Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Bringing science to the local community

Staff from CEH's Edinburgh site organised several events for the local community as part of this year's National Science and Engineering Week 2012. The events comprised two science "Have-a-go" days on March 10 and 17 in Penicuik Town Hall, and two science public lectures on the same days: "Hunting the Higgs" by Dr Andy Buckley (Edinburgh University and CERN), and "To Breathe or Not to Breathe" by Dr Brian Miller (Institute of Occupational Medicine). In a guest blog, event organisers Sue Owen and Mhairi Coyle reveal how the days went:

"Penicuik is a location where it can be hard to attract big audiences to events like these: we were hoping for 50 visitors minimum for each of the Have-a-go Days, and 25 minimum for the evening lectures, but we weren't confident that we could achieve even those numbers. Happily we were proved wrong!

Creating a tornado in a bottle

We were delighted that all four events were hugely successful - well attended and well appreciated by the public. Attendance at the Have-a-go days was from a wide age range - from toddlers to older people. The first Saturday attracted more than 130 visitors, and the second around 120. (The second day was particularly warm and sunny, which we think prevented a few more people attending!)

Frequent appreciative comments were heard, including "Isn't it great to have something like this in Penicuik?" The first public lecture attracted a full house of 50, and the second attracted an audience of 41. Thus attendance at all events far exceeded expectations. The audiences for the lectures were also very appreciative and indicated that more science lectures like these would be very welcome in Penicuik.

The events took place thanks to the efforts of a 12-strong group of CEH scientists who met twice to brainstorm ideas and plan details, and a sub-group who met to review draft posters and presentations. Activities on the day were based on previous outreach activities devised by Drs Clare Howard and Marsailidh Twigg, as well as activities from Dr Mhairi Coyle derived from her involvement with the Institute of Physics, plus demonstrations of instrumentation, as well as a very popular offering of paper chromatography from trainee science teacher Dr Paul Murray. We also had crafts and story-telling from local art group "Making Space, Penicuik" as well as posters and displays.

In particular the events looked at how pollution affects us and the environment. Using games and simple experiments, we set out to examine how we can see the effects of pollution,  why we should care and some of what we can do about it. Using the theme, "I'm a nitrogen molecule, get me out of here", the effect of too much nitrogen was illustrated and explained in various ways: on the soil through the use of balloons; on biodiversity (with a butterfly card game); on air (NOx skittles) and on water (gloopy fishing!).

Fishing in gloop to show the effects of nitrogen pollution

The instrumentation demonstrated ways of measuring pollution, while a simple method of analysing pollutants was illustrated with paper chromatography, separating compounds and making beautiful patterns into the bargain. Further pollution effects were demonstrated by "ozone good guy/bad guy", comparing real ozone-damaged plants to healthy ones, and by examing lichen specimens and their tolerance to pollution. The study of pollution carried by wind and water was made fun by making clouds in a bottle, and making a tornado in a bottle - this proved very popular! We also measured wind with sound, and then sensed sound with our fingers.

In addition, we invited the local craft group "Making Space, Penicuik" to participate in both events, making felt butterflies and using felt animals and a felt landscape to tell a story about pollution from fertilizers. This provide a great balance to the activities, particularly for the younger visitors.

From the feedback forms we received, most responders indicated that they would continue to discuss the science after the event and that they were now more interested in science. Everyone who responded indicated that they would attend a similar event in future. Such outreach work is an important element of the "Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research" from the Research Councils UK (RCUK). Overall, we hope our events in Penicuik succeeded in bringing environmental science concepts to a local community that doesn't normally engage with science, in an enjoyable and fun way."

Sue Owen and Mhairi Coyle, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

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