Science for All: Developing Events for a Hands-On Science Centre

After graduating with a master's degree in chemistry and working for a short time in Britvic Soft Drinks' IT department, Catherine Aldridge went to work for a public sector consultancy focussing on innovation policy. There, she began her career in science communication, preparing electronic and paper publications for U.K. and European science research programmes. Having enjoyed presenting science to adults and school groups, Catherine decided to study for an M.Sc. in communicating science. She now works as a scientific and education development officer for at-Bristol, a new centre bringing science, nature, and art to life.

Imagine a place where everyone can discover, experience, and explore science. When at-Bristol opens this summer, there will be such a place in Bristol's Harbourside. Visitors will be able to stretch their minds and really enjoy themselves.

I work at this new centre, developing demonstrations and hands-on activities for students, the public, and community groups. At-Bristol includes three new visitor attractions: Explore at-Bristol, a science center for the 21st century, and Wildscreen at-Bristol, a unique combination of small animals and plants with the latest in sound and vision technologies and IMAX Theatre--a breathtaking cinematic experience propelling the viewer right into the heart of the action. The centre also has a magnificent series of open spaces and new artworks. At-Bristol has excellent facilities to make science more accessible to all: a planetarium, two laboratories, two IT classrooms, a TV studio, an Under Sixes area, an Internet café, a video theatre, an Internet café and a video theatre.

A day in my life

In my job, no 2 days are the same! Some days, I am meeting scientists to research content for demonstrations or finding out where to buy equipment for our chemistry and microbiology laboratory. Other days, I am investigating health and safety legislation and working out how best to structure school visits.

Recently, I have been working on a project with the Bristol Hospital Education Service to devise chemistry activities that children in hospitals can use at the bedside, which is a real challenge. I have even had the chance to visit a chocolate factory, because I am developing a chocolate-making workshop.

Planning and presenting science shows and workshops requires many different skills. It helps to be fluent in the "language of science" to research your topic. It is then necessary to think creatively about how to translate the messages into something that nonspecialists will understand and find interesting, even entertaining. Finally, the content has to be presented in a way that will encourage people to take part. All through this process, excellent communication skills and flexibility are essential.

Any event also has to be carefully organised. It needs to be publicised so that visitors come, and when they arrive, everything has to run smoothly. If people can't get to the toilets or have to wait in line, they remember that instead of the exciting science show they saw. To ensure that everything goes as planned, I work in a team of colleagues from across the organisation. This comprises not only other education staff, but also people working in bookings, front of house, PR, and marketing.

Getting to there

My science studies provided me with knowledge and understanding of science. The program also gave me insight into the process and culture of research, as well as helping me learn how to organise my time. My experience at a public sector consultancy writing popular science publications allowed me to hone my "translation" skills and create quite an extensive network of contacts.

But I found working on publications frustrating. The work itself was fascinating, but the publications were often circulated only within the science community. I had really enjoyed helping with open days at my university's chemistry department and wanted to get back to communicating with the public. I started giving talks and running hands-on workshops for adult and school groups on a voluntary basis. I found it very rewarding. People who felt threatened by science at the beginning of the session often soon realised that they were using science in their everyday lives without even knowing it.

As I found out about more about the Public Understanding of Science movement, work in a science centre became very appealing. Techniquest and the University of Glamorgan offer a 1-year M.Sc. course in communicating science that prepares its students specifically for this kind of communication career. The course focused on practical elements like presentation skills and event organization. It also provided me with a theoretical grounding, including psychology and social science research techniques that are essential for understanding an audience and evaluating outcomes.

With the Millennium Commission funding so many new interactive science centres around the country, I was able to get freelance exhibit research work as soon as I finished the M.Sc. course. And after 4 months of that work, I started here at at-Bristol. Visit us in the summer and see what it's all about!

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