from home, they can be led away from the sciences.”
Northumbria University took a much bigger role in the festival this year, presenting events on subjects such as sleep research and sport science.
Professor Jenny Ames, School of Life Sciences associate dean for innovation, says the events were directed at a range of age groups. “A lot of people were involved for the first time, and I think they were surprised in the overall interest.
“It’s lovely to see families, young children, and people of all ages showing such an interest in science.
“It’s always an eye-opener to see which bits people will latch on to and find interesting, and we’re keen to maintain that interest, especially with children. We want them to grow up enjoying science, so they study it when they get into sixth form, so they’re able to maintain that enquiring mind children have, so they keep asking questions about why and how.
“What we’d like to do next year is to have more exhibitions, more demonstrations and more activities. There’s a lot of potential in chemistry and biomedical sciences. People are very interested in their health and the health of their families, and we could do more about health and disease.
“Universities can’t afford to be isolated from what’s going on around them. Through our growing involvement in the Sciencefest and the British Science Festival, it allows everything we do to be more embedded in society.”
The passion behind ScienceFest isn’t just being directed at the younger generation. There’s a consensus that everyone can benefit from knowing a little more about science, and that people shouldn’t feel scared to find out more just because they’re beyond school age.
Northumbria law lecturer Richard Hyde might have seemed out of place in a science showcase, but the whole point behind his talk about food labelling was that science is part of our lives, and it falls to us to know just a little bit about how to interpret it.
“The law can regulate what you can say about food to a certain extent, but it can’t tell you exactly how to make decisions.
“For example, if you look at a box of cereal, a label might tell you how much energy and fat there is in a portion, but when we got people to demonstrate what they thought a portion was, it was generally more than the recommended size.
“Sometimes consumers can get to a point where they’re overwhelmed with information and don’t take in what the info is saying. There’s a concern that they look at it and either say, ‘That’s fine’, or don’t take in what the information is saying.
“What we need to do is empower the consumer to make decisions. People don’t need to become theoretical physicists, but it’s important to have a basic understanding.
“It was a different crowd to the people I’d normally speak to, but those who visited my lecture were curious, thoughtful and really nice people to engage with.”
The desire to share more with people of all ages is what drives events such as Bright Club, an evening show which challenges researchers to present their work to an audience in the form of stand-up.
It’s also the thinking behind events such as Northumbria University’s Designs for Life programme, which covered everything from digital animation to interactive experiences showing a little of what it’s like to have multiple sclerosis.
“People’s lives can be enhanced by having greater scientific literacy, ” says Linda Conlon. “Even if you’re not interested in science itself you might be interested in what it might mean to you, especially if it has a bearing on your family in future.
“Science isn’t just something you do on lesson three on Tuesday. It permeates everything you do.”