Meet the Scientists, How Plants See the World

Meet the Scientists, How Plants See the World

This month, a group of research students and postdocs developed an interactive workshop exploring the world of plants. This workshop was taken to two events: one with a local Brownie troop and then to a Meet the Scientists event at the World Museum in Liverpool. We came up with the activities by first identifying interesting facts about plants that we wanted to communicate, and built the activities up from there. The three key things that we highlighted were circadian rhythms, leaf adaptations, and the importance of soil pH.

Circadian rhythms are an internal mechanism that acts like a body clock, which plants use to survive. To introduce this complex concept to a young audience, we created a card pinwheel that showed the times at which different flowers open. This idea was based on the concept garden designed by Carolus Linnaeus in 1751. The pinwheel contained outlined drawings of flowers that could be coloured in by visitors whilst the demonstrator chatted to them about circadian rhythms. Our card Linnaeus clock is available to download here.


To demonstrate that plants can recognise the pH of the soil that they are in, we brought some pH indicator that had been made using red cabbages. Red cabbage indicator is purple at a neutral pH, but can change to bright yellows and pinks on the addition of household substances such at lemon juice or washing powder. Visitors were encouraged to test the pH of a selection of different items, as well as testing soil samples. Photographs of hydrangeas were on display to show how drastic an effect soil pH can have on plants.


To demonstrate leaf adaptations, we took a two pronged approach. For older children and adults, a microscope was available to look at details such as veins and stomata on leaves from a variety of plants including local deciduous trees, an ornamental conifer, and a Christmas cactus. While some of the visitors enjoyed looking at the leaf structures, it became clear that some aphid eggs found on a sycamore leaf was more interesting! For the younger visitors, materials for making leaf rubbings were provided. By making leaf rubbings, we were able to encourage the younger children to look at the leaves more closely and to examine their different shapes. We then cut their leaf rubbings out and attached them to headbands, something which helped draw more people to our table.


Edinburgh Science Festival

Edinburgh Science Festival

Edinburgh Science Festival is one of the largest public science festivals in Europe. Over a two week period, it provides events, workshops, and lectures for adults and children alike. Over Easter, I worked for Edinburgh Science Festival as a Science Communicator in their flagship children’s venue based in the City Arts Centre.


The City Arts Centre, Edinburgh

The City Arts Centre is a large, 6 story art gallery located in the centre of Edinburgh. The building was taken over by the Festival to provide a space filled with workshops and activities for children of all ages, with each floor containing two or three workshops or activity spaces. Visitors could book into age appropriate workshops, or visit drop-in activity spaces. Due to my biology background, I was placed into the Carnival of the Mind, a drop-in area designed to teach children of all ages about how the brain works.

The Carnival had been assembled by a skilled team and contained a variety of activities that explored different parts of the brain. The most popular activities were a coconut shy that used prism goggles to teach how vision is processed in the occipital lobe and a life-sized, plastic clown named Brian who demonstrated how the peripheral nervous system is activated when his foot got hit by a hammer. A fortune teller tested the visitor’s frontal lobe with puzzles and games, and told the story of Phineas Gauge who lost part of his frontal lobe in an accident. A sound stall confused the temporal lobes with some auditory illusions and a sensory play area stimulated the brains of the young visitors. The highlight of the Carnival was the Big Top, where a show was run twice an hour that allowed the audience to explore the difference sections of the brain by holding and feeling a real sheep’s brain.


A sheep’s brain used during the big top show

The Carnival was an extremely popular activity, with many families returning multiple times. As it was based in the family venue, my role mainly involved communicating with children and occasionally with interested parents. However, as part of the adults program, the City Arts Centre was opened one evening for adults only. Working at the adult event was an amazingly different experience to the normal day-to-day festival, in part due to the temporary bar that was opened for the visitors!

Working at Edinburgh Science Festival was utterly exhausting but fantastic experience. I learnt many valuable lessons such as the importance of comfortable footwear and how to look after my voice. As well as providing me with excellent work experience with a large science communication company, it allowed me to practise my communication skills with people of all ages from babies to (sometimes drunk!) adults and everyone in between!

The BIG Little Event 2016

BIG is a community for individuals who are involved in science communication. They hold a variety of conferences and workshops throughout the year, including the Little Event. The Little Event is a one day workshop for early career science communicators which I was lucky enough to attend after winning the BIG Little bursary. This included registration for the event, travel expenses, and a years membership to BIG. This year’s event was held at Think Tank, a science centre in the heart of Birmingham.

After a very early start, I arrived in Birmingham and made my way across the city to Think Tank. Upon arrival, I was shown into a room with about 40 other budding scientists and science communicators. We came from a wide range of backgrounds (from engine designers to neuroscientists) and were at a variety of different stages in our careers. Some people were still studying (like me) whilst others had been working in science communication for a couple of years. Throughout the day, we were treated to presentations and workshops by people who work in different areas in science communication. In the morning session, we had talks by James Soper ( and Ashley Kent, director of Cheltenham science festival. James Soper taught us the three key questions for effective science presentations

  • What’s the story?
  • Who’s the audience?
  • Where’s the science?

