Nottingham Festival of Science and Curiosity 2017

Last week for the third year running the people of Nottingham were able to experience science through The Festival of Science and Curiosity 2017.

What is the The Festival of Science and Curiosity?

The festival is unique to Nottingham and was put in place by the STEM city partnership. The STEM city partnership is made up of a group of some really great Nottingham organisations with some noble aims:

  • To engage citizens in STEM learning activities both in the classroom and in the community
  • To enable citizens to make informed choices about STEM careers and understand the benefits of STEM
  • To empower citizens to participate in the knowledge economy and share in the future success of the city

Because of these aims the festival does a lot of work with schools but also with the public and families. This year the main day for families and the public to enjoy science together was Saturday 11/02/17 with events held at the Broadway Cinema, Central Library and Broadmarsh shopping centre.

Broadway held ‘The Explorers Fair’, this had talks, shows and the chance to try at being a science presenter. Central Library held ‘Hands on Science’ with activities that let children play with science and Broadmarsh had an inflatable planetarium and plenty of scientists too.

How did I get involved?

I had just finished my PhD when the call went out for festival volunteers. I signed up straight way keen to get out of the immense detail of a PhD and go right back to the basics of Microbiology…

The event I proposed was ‘Make your own Microbes- get creative with PlayDoh’

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What was my event about?

This event tried use playdoh and playing to explain to younger children what microbes are. It can be a difficult concept to understand, but it is best to try and introduce the idea of microbes early, this is happening more commonly now in the curriculum- normally through explaining the importance of hand washing!

(See some very good comics on this area by the Microbiology Society)

The main barrier to understanding what a microbe is the fact that they are so tiny that they are invisible to the naked eye. One of the best ways to describe them is as tiny creatures or microscopic animals (just as Antonie van Leeuwenhoek did -one of the founding fathers of microbiology) he also tried to explain how tiny they were to his friends by saying how it would take 1 million of them to be the same size as a grain of sand.

The trouble with the description of ‘tiny creature’ is they don’t have the same obvious physiology as the animals and insects that we can see and all the parts of a microbe have complicated names.

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Naming components of a Bacterium

However for children this can be simplified, for example:

  • A propeller that bacteria use to move called the flagellum becomes called ‘a tail’ (represented by cut hair ties).
  • The pilus/ spikes that cover a bacteria and are important for gene transfer/moving/sticking together in a group, can be called ‘hands’ or ‘legs’ depending on what you are using them for (represented by cut straws).
  • Plasmids which are circular DNA that can be passed between bacteria and sometimes pass antibiotic resistance properties can be referred to as superpowers (represented by gems).
  • And lastly googly eyes can be used to represent the complex sensing systems bacteria have in place to navigate their environment- in complicated terms called chemosensing or quorum sensing.
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Child friendly parts of a microbe

So with the help of PlayDoh and poundland I was ready to help children start to visualize the typically invisible microbes.

What happened on the day?

I held this event in Nottingham Central Library where the staff involved had been very organised and had set up a separate science room for the occasion.

I was in good company with other volunteers doing the science of visual illusions, chemistry experiments and the science of eggs!

I was lucky to be by the door and had lots of interested children all day. I think that by having playdoh, a plaything that children are familiar with allowed them to easily approach the stall and not be intimidated.

The age range was varied and so were the conversations, in some cases the playdoh kept very young children entertained while I talked to their parents about science. In other cases it was interesting to find out what they already knew, many described them as ‘germs and bugs that make your tummy sick’. This was a good opportunity to talk to the slightly older children about good and bad bacteria.

I had made some example playdoh microbes for the children in case they wanted something to copy but it turned out they were all very creative and I wish that I had photographed the children’s own creations. There was a slight trend of the younger ones describing their models as spiders or monsters, but I think that is understandable when you are trying to understand something that is invisible!

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My own attempts at playdoh microbes

Hints and tips for running a stall at a Science festival

  •  Always have one visual thing that a child will be familiar with on your stall so they are not too intimidated to come and investigate.
  • Remember its not just about your target audience, engage everyone at your stall.
  • Ask permission and take pictures of the child’s work. Upload this picture onto an online gallery  and give the parent the link to access the picture- I wish I had thought of this before hand. It acts to captures the engagement but also it may have saved many parents from having to carry a playdoh model in their bag for the rest of the day!

I fully recommend getting involved in the Festival of Science and Curiosity, its great to see how much curiosity and creativity the people of Nottingham have! Already looking forward to next year