big and little

18 March 2016 - By: Angie White

Big and Little

CBBC how does the eye work-In txt
Explaining how the eye works at CBBC's Live Festival in Leeds

By Angie White
SEB PhD Student, University of Sheffield

One bright, cold January morning, 36 young STEM communicators gathered in ThinkTank, Birmingham’s science museum, to learn from the experiences of five experts. The Little Event, run by the STEM communicators’ network “BIG” is an annual opportunity for early career STEM communicators to develop their skills and build their network. In attendance were a range of up-and-coming communicators ranging from science museum “explainers”, to press officers, to PhD students and postdocs keen to branch out.

Quality and Quantity

Toni Hamill, from Newcastle’s Centre for Life, had organised the day and got the ball rolling with a fun ice-breaker. Using the classic biological concept of a dichotomous key, we split ourselves into groups of ever-decreasing size according to yes/no questions that we devised ourselves, and then got to know the people in our group of two or three. Being communicators, none of us was shy, and the room was buzzing with chatter. 

Our first session was with James Soper, The Juggling Scientist. James is a freelance live science presenter, and regaled us with excerpts of his exciting circus-style shows for schools. He shared his top tips for science presenting, and finished with an inspiring plea to STEM communicators: to help others love science the way we do. 

Next up was Ashley Kent, event programmer for Cheltenham Festivals. We kicked off by considering what makes an excellent event, before discussing the role of an event programmer and tackling an event programmers’ interview exercise. This was a great way to get some hands-on experience of what the job is like and some of the important considerations when planning big science events.

Engaging in careers

After a tasty lunch accompanied by more networking – and a play in the wonderful outdoor Science Garden, an innovative playground of exhibits – we had a careers session, talking all the day’s speakers about their pathways into STEM communication. “Progression is your responsibility,” we were advised, and encouraged to consider what we want to achieve in our careers.

Brian Mackenwells, from the University of Oxford, then discussed his role as a public engagement officer. Engagement is a two-way process, he explained, from which both the researcher and the public should benefit. We discussed the various benefits of engagement for all involved, and Brian’s role in facilitating and stimulating effective public engagement. 

Our final session was led by Bridget Holligan from Science Oxford, along with Toni Hamill. Both Bridget and Toni work in developing STEM learning activities, and we considered what it really means to learn, as well practical tips for helping groups of children to learn. Toni stressed the importance of emotional experience for effective learning – many of our most vibrant memories have strong emotions associated with them. We thought about cooperative learning and the benefits of discussions and practical activities compared to the traditional “hands up” approach that was characteristic of my primary school days. “It’s okay to say you don’t know,” Bridget assured us; sometimes a discussion-based approach can reveal holes in the educator’s knowledge and that’s all part of the process! We finished up with a practical exercise, building a small shelter out of masking tape and card, whilst considering the ways in which the activity could be used to stimulate thought and emotion.

All in all, the Little Event was a BIG success! With an approachable setting for developing our thoughts and skills surrounding STEM communication, it provided an invaluable approach to chat to experts and network with peers, and helped me to crystallise my career thoughts too (watch this space). Highly recommended, and thank you BIG! 


Category: Teaching and Learning
Angie White- RS

Angie White

Angie White studied Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge before taking up the inaugural SEB PhD studentship, studying source-sink limitations of growth in barley at the University of Sheffield and Brookhaven National Laboratory, with Colin Osborne, Mark Rees and Alistair Rogers.  She has a keen interest in science communication and policy, having worked for The Conversation and completed work experience in the Houses of Parliament during her PhD.