Saturday, 23 May 2015

Cool Week: alchemy to roller-coasting via a film script and some chaos

Some weeks are special, in a good way; this week* has been a classic of its kind: an excellent illustration of where ‘Public Engagement’ can lead if one is pre-disposed and disciplined enough to say “yes” by default. I spent Monday afternoon in a primary school with two Year Five classes and by Wednesday morning I was discussing potential project ideas with someone from the re-opening Dreamland amusement park in Margate. Into this pot went an extended skype interview on some recent secondary school workshops, agreeing to deliver a series of U3A talks and checking the science content of two scripts – one for a stage performance, the other for a film. Much of this is outside of my ‘day job’ of course, but that simply underlines the benefits of being able to work part-time.

When I’m asked what sort of public engagement/science communications I get involved with I usually kick off with statements implying a pre-disposition to working with adult lay audiences (e.g. in this guest post, and here), but the truth is that I still love spending time in schools as well. On the whole, this tends mostly to be in the context of Year 12/13 groups – but there are exceptions (e.g. here). Monday’s outing to a local primary school (here) was the second time I’d been in a room with Year Five pupils (so, about 10 years old). However, the first event was relatively ‘safe’ in the sense that I was a mystery reader – I simply read from a book I’d found which wove science into an age-appropriate story (see here, final paragraph) – whereas I was on this occasion much more accessible to the class: distinctly unsafe! My brief was to play the role of an alchemist and to engage with the five groups in each of two classes as they undertook a series of experiments. The back-story had been well-defined by the two excellent class teachers, Miss Brisley and Miss Holbrough: I was to be introduced enigmatically as The Alchemist; apparently I lived at a place called Dragon Vine Towers on Alchemy Island, and although I already had an apprentice I was on the look-out for more. I’d travelled to the school through a portal – de rigueur these days I suspect. The potential for disaster was present from the first moment I stepped into the room in that the pupils were given a few minutes to ask me about my work (as an alchemist that is: tricky in itself given my professional pedigree). Although I had mastered the basics of the back-story, I soon discovered that they’d prepared wall displays showing ‘maps’ of my island home and had explored this ‘territory’ in all sorts of contexts. I had not prepared myself for the persistent, no-limits probing of 10-year olds: lesson number one …
“Where’s your portal?”   “I don’t like to frighten people so I only switch it on in quiet places … the remote control is in my rucksack … No, you can’t see it, it’s top secret … no, sadly I’m not allowed to let you try it.”
“Why does your white coat say University of Kent?”   “I called in there on my way and borrowed it.”
“Aren’t you Mr Newport’s dad?”   “Who’s he?”
“What do you really do?”   and on and on.
This is the set of investigative tasks – experiments – the Year Five pupils were undertaking.

The experiments got started, with small groups of pupils moving in a carefully orchestrated way between the set-piece investigations which had been replicated in their two classrooms. I just enjoyed myself, kneeling at all the tables in turn and chatting with them about what they were doing, what they had observed, what it might mean and why it was important to write it all down. It also gave me the most wonderful opportunity to try to answer their many and varied questions – not least of which were the variations on the theme of how gold is really made (no, it’s not quite like Minecraft … thank goodness my grandsons have inducted me into the basics). I have no idea what short- or longer-term impact I will have had on these Year Five pupils; I can but hope there’ll be some positive legacy from the event. What I am sure of is their impact on me: a couple of hours of sheer fun engaging with these aspiring young people, and without the need to cope with the ongoing extra-lesson pressures piled onto their teachers, almost necessarily leaves one in a better place I think. I can however share with you the tweeted feedback from one of the talented teachers involved ascribing to me an attribute with which I’d not previously been associated:

Dreamland (here) had its heyday in the two decades after WW2, when pre-package holiday crowds filled the lovely sandy beach at Margate and spilled over the road into amusement arcades and food outlets, and into this theme park which boasted a Grade II listed wooden scenic railway roller coaster. I have vague and disjointed memories of being in the throng a few times as a young boy – although never on the roller coaster, not then, not since. Never. Some months ago, the ever-talented head of the Learning team at Turner Contemporary (Karen Eslea) suggested that I contact her homologue at Dreamland once the restoration programme was underway; she wondered whether they might also find a use for a ‘tame scientist’. The catalyst for following up on this advice came in the form of our on-going search for suitable external partners to work alongside final year BSc student projects – hopefully to mutual benefit. On Wednesday I had the pleasure of meeting Donna Watford and of introducing her to my Physics Group Projects colleagues (Vicky Mason and George Dobre). The meeting was a great success and I have high hopes of getting one or two groups of physics students learning from and investing into the Dreamland outreach efforts next academic year. However, given my retirement at the end of September, I’ll not be involved with this myself – my ‘teaching’ is likely to reside within the University of the 3rd Age (here) from then on, and I’m rather looking forward to the change of audience. Who knows, maybe the ‘tame scientist’ idea might yet come to something – in Dreamland.

I’ve written about my involvement with Chaos Cabaret before (here). Since then I’ve been helping its originator, Frank Burnet (here), to take the concept into secondary schools in the form of workshops wherein the students work on their own journeys from a butterfly flapping its wings to a tornado (- a route postulated by one of the key people in the development of Chaos Theory, see here for example). The workshop idea has been trialled in two schools thus far. We’ve learnt a lot from these trials and there are some exciting possibilities emerging (hopefully, more news to come later). At one of the workshops we had an observer, Charlotte Thorley of the Public Engagement team at Queen Mary College, University of London (here); she is , it seems, undertaking research into science communications – hence the request for an extended Skype interview. It’s all go … . However, to get back to my present focus, the more immediate challenge is a performance of Chaos Cabaret at the Cheltenham Science Festival (here) – including the operatives of the Ministry of Chaos, naturally. The original script needed a revision; given my primary role in the team as their tame physicist (yes, there’s the concept again) I had the pleasure of checking it through for obvious/serious scientific errors. Frank is very good at this: I had rather little to say. Let’s hope the performance runs as smoothly. Apparently, as a ‘performer’, I get access to the Green Room at the Festival; this will be a first for me.

This isn’t the only script I’ve been sent for review this week. The other is for a proposed film to be ready for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 2016. It’s loosely based on the plot of his ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’, but set in India and with a strong thread of science and engineering woven through it. The writer is a freelance journalist and author, Carole Jahme, with whom I’ve worked before (- on a project for pop-up street theatre during the Cultural Olympiad). Although it took longer than looking through some revisions to something I already knew fairly well, I have to say that I found reading and commenting on this all-new script a lot of fun. I hope it gets funding: I’d like to see the final product.

All-in-all, it’s been a more than averagely busy and varied few days in terms of Public Engagement; definitely a cool week.

* In truth, this isn’t quite as timely as it seems: although I drafted much of this at the time, it’s taken me another week in order to pull it all together into its present form. In passing, I ought also to note that the school staff underwent ‘trial by Ofsted a week after my visit: if there’s any justice it’ll work out well for them. I’ll edit additional images into the post when they arrive, after being checked against the parental consent/permissions information held by the school – naturally.