‘Springing’ into Public Engagement

Kerrianne Harrington, a Proteus PhD student based at the University of Bath, is actively involved in Public Engagement and Outreach. In this blog, she takes us through her experiences of showcasing our science to the general public during the Spring of 2017.

Click an option below:

Science Fair at the Wiltshire Music Centre:

“I love talking directly with an audience, rather than at an audience. Direct feedback such as facial expressions and body language makes it much easier to avoid boring people to death by droning on about particulars they don’t care for! You can scope out what they are interested in, and what they do and don’t personally understand.”

With Peter Mosley,  we set up a familiar and old stand at the Wiltshire Music Centre. This science fair, which ran on 5 March 2017, was too close to Bath Taps into Science, so many of our new props and tools for activities were already unavailable. Instead, we nostalgically dug out items that Peter and I put together three years ago.

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Image credit: Kerrianne Harrington

Revisiting these activities allowed me to reflect on how much our outreach activities as a group have developed and grown over the course of my PhD. However, it was great to return to simple experiments using transparent acrylic shapes and a laser pointer, to guide children in exploring and discovering how light behaves. Once they realise how total internal reflection makes the laser light bend in an unexpected direction, it is always rewarding to see them creatively manipulate their laser pointer light with as many acrylic blocks they can get hold of.

Despite the simplicity of this experiment, it is probably my favourite introduction to optical fibres because it describes so well how optical fibres work to any audience, from young children right up to undergraduate level.

Bath Taps into Science:

“I really love events like Bath Taps into Science, because you can engage with lots of people over a short period of time and tailor conversations to different levels and interests. It is why workshops, fairs and science days are the type of events I have been the most heavily engaged in.”

Bath Taps into Science is an annual weekend event that happens at the University of Bath in mid-March. For many years it has been a two day event. It starts on a Friday, where busloads of school children descend onto the University halls.  There they are met by lots of lively science stalls set up by different departments in the University and various groups in the Bath community. Undergraduates, postgraduates and staff all get together to set up stalls to showcase flashy, messy and loud experiments for the day. It is a bit of fun chaos that fully engages both the school children who are visiting and the volunteers who take part. On the second day, the event moves into the Bath city centre, where a new type of audience can be engaged with: the general public. The event attracts a lot of families, with parents seeking a free, daylong event to engage their children. Often the parents end up getting just as involved!

It’s a fantastic event that I’ve loved taking part in throughout my undergraduate and PhD. It’s motivating and refreshing to engage with people who look at your work and studies from a different perspective.

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Image credit: Bath Taps into Science

Last year Bath Taps into Science was advertised for the first time on Facebook, and word spread as far as Bristol and Swindon. Over 5,000 visitors came to the Saturday event, and the sudden surge in popularity meant our research group gave away all of our homemade spectroscopes before the day even ended! With this sudden increase in popularity, organisers rose to the challenge and extended the event to be over a week long.

Lots of satellite events were ran outside of the city centre, and I was keen to take part in these new locations. On 11 March 2017, I travelled to a school in Timsbury – a place I had never explored despite living in Bath for almost seven years. Although smaller in scale than the main event, I was pleasantly surprised by how busy and well attended it was! I was placed in the café, so got to talk to lots of people and, typical of Bath Taps, didn’t have a quiet moment for the whole day. I was showcasing the imaging fibres we make at Bath for Proteus, from the large structured preforms they start life out as down to the small, thin strands of glass they end up as. I definitely sparked up a keen interest in one young visitor who became extremely interested when I compared building a preform for optical fibres like building with long, transparent lego bricks.

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Image credit: Kerrianne Harrington

Although unable to attend the main two event days of Bath Taps into Science, I helped to set up for the Friday schools visit this year. The Centre for Photonics and Photonic Materials (CPPM) looked extremely polished and slick, and I think we were all proud of it. Much of the stall had been hand built by students and staff for the prestigious Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in 2016, overseen and cohesively sewn together by William Wadsworth. This exhibition motivated us to generate professional, refined items and stall pieces that can be reused again and again at different events. This year we replaced our much loved DIY spectroscopes with our large bubble display, light up preforms, videos and interactive microscope. The stand was extremely busy all day and made a great impact!

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Image credit: William Wadsworth

Three Minute Thesis:

 “The key to a good talk is picking the right things to talk about, pitching it at the right level of understanding, and keeping it all neat and concise. These are things I feel you can never practice enough.”

I was extremely impressed by the competition in the Three Minute Thesis at the University of Bath, that took place on 29 March 2017. Sadly, I did not win. However, the winner and the runner up were very inspiring. Their talks were tidy, engaging and well-spoken. It might be easy to miss the amount of effort that would have been behind their work because it is only three minutes long, but condensing a PhD worth of work into three minutes is no easy task. I found it to be one of the most challenging public engagement experiences I have had in a while. Condensing the need for my research into a three minute pitch? Very doable. Talking about my research in three minutes? Also doable. But doing both of these, while aiming it at a general audience, and being entertaining while doing so, meant that I rewrote my speech several times. There is so much to talk about, picking what should be focused on and doing so in a way that is both understandable and relatable to any audience is difficult. The winners effortlessly achieved this in their talks in a way that is admirable. They spoke on the level of ease a well-practiced TV presenter would address an audience, like Brian Cox or Mark Miodownik.

Network of Women in Physics:

“Public speaking and presentations are something all scientists must do, and speaking to non-specialist audiences and the general public is a great way hone your presentations skills. All scientists love talking about their research, showing off images of their work and having an excuse to poke their head outside of the lab occasionally, and I’m definitely no exception!”

Finally, I was asked to give a talk at the undergraduate founded and organised afternoon conference for the Network of Women in Physics on 4 April 2017. It was a fantastic afternoon and I was very impressed by the range and diversity of research that the students had picked for their afternoon. It was fun to put myself in the shoes of an undergraduate looking at my own PhD research, and from the range of insightful questions I got, it was well received. I was pleasantly surprised by how well attended the event was, with the whole lecture room filled out by students curious enough to sacrifice a free afternoon to learn about what research goes on beyond their lectures.

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Image credit: Network of Women in Physics

Although in my third year of PhD, where time is ever more critical and increasingly scarce, I still enjoy taking time to take part in outreach activities. It is great motivator and always fills me with renewed enthusiasm for my work.