The slippery slope

When we were packing up all of our boxes for a recent outreach activity (the Keele Community Day), we were discussing what the first outreach activity we had ever done was. Unsurprisingly, Richard and I did the same event: a Chemistry Cluedo event as part of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Start-Up Science Master Classes.  We were in fourth year of our undergrads at St Andrews University and I’m pretty sure that our soon-to-be PhD supervisor, Russell Morris, dragged us into it. I don’t recall if it was before or after final year project submission but I suspect neither of us were particularly coherent when confronted by a bunch of young children, on a Saturday mornings (there was still novelty to being in the labs on Saturday mornings then), and doing activities to help them figure out who had killed Professor likely-named-for-someone-important. [Edit to add: Richard has a better memory, he reckons it was a few days before our project submission so we were not, on any level, coherent responsible people]

I do recall being on the water hardness station, matching a sample of water found at the crime scene to samples taken from the suspects’ homes. It was a fairly simple and elegant procedure – add 5 drops of soap solution, shake, repeat until bubbles remained. It worked out pretty well and with carefully prepared ‘tap’ water samples, led to a clear match to the suspect’s one. I always did that station and I remember a particularly vile child mixing all the bottles up. Well, what could be more fun than causing chaos with measuring cylinders?

After that, we started volunteering for ChemBus, run by Dr Nigel Botting and Dr Joe Crayston (and heaps of willing volunteers). I will freely admit that many of the outreach activities we now run at Keele are derived to a greater or lesser degree from the activities that we packed into a minibus and drove around Fife and Tayside for a week in late October/early November. Slime, super absorbant polymers, turning ‘copper’ coins into silver and gold, properties of dry ice, and extracting DNA from kiwi fruit with a side order of glowy luminol. These days I leave the DNA and luminol to the Forensic Scientist, and it’s not easy to get dry ice (we’d have to buy it in) so I stick to super absorbant polymers and slime, the odd run of apparent alchemy with coins and quite a bit of the demonstrations that were in the introductory lecture. I do always wonder if the experiments have changed any. We’re considering starting our own ChemBus type thing in the area around Keele and mainly need to find some initial funding to get the kit, then lower levels of funding to maintain supplies of consumables. It always comes down to money.

Sadly Nigel Botting died in 2011 but the Chemistry Department up at St Andrews runs an annual conference for teachers (continuing from work he did), now in his name ( I understand from my ‘sources’ that there continues to be a vibrant and engaging outreach programme up there and for that I’m grateful. I’m grateful for the opportunities we got whilst finishing our undergrads and doing our PhDs (let’s face it, they kept us sane during our PhDs), and it amuses me a little to note that we now provide similar opportunities for our students to get out and talk science to a varied audience.

This isn’t really about why I think outreach is important or why I’m prepared to spend lots of time planning, organising and doing activities. It’s not really relevant whether I find it important, and while I’ll count number of people reached with some satisfaction, it’s far more important that those  who do these activities, and the people who help with them have fun. Enthusiasm can convey what a thousand well articulated and planned words cannot. Outreach stutters and stumbles, reaches for explanations and context for what’s going on that changes with each audience. It isn’t scripted and is near impossible to evaluate or measure impact for. There is no reason to hand out surveys, gather feedback and assess performance of those performing. Do it because you love it, or because you feel passionately about it. Don’t do it because you feel you have to or because you are compelled to by some funding body. Find someone who really loves it and let them do it.

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