BSW: Wednesday 16/03

I’ve been preaching about effective, evidence based outreach for quite some time, so it may seem interesting/hypocritical of me to volunteer at something like the annual Big Bang Fair- but I’ve actually never been and I like my evidence to be first hand. Big Bang is a national, four-day ‘science’ extravaganza at the NEC in Birmingham, heavily supported by the government and sponsored by arms and weapons manufactures. It’s a classic 2016 approach to science communication/ education: no evidence, no impact measurement, just loads of money thrown at an embarrassing problem. Peter Main recently said no one has ever mentioned Big Bang in their reasons for studying science or engineering, and after only an hour on the event floor, I can understand why.

These aren’t scientists talking about science, these are industry employees wanting to complete their annual mandatory three-day CPD. I’m supposed to talk about science careers to groups of young people, who arrive disenchanted, exhausted and just desperate for a day off school. They aren’t the only ones: the majority of the others talking about careers wanted a day-off work and the rest are so impressed by the ‘warm-fuzzies’ they get from talking careers to uninformed young people they forget the important stuff: we could be the only STEM sector employee these kids ever meet. I’m trained by a motivational speaker who speaks boldly about their career in the media, says the kids are only ever really interested in the stickers we get and distributes job cards, none of which match the jobs that the volunteers actually do but apparently ‘that’s not important’/ the young people ‘don’t care’. Half of the session is given to an unnecessary ice breaking activity where kids try and match the not relevant job titles to our actual roles (impossible right?) and the rest is supposed to be conducted like a speed networking session but just consists of a list of questions provided by the Big Bang that the kids read without really listening to our answers. I tried really hard not to lose heart (especially when > 70 % of the students I interacted with over the five 45 minute sessions said proudly they wanted to work in sport or media). The questions were as tasteful as ‘How much do you earn?’ and as relevant (after I’d just discussed my path to PhD) as ‘did you do an apprenticeship?’. When I asked the students (about 100 in total over the whole day), ‘Why are you here?’ the majority just wanted the day of school, and when I said has this changed your mind about science/ engineering the general consensus was it hadn’t at all.

The students had to get ‘evidence’ for their teachers from every interaction they had, which meant collected stickers/ badges from the STEMettes, maths puzzles from the institute of maths and –just guess – recipes for homemade hand cream from an organisation called ‘Beauty by the Geeks’. I really enjoyed talking to the various companies and corporates who were present: they felt they had to attend to have some youth presence but agreed no one really got anything out of it. I spoke to EDF about their Pretty Curious campaign (which I recently spoke about on LBC radio) and said I really liked that they were trying at all- it’s a shame they got so publically criticised for ploughing money into any kind of STEM initiative. Aside from the appalling name, the ideas behind the Pretty Curious challenge (and Shell’s Big Ideas) are solid as is the actual competition itself: it’s a shame the publically voted for winner was a boy, but it’s also likely not surprising due to our own implicit bias. We were told we couldn’t leave our bags anywhere- which is great when you’ve travelled from London with your laptop and are told to haul it round an arena all day- and told we couldn’t get lunch between 12-13:30 as that’s when the fair was busiest. Fair enough. Only, when I arrived to get lunch at 13:36 every lunch bag was taken and there was a few bruised apples and bottles of water.

The high point of the fair (by far) were the student research projects, co-championed by the awesome Becky Parker (and her EPIC Institute of Research in schools) and the Nuffield foundation. Girls from Brighton had built a rowing machine, a boy from West Sussex had built an exoplanet detector, Kritin from Sutton Grammar was curing Alzheimer’s and the incredible Hannah from Glasgow was working on chemical ligands. The sad part was, by day, the students work wasn’t being recognised: either other kids were jealous or largely disinterested, and the majority wouldn’t win an award at the Big Bang awards ceremony the next day. Instead they’re like those that apply for a talk but get a poster presentation at conferences: the hyper keen early career research who is wasting big proportions of their travel budget standing next to a poster no one looks at.

