Spooky Slimey Vampire Science

Last Saturday we did the ‘Spooktacular’ science outreach event at Keele University Hub. If my recollections are correct, it’s the 6th Spooktacular I’ve taken part in and the 5th where I’ve designed and run activities with the help of student volunteers. The audience is families with wee kids, typically primary aged so there has to be lots of seasonal fun and wee bits of science. These events are extremely worthwhile because:

(a) the whole family can attend and so parents and other adults can get involved with the science bit too, helping with the tasks and hearing the explanations.

(b) it allows undergraduates, postgraduates and academics to run activities in a marketplace format and hence test out their science communication skills in a dynamic and changing environment before (for example) taking on a larger project such as going into a school.

(c) it’s fantastic publicity for the institution and cements the role of the university as part of the community. It is a generally positive experience for attendees and breaks down barriers about what a university is.

I started out with one planned activity but then got rather a lot of student volunteers so came up with a second. Here’s what we did and, importantly, why.

  1. Slime (well it’s Hallowe’en, you can’t not!).

Since the whole PVA-borax fiasco that’s resulted in a lot of recipes for PVA slime using contact lens solution with boron based buffers being bandied about, we changed our normal approach to slime to alginates. In the past we’ve had mixed success with them, primarily because the interaction was a little on the short side. This time:

  • measure 20 mL of distilled water into a plastic cup
  • add one spatula of alginate powder
  • stir with lolly stick (highly sophisticated scientific labware)

Now, it takes a fair bit of time to dissolve, a couple of minutes and while this can be challenging for the youngest participants, it provides a good opportunity to talk about the science of what’s going on.

  • add food dye and glitter to the now thick solution.
  • Using a large small pipette (comedy description but this year I bought kids science pipettes from amazon that are around 5 mL and have a larger bulb on them than the usual disposable 3mL plastic pipettes), add to calcium chloride solution.
  • Make worms/beads/lumpy aggregates and fish from solution using large forceps (I bought kids forceps as metal lab ones are often a little difficult for wee hands). Prod, poke and generally play.

 

  1. Mission Starlight…Vampire Edition

I have a backpack in my office from Summer 2016 when we took the RSC’s global experiment ‘Mission Starlight’ to a summer science event. That was when we had the UV-active beads on teddies and we were protecting teddy from the sun and talking sun safety with visitors. The UV beads change colour in sunlight and we provide various cloths, films and sunscreens to build the perfect UV protection suit. For Hallowe’en we adapted it to protect Vampires from sunlight – what would a Vampire wear to avoid the sun? I bought some rubber bats and put the UV beads on them. It worked pretty well but one draw back is it involves the participants going in and out of the room which can be alarming for parents and guardians, particularly if the room is busy. We also had some UV emitting LEDs which came attached to pens as part of an ‘invisible ink’ set. UV active dye in the pen, no obvious marks, shine the LED at it…you get the idea. In any case, those worked well when the sun went in a wee bit.

Mission Starlight was one of the best RSC Global Experiments in my opinion because there is no clean-up, few consumables (the fabrics can be reused), and it’s dry to store. I’m in favour of outreach being a bit more sustainable in the generating limited waste department. Other experiments such as the polymer hydrogels and the vitamin C in foodstuffs required quite a bit of wet prep and disposal. I need to find more activities like this, although I’ll note that not pre-dissolving the alginates did cut down on prep time significantly and allowed the participants the chance to dye their own alginate.

Next on the outreach calendar is our regional Top of the Bench Heat. I’ve got the practical challenge sorted (shhhh! Top secret until after!) but need to figure out the written challenge.

Comments please!