During the course of my PhD I have been heavily involved with activities designed to promote science to children and the wider public, often described as public outreach or just outreach. In 2012, I was short-listed as one of four candidates for the Institute of Physics’ “Very Early Career Physics Communicator Award“. Below I have given some detail on my motivation for doing outreach and also some examples of outreach events I have been part of.
I feel very passionately about the importance of outreach. Science to me is more than a vocation. It is also hobby, and it shapes the way I see the world. Too many people are put off science at a young age, feeling it is both boring and hard. It is that true aspects of it can be difficult, but with the good balance of showmanship, carefully chosen experiments, and correctly pitched explanations science can be brought to life for everyone. We can unweave the rainbow in front of your eyes, inflate balloons by blowing on the outside, turn ping-pong balls into jet engines, levitate magnets, and of course make loud bangs. However, a science show, unlike a magic show, involves no trickery and the full explanation only adds to the show. With outreach I can spread my love of science to people previously disillusioned by science at school, and hopefully inspire some younger members of the audience to pursue science further.
Educational Outreach Activities
I have been involved with a range of educational activities for children of many different ages. I am most proud of the “trickle down” activity which I organised in collaboration with a fellow PhD student and Nottingham Academy. The first stage of this event was to teach Year 9 students the basic physics behind rockets, and then challenged them to make paper rockets. These were launched from a launcher made from pipes pressurised by a car tyre compressor. In the second stage we supervised the Year 9 students planning the same event for Year 6 students. The Year 9 students were actively involved in supervising the Year 6 students in making rockets, launching rockets, and many Year 9 students actually got hands on experience in constructing the air powered “rocket launchers”. This event was very successful, and was run again at Nottingham Academy this year (with different demonstrators).
I ran a session in both the 2010 and 2011 Nottingham Nanoscience Masterclass for 16-18 year olds, where A-level students were able to use scanning tunnelling microscopes in pairs under limited supervision to collect images with atomic resolution. This introduced them to the real limits of microscopy and hopefully helped to inspire them to take up degrees in physics. I have also been involved with other masterclasses aimed instead at GCSE students. For these events I helped not only by running sessions, but before the events I wrote the worksheets by adapting experiments (such as a macroscopic model of an atomic force microscope, and a demonstration of magnetic moments) from the first year undergraduate laboratory so they could be understood by GCSE students.
I have also participated in one of the IOP’s Ashfield Music Festival events as the “Electrical Expert”, and helped run the physics stall at the Nottingham Chemistry Fair for primary school children.
The School of Physics and Astronomy, in collaboration with the video journalist Brady Haran have a public outreach YouTube channel, called SixtySymbols, where experiments and physical phenomena are explained in a very natural way with no professional sets. Most videos are presented by permanent staff from the department, after being involved behind the scenes in a couple of videos I was honoured (being a lowly undergraduate student at the time) to be allowed to present one of the symbols. The symbol I chose, σ, for electrical conductivity which was demonstrated using an electromagnetic cannon:
Giants of the Infinitesimal
As part of the Manchester Science Festival 2011, the Giants of the Infinitesimal team put on an event called “Meet the Nanoscientists” at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. After the success of this event in 2012, Meet the Nanoscientists ran again at Magna in Sheffiled.
For these event I provided the liquid Nitrogen demonstrations using a mixture of experiments which I regularly help present at university open days in Nottingham, and other ‘classic’ liquid nitrogen (LN2) experiments which are apparently too messy for an open day. I have a particular fondness for LN2 demonstrations, both because it is so well known by the public, and because it is so misunderstood and misrepresented in the media. I used this opportunity to dispel common myths: “It is so dangerous that if you touch it you will instantly get frost bite!”, “It can freeze a banana in under 5 seconds!”, etc.
The demonstrations instead centred around the expansion of gases as they are heated: inflating balloons with the nitrogen boil off, firing corks out of bottles with increased pressure, making a miniature Hero (rocket) engine from a ping-pong ball filled with liquid nitrogen, among others. Of course these were followed by some classic experiments such as smashing flowers, smashing a banana (which has to be put into nitrogen much earlier in the demonstration after an initial failure to smash after 5 seconds), and making nails out of blu-tack. We even filmed a short video of the event at Magna:
Medecins Sans Frontieres 24 hour science charity event.
This September I participated in the first hour of a 24 hour charity science show broadcast live on the internet. This event raises money for Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors without Borders, and has had many famous names such as Richard Dawkins and Neil Degrasse Tyson in previous years. I presented some of the LN2 experiments mentioned in the Giants of the Infinitesimal section as well as the electric cannon I used in Sixty Symbols. Unfortunatly, the broadcast was plagued with technical difficulties and much of the footage was lost. But you can see what did survive:
Nottingham Physics Outreach
I have been involved with, and helped organise, a number of outreach events arranged by the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Nottingham. These events are held in public locations, and are aimed at the general public.
As part of Nottingham Light Night we bring light to life, with a collection of informative experiments. I demonstrate the following experiments: experiments Rayleigh scattering and why the sky is blue; making a rainbow; and rotation polarisation by chiral molecules.
I have also been involved in other public outreach activities at Nottingham University Mayfest, Nottingham Riverside Festival, and an event in the Broadmarsh shopping centre. These events centred around experiments that can be done with household objects: making balloon kebabs, putting a drinking straw through a uncooked potato, and producing a tornado in a bottle. The venues chosen allowed us to bring outreach to an audience unlikely to visit dedicated science events.