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Showtime! Fun Palaces – bringing science and the arts to the community

Standing behind the counter of Cheltenham Library one Saturday, a colleague beamed at me “Let’s do a Fun Palace”. I had no idea what she was on about. Was she suggesting a new craze I hadn’t heard of? Hmmm, she already works as a Science Communicator so was it something along those lines? My eyes darted around looking for hints – I came clean, I hadn’t the foggiest idea.

Fun palaces logo

Turns out Fun Palaces is an international campaign, bringing science, art, craft and tech together for one weekend a year, free for everyone and run by the community. Libraries are community hubs. In the Gloucestershire service, we offer more than books. A Fun Palace fits in well here.

Once I knew about Fun Palaces, I enthusiastically agreed to help since it tied in to the skills I had been developing on the Science Communication MSc here at UWE. As long as it could wait until after all my assessments were handed in of course. My colleague wrote a proposal, we were given the ‘nod’, and away we went.

QueationSo which modules and skills from the MSc were invaluable for the event? I cannot decide. I filled this post with important aspects of the course, then realised no one wanted to read a thesis on this. Basically, I used skills learnt from every module.

The experiences provided by Science in Public Spaces (‘We the Curious’, the Explorer Dome, training by VOX and a self-selected visit to one of the Science Museum ‘Lates’) were extremely useful in highlighting how some ideas work well in some spaces and for some audiences, but not others. It also provided practical skills via the BoxEd project. Writing Science came in handy when it came to publishing promotional tweets, producing marketing materials and writing a last-minute media release. The compulsory modules provided an understanding of audiences, whether people feel able to engage in STEM and how you can get around those who feel they can’t, and the Two Cultures debate.

Most of you will probably be shouting at your screens “Get to the Fun Palace already”. I hear you. Read the rest of this entry

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Thinking inside the Box(ED)

Watching scientists pitching their research projects felt like being in an episode of Dragons’ Den. I sat among a group of fledgling science communicators, tasked with choosing a project to develop into a school science activity. My first assignment as a new student, freshly enrolled on the UWE PGCert in Science Communication, was to create an activity suitable for UWE’s BoxED scheme!

dna-163466_1280I was paired with Gabrielle Wheway, who studies DNA to understand how mutations in genes alter their function and was awarded a prize for her research on retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited form of blindness. We met over coffee to discuss how I could design a hands-on activity that would communicate an aspect of Gabrielle’s research1 to a secondary school audience within a 45-60 minute session in a classroom environment.

Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is caused by mutations in the genes that control vision. Most people with RP are born sighted but experience gradual, progressive deterioration of vision as they grow older. Symptoms can begin at any age and there is no way to predict how quickly the condition will progress.eye Early signs include difficulty seeing at night and tunnel vision, followed by loss of colour and central vision. Gabrielle mentioned the charity RP Fighting Blindness and I contacted their local support group to learn more about the disease and what it is like for people living with RP.

Over the next few weeks, I started to formulate an idea: my Box would draw on lived experiences of RP and build on four themes in the National Curriculum for Biology at Key Stage 4 (i.e. non-communicable diseases; gene inheritance; impact of genomics on medicine; and uses of modern biotechnology and associated ethical considerations). It would be targeted towards students in Year 10, who could bring in broader perspectives from other GCSE subjects, such as ethics, religious studies or philosophy.

The people from RP Fighting Blindness had shown me some glasses that simulate a type of visual deterioration common in RP. I decided that my aRP Fighting Blindnessctivity would involve experiencing what it feels like to have an altered field of vision. I also wanted to establish a personal connection, and found a short film about being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. Finally, I thought about genes as units of inheritance and how they are passed from one generation to the next. Under the working title “Simon’s Box”, my activity looks at genetics and inherited disease using RP as a case study.

Designing a BoxED activity has been an enjoyable experience. I’ve learnt about the National Curriculum for science, researched good practice in designing exhibitions at Science Museums, and delved into learning styles and education theory. I’ve rediscovered a personal interest in genetics and human biology, and developed something of an affection for RP. And I’m delighted that we are now getting ready to roll it out to local schools and festivals. So, if you’re planning to attend the Festival of Nature or Cheltenham Science Festival in June, come along to the UWE BoxED stand and try out some of our hands-on science activities!

Kate Turton

1Gabrielle’s research is funded by Wellcome Trust and National Eye Research Centre