Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Communicating STEM - A review of the Cheltenham Science Festival

If you have read my previous blogs you'll know that I had an opportunity to attend the Cheltenham Science Festival on a public engagement bursary from my University, the University of Surrey.  I had a fantastic time at the Cheltenham Science Festival, and I managed to rise to the self set challenge of reviewing at least some of the talks I attended (see previous blog posts).

As a requirement of the bursary, I was asked to report my experiences of the Festival, so here is my final review of the whole experience: 

The Cheltenham Science Festival

Is there somewhere you can go to explore ideas, unrestricted by the boundaries of your own experience? Is there somewhere where you can put your brain through its paces, with material that you don’t usually encounter?  Yes there is, it is called the Cheltenham Science Festival (CSF).

For a week in June, Cheltenham becomes a modern day Athens, where the big ideas of the modern era are discussed, not only in the lecture theatres but also in bars and cafes on every street corner.  

I attended the CSF as one of 18 research students from the University of Surrey and UCL.  We represented a diverse range of backgrounds but were united by our common enthusiasm for public engagement.  The CSF sparked lively debate and gave a forum to share collective experiences and develop our own learning. This learning across disciplines was a rare opportunity which encouraged me to think about my work in new ways.  Three weeks later, I find myself referencing material that I heard at the CSF and I suspect I will be doing so for a great deal longer.

One role of public engagement is to satisfy the public’s appetite for scientific discovery. The programme at the CSF did not disappoint, with a broad topic range represented over the week.  As a developmental health scientist I was challenged by experts in familiar topics; ‘Noise, a sound concern’, Where does creativity come from’, ‘Identifying Autism’, ‘Are we bubble wrapping our kids?’  and ‘What is school for?  In contrast, I was amazed by discoveries in disciplines out of my comfort zone (‘Higgs: the particle at the end of the universe), tackled with topics that stretched my understanding to its limits, (‘Infinity’) and had a go at something completely new (Raspberry_Pi programming).

During the week I engaged in some of the current ethical debates raised by technological advances.  For example, in ‘Brain Stimulation’ Vincent Walsh questioned why we seek to enhance human abilities and in “The future of human enhancement’ Robert Winston gave a chilling reminder of eugenics when discussing genetic modification in medicine.  Both demonstrated effective public engagement by communicating evidence objectively within an ethical framework, but also by seeking public opinion during questions.

Public engagement inspires the next generation of scientists.  I invited my family to join me at the weekend to attend some of the family friendly events, including the science of explosions (‘Kaboom’), noise (‘Sound Science’) evolution (‘Life fantastic’), engineering (‘Engineering the world’), documentary making (‘BBC - The secret life of cats’) and natural history (‘Deadly Pole to Pole’).   At the Discover Zone they talked directly to the scientists and tried their hand at a range of activities.  It was great to see them enjoying STEM outside of the classroom.

It was invigorating to witness so much enthusiasm about STEM. Despite some heavy cloudbursts, the CSF zone was a constant hive of activity.  At Cheltenham there was clear evidence of an appetite and need for public engagement and for one week in June, that need was met.  

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