The Midlothian Science Festival: a volunteer’s perspective

A take on the the ‘Bright Sparks’ gala day celebrated for under-fives at the Danderhall Library

Image credit: Laura Machado.

Who would have thought that, at 22 years old, I would find myself scouring the house on a Friday night asking my flatmates to save the loo rolls and return them to me. At a workshop I’d attended that day, Emily, a fellow PhD student, had made a request to volunteers Jamie, Innis and I to give her as many cardboard cylinders as we could find. The point of this, as I would later learn, was for a children’s workshop in which everyone was to build a projector of their favourite constellation. Emily had wrapped the loo rolls in space-themed wrapping paper and the kids placed crêpe paper at one of the bases of the cylinder, which they secured with a rubber band. After that, a template of a constellation was rested on top of it and perforated with a sharp pencil, obtaining an imprint of the desired pattern. Templates of common Western constellations had already been prepared, including the zodiac, Ursas Major and Minor, and Orion.

On the other hand, Jamie’s activity consisted of investigating the iron content of standard cereal flakes. First, the cereal was ground, placed into a transparent zip-lock bag and a strong magnet hovered over it, extracting the iron particles as it moved (on-site trials revealed them to be imperceptible, leading to a sneaky fortification – all in the name of science). The experiment later lead on to a discussion on why the iron was there, and why our bodies need it in the first place. Additionally, we also showed the magnet’s effect on some ferrofluid for some ‘wow’ factor.

Parallel to this, Innis’ stall focused on making butter from whipped cream by shaking the latter in a centrifuge tube. This took a long time and a lot of elbow grease, but eventually yielded proper butter which could be spread onto supermarket bagels that had been procured for us. The intention was to carry this activity out before any other, keeping the most hyperactive kids’ attention focused at the upcoming ones.

Image credit: Laura Machado.

On Monday, Innis and I were driven by Jamie to the Danderhall library, heavy-duty supermarket bags in our hands and excited to spice up an otherwise laboratory-replete day. We headed to the building and set up our stalls, while the kids were entertained in a song and dance workshop.

After a long wait, the young ones were free to roam (as much as a toddler can) around the stalls and experience the activities. The three of us swiftly prepared for the oncoming wave of children: we put our phones away, stretched out our red volunteer t-shirts from the wrinkles and bagel crumbs they had accumulated and composed ourselves. From my past experience of science festivals, I can confirm that the feelings that take over as the interaction progresses falls anywhere between (a) The impression that children are God’s gift to the world, and (b) a newly found appreciation for contraception. The exact point in that spectrum varies from second to second, as they may, at a given instant, (a) enthusiastically discover the effect of magnetism, before they (b) throw the magnet to your face. As the kids approached, we all looked at each other in excitement. Finally, the moment we had prepared for had arrived. We were eager to talk to the little ones and see them get excited about science.

Some of the children were too small to appreciate what was happening. Some of them asked a myriad of entangling questions. Some of them were grumpy, or ill. Some of them became our best buddies. A lot of parents ended up shaking whipped cream in centrifuge tubes. The fine tuning of information, intensity and intonation that needs to be adjusted for each different child is a skill that even for the most experienced science festival veterans takes years to master – and we were more than happy to practice.

This article was written by Laura Machado and edited by Bonnie Nicholson.


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