The 2012 Newcastle ScienceFest may not have had the big performers of previous years, but as many as 80 events were put on to get visitors excited about the many facets of science. John Hill talks to some of the people involved.
AT this year’s Science Olympics, the best performer jumped so high it crashed off the roof with a thunk. A swell of cheering rose around Rutherford Hall as it happened. Each team had been tasked with mixing up a reaction in such a way that a cork popped out of bottle at high speed.
Clearly, one team got the hang of the mixing pretty quickly.
“It was a pretty high ceiling,” says Anne Willis, who organised the event to show the eye-boggling power of chemistry.
The Chemical High Jump wasn’t the only event that allowed Year 8 students from across Newcastle to tinker with an exciting subject. Students performed challenges such as getting a colour- change reaction to take place in exactly 70 seconds, and to cool a mixture down to 6C.
“We were getting kids to compete with children from other schools, and they always like a bit of competition,” says Willis.
“The kids came out really fired up and talking to other people about it. It’s definitely something we should consider running in a similar format in future years.”
The Science Olympics was a small part of the huge programme of events that made up this year’s ScienceFest, but it’s a good example of what the festival has tried to do, each and every year since 2003.
This year may not have had the budget, or the giant headline acts, of previous years. But if one or two children fell in love with science by popping a humble cork off a roof, the organisers will have done their job every bit as much as if they’d ridden a robot Statue of Liberty down Dean Street.
“ScienceFest offers everyone, whether they’re five or 95, the chance to join in and become scientists,” says Dr Mike Jeffries of Northumbria University.
“If they can look back on the day and remember that they had fun as a scientist, it gives them confidence when dealing with science, which is often perceived to be a challenging subject.”
Dr Jeffries is from the university’s School of Built and Natural Environment. He used teddy bears to explain the subject of evolution to schoolchildren. It’s probably not something he has to do every time he explains his research, but it’s a sign that scientists from all sorts of fields are looking at how to share what they do with as many different people as possible.
Newcastle ScienceFest is all about scrubbing away the notion that the world of science is an exclusive treehouse, off-limits to anyone without a PhD. Attractions on show included a lifelike polar bear puppet called Bjorn, a discussion on the difference between human and robot languages, screenings in the planetarium and a ramble along the shore at Cullercoats with marine biologists, not to mention a kitchen-table science demonstration by Ian Russell, known as Exploding Custard.
On top of that, ScienceFest visited the Gateshead Metrocentre, held lectures on subjects such as the chemistry of the senses, brought in leading North East scientists such as Professor Sir John Burn to discuss their work, and laid on “late-night” events featuring cocktails, lasers and comedy.
“I was counting up the number of events and we had something like 80 over eight days, in about 30 different venues,” says Centre for Life chief executive Linda Conlon.
“We probably had a budget of about £45,000 to play with this year, including the cost of getting someone to coordinate the activities.
“We had to work very hard with key partners including Newcastle Science City and Northumbria University.
“It was incredibly important not to have a hiatus in 2012, despite the limitations of the budget. It was always our ambition to keep the momentum going, and in the end it was more than just a mini ScienceFest.”