Ashley Kent then described the key factors to consider when organising large events. The afternoon sessions included talks by Brian Mackenwells (Public Engagement Officer, University of Oxford), Toni Hamill (Centre of Life), and Bridget Holligan (Science Oxford). In these talks, we learnt the importance of higher order thinking, and that engagement needs to be Hand-On, Minds-On, and Hearts-On.

Lunch time was spent exploring the centre and chatting with the other participants. As well as allowing us to exchange ideas and resources, our varied backgrounds meant we could exchange interesting facts about the exhibits. A private tour of the science garden showed us that science doesn’t have to be an indoor activity.

A careers session allowed us chat with the organisers and speakers. I spent most of my time speaking to Lauren Deere (manager of Think Tank) who was able to give me some great advice on how to get a job as a content developer in a science museum (my dream job!).

Attending the Little Event was a brilliant opportunity for me to learn the skills needed to become a successful Science Communicator. The chance to meet other early career science communicators has provided me with invaluable advice, contacts, and ideas to help me make the leap into Science Communication when I graduate. It was a wonderful day and I look forward to (hopefully) attending the Big Event in July! The thing that I am most excited about however is my BIG membership, meaning I get free entry into Science Centres across the country!

34th Bolton Brownies’ Science Investigator Badge

The Brownies are a guiding group for girls aged 7-10. They complete challenges and activities in order to earn badges, and one badge they can do is their Science Investigator badge. To get this badge, the girls must complete three science or engineering based challenges and get a visit from a Scientist or Engineer. Last week, I visited the 34th Bolton Brownies to help them finish their badge. After the group had sung the Brownie welcome song, I put on my lab coat and safety goggles to tell the girls a little bit about what I do as a scientist and the importance of scientists and engineers in our


Explaining the importance of Science and Engineering

I then helped the group with the final challenge needed to complete their badge – bridge building! Armed with bags of spaghetti and marshmallows and a help sheet from, the Brownies set about building a bridge that could span a 25cm gap. It proved to be quite a tricky challenge as the gap was slightly longer than the length of a piece of spaghetti, meaning that we needed to join two pieces together to get the length. However, I think the hardest thing for some of the girls was resisting eating the building materials!


Materials for bridge building

After 40 minutes, we had three bridges waiting to be tested. To test the bridges, a girl from each group donned a hi vis vest and a hard hat (safety first with our budding engineers!). Weights were gently placed on the bridges until they collapsed. One bridge had suffered a collision with a Brownie during construction and so could only hold 200g when tested. The other two bridges managed to hold 800g and 1200g, quite an impressive feat for spaghetti and marshmallow constructions!

After a quick clean up, the girls were all awarded their well-deserved Science Investigator badge. To thank me for my help, I was also awarded one which will take pride of place on my lab coat! The girls seemed to really enjoy making (and breaking) their bridges and some of them were really keen to tell me about the vinegar volcano they had made the week before. The Science Investigator badge seems like a really good way to introduce science and engineering to young girls, allowing them to participate in a hands on way that isn’t always possible in a classroom. I was honoured to have been asked to help with this badge and I look forward to any opportunities to help other Brownie units to complete it!


My badge

Engineering Your Future Event Review

On 16th October, as part of my role as a STEM ambassador with MerseySTEM, I attended the Engineering Your Future event that was held at Liverpool Football Club. After meeting the other ambassadors, we were assigned a group of 25 students. I supervised my group throughout the day as we attended workshops run by different engineering companies. First up for us was Astra Zeneca. After a short talk on biomedical engineering and vaccines, the students were split into teams and challenged to build a balloon powered car. Unfortunately, none in my group managed to get their cars to move more than a couple of centimetres.

A balloon powered car made in the Astra Zeneca workshop, Image courtesy of MerseySTEM ©MerseySTEM ©CheshireSTEM

A balloon powered car made in the Astra Zeneca workshop, Image courtesy of MerseySTEM ©MerseySTEM ©CheshireSTEM

Luckily the group’s morale was unaffected and we cheerily moved on to the next workshop, run by Aecom. Here, we got a talk by two graduate engineers about careers in civil engineering and some local projects that the engineers had worked on. The students were set the challenge of designing a new bridge over the river Mersey – a real project that Aecom is developing. There were a couple of students in my group who were interested in civil engineering and they immersed themselves in the project, carefully considering factors such as materials and locations.

The students discuss bridge types for the new Mersey Crossing, Image courtesy of MerseySTEM ©MerseySTEM ©CheshireSTEM

The students discuss bridge types for the new Mersey crossing, Image courtesy of MerseySTEM ©MerseySTEM ©CheshireSTEM

Once the bridges were designed, the group moved on to Essar, an oil and gas company. After a short introduction, the students were told about a real oil spillage that occurred at one of Essar’s plants. The students were given example valves from oil containers and each team was assigned an engineer. The teams had to quiz the engineers and identify the cause of the spillage. This gave the students a chance to find out what day to day life is like for an Essar engineer.

