Report on the BIG Event from our DPhil representative

The BIG Event is an annual conference held by the British Interactive Group which focuses on public engagement and science communication. We sent two members of our Public Engagement Committee (the researchers holding the DPhil and Postdoc positions) along, and they filed these reports. This one is by Fang Cao, DPhil student with the Neubauer group. To read the report from our post-doc representative, see our separate report.

I attended the BIG conference, which lasted from July 20th– July 22nd, in Belfast. The three days really sped by – there was so much to see and do! The conference was held at the W5 science centre. This was fitting, as the centre is largely dedicated to introduce children to the sciences, with a large portion serving as a hand on science museum. It was encouraging to learn about public engagement in a centre dedicated to public engagement, watching kids discover dinosaurs, DNA, and how hot air balloons worked.

I arrived a bit late on Wednesday, as our flight was delayed significantly. In the afternoon, we started off with an icebreaker exercise in the foyer to meet the other members at the conference. I was surprised at the number of people from Wellcome Trust centres across the UK, and met many other students. It was incredible to learn about the involvements of the other scientists. For example, one scientist was helping Indonesians achieve their required dietary iron through a transgenic fish. She was simultaneously teaching children in the UK about the fish, and how it was helping save lives.

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Icebreakers in the foyer

After the general meeting, I attended a session on our subconscious bias. The session was geared towards exploring how women are discouraged from the sciences from an early age, or funnelled towards certain career choices. For example, one exercise demonstrated that we think of women when nurses or teachers are mentioned, and men when we hear doctors. The presenters then discussed how women have a harder time being taken seriously in science academia. It was an eye opening session to the challenges that women faced in the sciences. After the session, we had dinner at a local restaurant, where I was able to meet more of the other attendees.

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Discussions on women in STEM

On Thursday, I started off with a presentation called “Learning from Ted”. The speaker, James Soper, discussed with us his thoughts on how TED talks worked, and how they have evolved over the years. He started off with a very funny video that mocked how TED talks have become overly glitzy and dramatic, and are no longer true to how science actually works. (e.g. a lack of framing discoveries in the context of their fields). We discussed how the guidelines for TED were very strict, and how that reflected how we should do our presentations. For example, for TEDx talks, the thesis needed to be submitted 6 months in advance, and first rehearsals needed to occur four months in advance. This showed how well prepared speakers had to be, which James thought was a major reasons why the presentations were so well done. He also emphasised that keeping presentations short was essential – e.g. TED talks were limited to 18 minutes. It was an extremely informative session that taught me a lot about how to present for an audience.

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James Soper performing juggling tricks during his talk about TED

After this session, I attended a Life on Mars workshop, where we played with Lego pieces, and tried to program them to collect soil on Mars. It was extremely fun, being able to work with other students on this hands-on experiment. However, our Lego computer seemed to malfunction, so we were unable to program instructions, and mostly showed off how it could have worked.

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Fun with Legos!

In the afternoon, I attended a session on “How not to be Funny”. The session was hosted by Paul McCrory, who has conducted a great deal of research on how to interact with audiences. He demonstrated to us that audiences love “real” moments – things that happen unexpectedly, and were not on a script. He noted that if you reacted lightheartedly, the audience would laugh with you, whereas if you were nervous, then the audience would tense up as well. He also showed how spontaneity and impromptu performance were best, but could only be built over many, many practice sessions. There were also two other speakers at the session, who discussed their experiences working with audiences. For example, one performer found that the audience loved repeated events that they could eventually anticipate. The performer noted how she had a participant do a drum roll at certain moments, and the audience loved this as they were eventually able to anticipate the drum roll. The other performer noted that different audiences reacted to different kinds of humour, and it was important to have all types in a presentation. Kids would laugh at crude or physical humour (e.g. banging your head into a wall), whereas parents appreciated complex verbal humour (e.g. satire or irony). They noted that humour could be difficult, as either you or the audience had to be the butt of the joke, and both had their issues. They proposed that a dual-act might be best, giving you an additional person to engage with.

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Dr. Paul McCrory discussing what makes a presentation funny


On Friday, I attended the “Demo Directions” session in the morning, in which we started with several ice-breaking group activities. Several members of the session were seasoned science performers, and helped us investigate how best to engage audiences in our show. For example, if there was a small audience, then putting the members in a circle would help engage everyone. For larger audiences, movement was still a possibility – e.g. having the audience wave their hands in sync, or snap their fingers, or clap along, were all ways to engage the people we were working with. In the afternoon, I briefly attended a session on how to work with young children. It was exciting to learn about how to engage kids of different age groups (e.g. how younger children might like more hands-on, arts & crafts activities, whereas older children may like something more intellectually challenging). The speakers had a great deal of experience engaging in kids from different backgrounds, and promoting STEM activities and clubs in schools. I was able to connect with them as I had previously run STEM after-school activities in the States.

Overall, the conference was extremely enjoyable, and I learned a great deal about public engagement. From how to be funny to an audience to how to craft activities for schoolchildren, I came away with a great toolkit for my future public engagement activities. I was surprised at just how fast the three days passed – time really does fly by when you are having fun!

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Having fun at the demo demonstrations

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Group activities at the demo demonstrations

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Discussing how to engage young people with presentations


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  1. Pingback: Report on the BIG Event from our Post-Doc representative | Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics Blog

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