Science Festival: Creating an engaging space in a 3×3×2 m gazebo
March is a very busy month for me with two big science events: National Science and Engineering Week and the Oxfordshire Science Festival. Every year, the science festival starts with a launch event, “Science in your World”, in Oxford City Centre. Many science organisations from across Oxfordshire run stalls with hands-on activities to showcase their work and chat to visitors. The event attracts the Saturday shopping crowd and a lot of visitors literally stumble into it because they are attracted by the tents and the buzz. Many might not have visited it at all if it had taken place in a university or other formal place. A team of staff and PhD students put together the activities for our Oxford Brookes stall. We wanted it to be a taster for the upcoming Brookes Science Bazaar (our University science festival), and so chose activities which would run at that one too. Our theme was “Brain Games”, exploring the senses and illusions and we were given one gazebo and one table. We learnt a lot from the day and so I thought I“d put it all online as a resource for others (and to remind ourselves next year!)
The Rubber Hand Illusion
The rubber hand illusion is a very simple and effective activity. Here is a more detailed explanation of it, but the basic principle is: The participant sits down at a table. One of their real hands is hidden under a box/towel and a rubber hand placed in front of them. They are then being told to focus on the rubber hand, while the activity leader brushes the same finger on their real hand and the rubber hand simultanously. We found that the best sequence was: Five brushes on the index finger, five on the ring finger, repeat. By this time participants would start to perceive the rubber hand as their real hand. At this point we started to try and confuse their brain — we“d brush the little finger on the rubber hand, but the index finger on their real hand. This is where most faces would change into a surprised, slightly shocked and thoroughly confused expression. Amanda, who was running the activity, usually then proceeded to talk about her own Psychology research. I just told kids that this concept of body ownership was the reason how animals knew not to eat their own limbs, and how we“d know that the pen we just picked up was a pen and not our sixth finger.
What we learnt: The activity is brilliant when it works. However, very young children don“t understand the instructions and take their gaze off if there is a lot going on around them, or if you look at them to check if they are ok. There is a trade-off between having it visible (it really draws people in) and quiet enough. We also realised that the table and camping chair were too high for smaller children, so we bought a cushion. The activity doesn“t work for everyone and this can be a bit awkward after you spent so much time brushing fingers. Some kids were really disappointed.
Guess the smells
For this activity we asked visitors to guess five smells. We found a brilliant online store which sells cheap, high quality degradable PET bottles and jars. We decided to use the blue ones to catch peoples” eyes, put a tissue into each (use a chop stick) and poured a bit of fragrance into each. Then we stuck labels with the smell names on the underside. Our smells were: Vanilla Cake Batter and Crayon from Demeter Fragrance Library, Bubble Gum and Pine from “Ancient Wisdom” and Cinnamon aroma oil. We made sure to use every-day happy smells (not Funeral Home!) because we did not want to accidentally trigger bad memories. For example one of my colleagues worked with children with burn wounds and so we decided against Bonfire. We attached a cheap white shower curtain to the gazebo (great because it comes with rings) and wrote the smell names on it. We then asked people to write on Post-Its what each smell reminded them of and stick it next to the smell.
What we learnt: This is a great activity in such a setting, as helpers can take a couple of bottles and go out into the crowd to approach people. It works for children and adults, and few will resist the question: “Would you like to guess this smell?” Buy cheap shower curtains and table cloth weights in Poundland (obviously). Bring sellotape, as sticky notes will need enforcement to stick (and even some people carry them away in their hair and on their back). We also realised that most people will physically touch the bottle necks with their noses,which is a hygiene issue — bring some alcohol wipes www.atoledo.com and disinfect bottles regularly.
Mystery boxes show the power of our sense of touch. We bought cheap flat-pack cardboard storage boxes, as they can be stored flat for the next event. Cut a hole in big enough for a hand and use black crepe paper as visual barrier, then fill with mystery objects. Last year we only had one box and found that younger children often were too scared, whereas older ones guessed the objects too quickly. So this year we made a “Beginner” and a “Challenger” box. Objects in the beginner box were: Apple, orange, rubber duck, spinning top, glasses (we used fly vision glasses for additional fun). The challenger box contained: plastic frog, butterfly, beetle and a plastic squishy thing with long tentacles.
What we learnt: Removable lid are handy because kids can have a peek to see the objects rather than pulling each one out separately. Next time we“ll bring something heavy to put at the back of the boxes because they get pushed behind and then push other things from the table.
“Your Science Questions”
We wanted to encourage people to ask questions. So we put up a second shower curtain to create a giant whiteboard, labelled it with “Your Science Questions” and hung markers with twine and sellotape from the gazebo in front of it. We knew we wouldn“t be able to answer all of them, but we weren“t ashamed to use smartphone and Google to get answers to the more difficult ones. There were notably a lot of questions about space and the universe. There were also many great questions which made us learn new things too, such as: What makes bubble gum smell like bubble gum? Does Mars have weather?
Drawing people in.
- As mentioned above, what worked really well was to have a couple of people with a handful of flyers and a couple of smell bottles standing outside of the stall. We approached people who looked interested and got them to guess the smells. Each of us had an easy and a more difficult smell. Then we swapped bottles.
- We decorated the entrance of our stall with balloons in the university colours.
- Put candy on the table. Make sure they are individually wrapped and do not contain nuts. — fruit sherbets work well because they are so bright and colourful. Keep the packaging, some parents want to check the ingredients (allergies).
- Distribute your helpers. Have some people behind the table, others in corners, so that the stall doesn“t look too crowded but that you can talk for example to parents waiting for their children to do the activity.
- We set up the table in parallel to one of the sides. This meant that people could walk into our stall and so spend more time doing our activities without blocking the main walkway outside.
- Have some give-aways. We had balloons and temporary insect and dinosaur tattoos.
Evaluating activities at an event like this is quite challenging. Many people just have a quick peek or only try one thing. We decided to try a very basic evaluation method using three plastic jars and paperclips. I bought a jpg with different emoticons, printed out and stuck a happy, a neutral and an unhappy face on the jars (make sure to have a neutral midpoint). We put them on a laminated sheet with instructions (“Before you leave our stall, tell us how you feel”). If children staid long and completed all of our activities, we asked them to put a paper clip into the jar represnting their mood.
What we learnt: The jars were next to the sweets, so I made sure not to give children the impression that they“d get freebies if they put their paperclip in the happy jar. I also told them they could put it wherever they wanted and turned away when they did it. One kid asked if they could put in more than one paperclip. Near the end our unhappy jar fell off the table and disappeared for a few minutes — talking about manipulating feedback! If we do it again I think it needs one dedicated person to encourage visitors to use the jars before they leave.
If you are plan a stall for a similar event, include a mix of activities suitable for visitors of all ages. We had simple explanations of the senses and the brain on laminated sheets on the table, but almost nobody looked at them (only one or two parents who were keen to explain it to their kids). It is more effective to prepare a very short explanation for your each of your activities.
When I attended the London Science Communication Conference last year, someone stood up in the “Soapbox Session” and asked audience what they remembered about their childhood visits to Science Museums. The answers were: The big dinosaur skeleton. The gift shop. Pushing random buttons. Very few people would remember actual facts, but most remembered how they felt. I think that when designing an activity, don“t focus on delivering facts. Instead try and create a buzz. Surprise your visitors, confuse them, make them question things which they took for granted. Make it as interactive and hands-on as possible. But most importantly: Have fun, smile, talk, listen, react, joke and be relaxed.