24 May 2012
It’s midday on Saturday 12 May on the South Kensington Campus – the sun is shining, bunting and balloons frame the buildings, 1920’s jazz music is floating through the air and the site is alive with staff, students, alumni and their families and friends – all here for the inaugural Imperial Festival.
On 11–12 May the College opened its doors to the public and invited them to take part in hands-on demonstrations, music, dancing, stand-up comedy, street performances and art.
“The idea of the Festival is to provide an annual glimpse into some of the exciting work going on in Imperial laboratories today,” explains Tom Miller, Director of Communications and Development. “It gives people a chance to quiz the scientists on the front line about their discoveries and to learn or discover something they didn’t know Imperial was involved in.”
Conceived two years ago as part of a review into the membership and purpose of the College Court, the original idea for a festival event was born out of the desire to engage people, institutions and organisations outside of Imperial. Its potential to reach broader audiences including staff, alumni and supporters as well as the general public, was met with the decision to run it over two days and partly on a weekend to make it family friendly. The final format had four key elements, starting with a gala dinner on the Thursday night to celebrate staff achievements over the year, the launch of the new Court on Friday, an Alumni Reunion on Saturday, and the Festival itself on Friday evening for adults and on Saturday afternoon for families.
The event was organised in- house by a team led by Natasha Martineau – Head of Research Communications (Communications and Development) – who took on the mammoth task of creating the College’s biggest ever public event working with colleagues including Harriet Martin and Katie Weeks, and colleagues from across College, especially those in Commercial Services and Facilities.
We wanted to lift the lid on the amazing work that goes on at the College
“The main thinking behind the programme we put together was to lift the lid on the amazing work that goes on at the College, and to make it available to anyone who might be interested in what we do and how it affects their daily lives,” explains Natasha. “When you work here you sometimes forget what a privilege it is to have access to this work, and the passion of the people who do it.” Research undertaken by the team revealed that lots of staff and students across College were already involved in public engagement activities. Hoping to draw from this group, an invitation went out to all departments and institutes. Each one came back with a suggestion or two of something they wanted to contribute to the festival – leading to over 30 interactive displays in and around the marquee on the Queen’s Lawn.
Along with a call for proposals came a set of guidelines for the demonstrations. Each group had a relatively small space and was asked to focus on talking with visitors – from young children to members of the Council – and giving them something to handle. “We wanted to move away from the Power Point and posters you might find at academic conferences,” explains Natasha, “and create an environment where our many audiences could have a two way exchange with the scientists and where their questions and ideas might inform or stimulate the way we do research”. Professor John Seddon (Chemistry) got his first taste of public engagement at the Imperial Festival and explains how he enjoyed considering what demonstrations might work using his 14-year-old son as a testing ground to ensure they would be interesting to a public audience. “We had to put on demos that were within the constraints of being safe, nontoxic, non-explosive and not too smelly, but that would make people stop at the stand and think ‘that would be a fun thing to do’.”
John enthusiastically presented a range of experiments at the Festival – including a petri dish full of ferrofluids that, when you applied a magnetic field from below, formed beautiful spikes aligned along the magnetic field. He also did an experiment with corn flour and water to illustrate the properties of materials that could make flexible body armour for soldiers or skiers but would immediately solidify in an accident and offer good protection on impact.
Outside the context of the Festival, public engagement is becoming an increasingly important part of the expectations of public bodies that fund research. “In a way I welcome this approach,” says John, “We get public funding, so we have to justify what we are doing, and it’s also a good way to encourage a new generation of scientists to come forward.”
Dr Sandra Shefelbine (Bioengineering) is a big fan of public engagement and has worked with the BBC, the Dana Centre and the Wellcome Trust. Sandra was keen to get involved in the Festival and gave a lecture on how bones work (called Skeletons out of the closet).
“I think any time you try to describe your science to a lay audience, it benefits how you look at it, and events like this help to spark the intrigue of science at an early age.” she says. “I could describe everything in terms of equations or super-complicated modelling but in order to explain it in a way in which everyone can understand, you have to break it down into what is really important. That often leads me to start thinking ‘Why do we normally talk about it in such a complex way – is it really necessary?’”
The Festival attracted around 7,000 people over the weekend, which is a clear sign of the public’s interest in science, and the event is being fully evaluated by the team over the next few weeks. The hope is that this will become an annual event. “We had so many suggestions, I hope we can return to them in coming years. I also hope the Festival will continue to help public engagement become an integral part of the life of a researcher at Imperial,” says Natasha.
“I think it was the sense of wonder that captured people’s imagination,” muses John, “and as a demonstrator it was also a lot of fun!”
— Emily Ross-Joannou, Communications and Development
Tags: Alumni, BBC, Bioengineering, Chemistry, Commercial Services, Communications and Development, Facilities Management, Festival 2012, Wellcome Trust
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