Post Hoc: Bath Taps Into Science
As an undergraduate at the University of Bath, I had vaguely heard of something called “Bath Taps”. I wasn’t too sure what it was. Mostly, it seemed to crop up in other people’s conversations which I would overhear by chance. A few of my busier friends seemed to be quite excited about it, but somehow I never got involved. In my final year, one of my housemates even spent two whole days out of the house “at Bath Taps.” At this point, I felt I should find out exactly what all the fuss was about.
As it turns out, Bath Taps Into Science, to give it its full name, is an annual festival of science run by the University as part of National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW). Spanning a Friday and Saturday in NSEW, it involves a range of local organisations running a variety of activities for school groups (Friday) and the “general public” (Saturday). Public engagement with science being exactly the kind of thing I am now quite interested in, I decided I ought to keep my eye out for the 2012 edition.
The response came back:
Brilliant! You could run a stall!
Having neither institution, nor budget, nor pre-existing equipment to back me up (unlike most other stall-holders at the fair), I found this proposition a little daunting. After giving it some thought, though, I realised that I already had access to much more valuable resources: networks. If I could get the right people, that would be half the job done right there. Also, approaching the whole thing with plenty of time to spare (nearly 2 months’ planning time) meant I wasn’t too worried about sorting out exactly what to do or how to do it.
It didn’t take me long to remember that my MSc Science Communication course is a hotbed of enthusiasm for hands-on science activities. Asking around between lectures, I quickly found myself with a small army of volunteers, all armed with bags of experience and ideas.
On top of that, I know a number of early-career research scientists (largely because I’ve recently greaduated from a science degree myself – “birds of a feather” and all that!), who see public engagement as both an important thing to do and a way to enhance their CVs.
Finally, as a volunteer for the At-Bristol science centre, I have access to an established pool of other volunteers, many of whom are always looking for additional opportunities to “get out there” and bring science to as wide an audience as possible.
So between those three groups, I had sourced a team of enthusiasts – I dare call them friends now – to help me out.
As for what to actually do on our stall, there were a few ideas kicking around. There are plenty of demonstrations and “make-it” activities out there which can be made with very cheap, everyday items (see the video below for a few more examples). Given that we had plenty of time to play with, though, I thought of something a bit more ambitious. Straws-and-rubber-bands would be the backup plan.
Aside from access to manpower, another advantage of my role as a volunteer with At-Bristol was that I was able to negotiate the loan, for free, of half a dozen of their portable exhibits. Although I would not be representing them officially, it was felt that Bath Taps was a worthwhile event for their equipment to be used at. The reasoning was that since there were no bookings on the exhibits I was after, they might as well get put to good use. This goes to show how much At-Bristol value their volunteers’ commitment, something other institutions could learn from.
Thus suitably armed with kit and team, we set up the stall on the Friday morning and braced ourselves for the estimated 1000 primary school pupils about to descend on the fair. They say
time flies when you’re having fun,
and within what felt like minutes it was time to pack up and get ready for day 2.
For the second day, the event moved from the University campus down to Green Park Station, making it more accessible to a family and shoppers type of audience. Again, we were very busy, but it was a pleasure to see so many people getting excited about all the different stalls. Indeed, there was so much to do that when the Mayor of Bath came to visit, he ran out of time – just before visiting our stall!
The people coming to see our stall were a varied bunch. Some were quite shy, and needed a little coaxing to come and get “stuck in”. Others needed no encouragement from us, coming back again and again to play with their favourite exhibits.
In terms of how best to explain the phenomena, each of us had our own techniques. I’m a big fan of having the visitor do most of the talking. In some cases, this can almost be seen to backfire. For example, I was showing one exhibit, which demonstrates how a magnet falling through tubes made of different materials falls at different rates, to a boy of about 4, mother in tow. When I asked him where he might find a magnet, he said
on the fridge in the kitchen!
Before I could get round to handing him said magnet, however, he had launched into an enthusiastic blow-by-blow account of his latest kitchen adventures.
And at my house the fridge was broken last week and we had to take all the food out and eat it and now we’ve got a new one and…
(A very Captain Elaboration moment, I must say.)
Cute moments like that are exactly why I love doing this kind of thing. Once he had said his peace, I was able to totally ignore the anecdotal outburst; he was perfectly happy to carry on with investigating the tubes, as if the tale had never been brought up.
Another visitor, a dad with his young son, hardly needed (nor seemed to want) any help at all. He was very smily and got really involved in his child’s learning, asking all sorts of great questions and promoting great curiosity. He stopped to chat briefly afterwards, and said he was having a really fun time. He also said of the magnet-and-tubes exhibit:
I never thought I’d be able to explain Lenz’s Law to a child!
I hadn’t expected anyone to know the name of the phenomenon, and I must ashamedly admit I found myself thinking
On reflection, that was doubly silly. Firstly, I was committing a stereotyping fallacy. On top of that (and worse, I think), I assumed that only physicists would recognise Lenz’s Law. This is especially poor thinking on my part, because I’m not a physicist and I’ve heard of Lenz’s Law (albeit only because I was involved in demonstrating it).
And that’s another reason why I love public events like this: to have my assumptions and prejudices challennged.
However, standing up and having your assumptions challenged all day can be physically draining. So, I waited until we’d all gone home and recovered before asking my team about what they had taken from the experience. I was pleased to read they had all enjoyed the experience, some of the “newbies” having even learnt a thing or two from the more experienced members of the group (see quotes in picture captions).
Overall, then, a neat summary of my own Bath Taps experience is reflected in this quote from one of my volunteers:
I’d never heard of Bath Taps before but I think it’s an excellent event and I hope I’ll be back again someday!