There were of course the STEM showstoppers: the Exo Mars launch from ESA, the Bloodhound land speed breaking challenge and the Medical Mavericks and there was a live science show with an impressive queue. If schools hadn’t brought packed lunches there was always Subway, popcorn and a pic’n’mix- in a week the government waged war on sugar and unhealthy foods– and the queues for Frappuccinos in the NEC’s nearby Starbucks snaked the empty foyers. I’m sure that some people benefit from the event: the 29 % or STEM enthusiasts who will study science regardless and don’t need all of this convincing or the switched on teacher who didn’t just see this as an OFSTED approved day-off work, but I don’t believe the 70,000 people expected to walk through the doors will be changing their minds any time soon. Most universities don’t agree to pay for stands there (Big Bang charge tens of thousands of pounds to their exhibitors), and I doubt any of the 11 – 14 year olds who attend apply to any that do. This is (unfortunately) just as bad as everyone says it is, and a bit worse- because the government endorse it so heavily they don’t have time or energy for anything else. I particularly appreciated the all girls private school who’d put all of their students in first class on the route home- the majority of which confirming they were still opting to study humanities.

“Every murder is a tragedy, but the science is fascinating…”

I met my old lab buddy at Euston where we collected some Itsu and caught a cab to the IOP’s members room where we caught up over edamame and wasabi. We were there to watch Professor Carolyn Roberts from the Institution of Environmental Science talk about how she uses her studies of hydrology to track dead bodies in rivers in the IOP London & South East Branch Lecture, Scientific Research- it’s Murder! I was beyond excited for this talk- the IOP LSE schedule is really great- and lots of the sixth formers I’ve met on my recent adventures were in the audience.

Prof Roberts manages to disconnect from the emotional/ gruesome aspect of dead bodies and speak about them with professionalism and respect. She’s great at telling a story and has some great opinions (she is not a fan of Wolverhampton and says it’s usually the husband who is to blame). Prof Roberts models velocity flow in rivers and canals using rain fall and wind speed data. She makes models of whole bodies, torsos, limbs and heads of varying densities and chucks them in rivers to find out where something might end up. Prof Roberts is called in by the police to find where bodies were chucked in and tries to elucidate what the cause could have been (but crucially not the motive). She’s worked with material scientist to create body parts of different densities and weights to test where they might end-up. The force want to know two things:

  • Where shall they start the search?
  • What’s the maximum distance parts could have moved?

She’s got an interesting route to her detective career, leaving a life in academic research and environmental consultancy to being called on by confused coppers. She’s got some brilliant stories too: of a corpse found standing vertically upright in Camden Lock in 2000 to a cruel father knocking his adopted son into the Thames with scaffolding in 2015. Her imagery is often a bit too graphical, but a clever infographic mapping murders around the country tells me my brother was always totally safe in the West Country. Over 1/5 of UK murders take place in London. Prof Roberts was also incredibly funny- she’s yet to find a riverbed that’s not strewn with shopping trolleys and she tells her students at the Gresham College if they don’t work hard they’ll end up knee-deep in mud working for her digging team. She tells the story of a friend who murdered his flatmate because his laptop didn’t come up to spec. She tells of a man, who the day before his wife went ‘missing’ bought a knife, rubber gloves and gaffer tape on his credit cards… only to produce brand new products when the police called him up the next day. She’s modelled the complex canal system around Birmingham to track a body in two suitcases and been called in to historic cases across Europe.

Decaying bodies go through various stages, the lungs bloat, the bodies float and the often ignorant murderer doesn’t always weigh them down with concrete. Floating bodies move with the flow of the river and by using national data for wind direction, Prof Roberts and her team can track where they might end up. She’s joined by academic teams in the University of Warwick where they reconstruct bones and an awful lot of material scientist/ forensic scientists who are preoccupied with pollen. You should check out Prof Roberts’ Life Scientific episode on Radio 4 next week.

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