Example valves are used to how oil is stored and transported, Image courtesy of MerseySTEM ©MerseySTEM ©CheshireSTEM

Example valves are used to how oil is stored and transported by Essar, Image courtesy of MerseySTEM ©MerseySTEM ©CheshireSTEM

After lunch, my group were given time to attend the market place. This was a careers fair where companies from all over the country had stalls with information about the work they do. At this point, I was able to explore the fair myself and speak to the engineers manning the stalls. It was really interesting to hear about different types of engineering, some of which I was previously unaware of! After the fair, my group headed over to a talk from ESR Technologies about the role of a safety engineer. By this point, some of the students in my group started to quiz me about my PhD and my route through education. I was able to give them insight into university life and further education options, as well as the career options that come with a degree in Mathematics. The final workshop of the day was from Atkins Global. Three engineers talked about their roles in the nuclear sector and their career paths. The students participated in some games that highlighted nuclear safety issues and the importance of personal protective equipment.

Nuclear Safety games were used to demonstrate the importance of personal protective equipment, Image courtesy of MerseySTEM ©MerseySTEM ©CheshireSTEM

Nuclear Safety games were used to demonstrate the importance of personal protective equipment, Image courtesy of MerseySTEM ©MerseySTEM ©CheshireSTEM

Overall, the EYF event was enjoyable and educationally rewarding both for me, and for the students who attended.

The Smallpeice Trust Residential Courses

The Smallpeice Trust Residential Courses

The Smallpeice Trust is a charitable organisation that promotes science and engineering through the delivery of hands-on workshops and residential courses for secondary school pupils. Over the summer, I volunteered as a supervisor at 4 residential courses run by The Smallpeice Trust. Each course is hosted by a different University and everyone involved stays in the University’s halls of residence. This gives the students a glimpse into life as an undergraduate. During the day, the students participate in practical workshops run by engineers or university lecturers and attend careers talks by sponsoring companies. In the evenings, social activities are planned for the students and on the final evening, there is a formal dinner where the students are encouraged to interact with senior engineers from the sponsoring companies.


The first course I attended was in April and was hosted by the University of Durham. This course, ‘Step into STEM’, was designed to give local year 10 students insight into general science and engineering based careers. Over the 3 days, the students had to work in groups of 5 or 6 to complete two workshops, the first of which was run by the National Nuclear Laboratory. The students were challenged to build a centrifuge out of Mechano that could separate out ‘nuclear waste’ (a mix of oil, sand, and water).  The second workshop was run by Jaguar Land Rover and had the students building a lightweight and durable car out of plastic sheeting, balsa wood, and a 9 volt battery.


My attempt at a durable and lightweight vehicle

The second course I attended was ‘Cyber Security with Electronics’ at the University of Portsmouth.  This course was aimed at year 9 and 10 students with an interest in computer science and electrical engineering. Two organisations designed and ran the course, GCHQ and QinetiQ. To set the scene, the students were split into groups of 5 or 6 and asked to ‘infiltrate a terrorist ship’. The first challenge was to hack into a cluster of raspberry pis and required some programming knowledge. The second challenge was to use a printed circuit board and soldering to create an alarm that sounds when a light beam is broken. This was much easier for students who had previous experience soldering. Finally, breadboard circuit boards were used to build a robotic buggy that could follow a black line on a white surface. The three very different challenges meant that most students had at least one challenge with which they could fully engage.

Third up was ‘Supercomputing in Engineering’ at the University of Southampton. This was the smallest course I attended with only 22 year 12 students split into teams of 3 or 4. As the students were older, the course was run slightly differently with the day activities being run by staff from the University’s Aeronautical Engineering department. Lectures on aeronautical engineering were complimented with workshops that included building computers, modelling aeroplane wings and weather balloon flight paths, and programming and app developing.


An Aeronautics lecture at the University of Southampton

Finally, I attended a ‘Girls in Engineering’ course at the University of Bristol. This was a heavily subsidised course for girls in year 8 or 9 that aimed to encourage the study of STEM subjects at a higher level. There were 97 participants and 4 outside companies running workshops, Lloyds Registry, Selex, National Nuclear Laboratory, and Babcock. The Lloyds Registry challenge was to build a boat out of wood and an air propeller. Selex challenged the girls to add a series of sensors onto a remote control car. The National Nuclear Laboratory required the students to build a centrifuge that could separate an oil-water-sand mix. And finally, the Babcock challenge was to build a crane out of bamboo and rope.


The Smallpeice Trust booked @Bristol for an evening activity, something we all enjoyed!

Overall, working as a supervisor was rewarding but tiring work. During the day, a supervisor has the opportunity to engage with the students and the challenges set, but in the evening you are also responsible for making sure that the students get to bed on time.