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Stories from Science Podcast Posts

Can a Science Festival change the world? The ATOM Festival of Science and Technology 2018

In this special episode of Stories from Science, we go behind the scenes of a very modern phenomenon: the Science Festival.

(Listen now on SoundCloud – iTunes – Stitcher)

Specifically, we peek behind the curtain of the ATOM Festival of Science and Technology, which has taken place in Abingdon-on-Thames every year for the last five years. This year’s festival took place in March 2018, and – in spite of a sudden and dramatic snowfall on the final weekend – was a huge success.

Kicking off with the Science Market (think Farmer’s Market but with science!) a whole week of talks, hands-on science activities, school’s outreach, and quirky science events culminated in the Family Science Day which saw over 500 people descend on the Yang Science Centre putting on VR goggles, looking at friendly (and not so friendly) microbes, messing around with fire, bubbles, dinosaurs, making cars and rockets – and learning about the scale of the universe.

In this episode we speak to the people involved in ATOM: the speakers, communicators, organisers and audience who came along.

Along the way, we’ll discover the peculiar properties of Iron Selenide, discover how much fun you can have with liquid nitrogen, and learn that even if you never liked science at school, there are still plenty of opportunities for you to have a career in science.

What Science Festivals do may seem obvious – lots of entertaining science events to inspire young and old alike – but when you pick apart a festival like ATOM, the results are more far-reaching, and – in at least one surprising instance – rather profound with implications for new opportunities for business and academia.

For ATOM, this is partly due to its special location in the Science Vale – between the science centres of Culham, Harwell and Oxford.

But there are lessons for everyone involve in science communication, outreach, events and other festivals. We hope this podcast gives you loads of inspiration and – for anyone involved in a science festival – ideas to help your festivals thrive.

Because the benefits of a well-run, community-centred science festival have all kinds of implications: for business, academia, town centre regeneration, inclusivity, education and community cohesion.

Ultimately we are talking about ‘Science Capital’ – a way in which science becomes  embedded within a community, for the benefit of all, with impacts felt far and wide.

(Listen now on SoundCloud – iTunes – Stitcher)

(Listen now on SoundCloud – iTunes – Stitcher)





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Shooting for the Moon with the next generation: Fran Long of Sublime STEM

The teaching of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – STEM – is possibly *the* hot topic in education at the moment. It’s no exaggeration to say that we need hundreds of thousands of new scientists and engineers in the coming years, but in a time of huge educational challenges, how exactly do you inspire and ‘hook’ young children on science, and give them the hunger and resilience to succeed in STEM subjects for the long term?

(Listen now on SoundCloudiTunesStitcher)

Even the government’s own figures are stark: we need 20,000 more engineering graduates every year just to replace those retiring from the profession. But the challenges in STEM teaching are not just getting more students to pick subjects to study at university: how do you get school pupils to stay the course in secondary school, where do we get the resources from, and what exactly should children be doing not just to learn about STEM but see themselves as engineers and scientists in the future?

To begin to get some answers, we had an inspirational chat with Fran Long of Sublime STEM, educator and Primary Science Specialist. Her passion and enthusiasm for getting primary school children hooked on science is all the more remarkable considering the fact that she struggled with science herself when at school.

Fran’s path into STEM teaching started in perhaps the last place you might have thought: working out how to boost literacy and ‘reading for pleasure’ amongst primary age children (another urgent concern in schools). Fran adopted a very scientific approach to the problem, trying different things, and getting hard data to provide evidence of what worked.

This approached grew into ‘start local’ philosophy of STEM teaching, in which she reached out to everyone from school parents to global companies, and in the process turned dry curriculum science topics into interactive spectacles to wow young people.

Earlier this year, her hard work paid off: Fran won the UK’s Primary Science Teacher Award.

This episode of Stories from Science is both eye-opening and contains a lot of pieces to the STEM puzzle.  We discover why children need to get hooked on science by age 10, why family involvement is crucial and why current methods of encouraging girls into STEM might be counter-productive.

We explore why you need good storytellers in science, and we look at the networks and organisations that exist right now to help teachers and parents inspire children in science. Above all we link literacy to science in a way that would make CP Snow proud.

The interview lasts about 45 minutes, which is no time at all for all the topics we touched upon. But with Fran starting a new role with the Natural History Museum in Oxford we’re sure to be inviting her back for a follow-up…

(Listen now on SoundCloudiTunesStitcher)

Like what you hear? If you enjoyed this and other episodes, please consider rating us on SoundCloud, iTunes or Stitcher. And you can also support us through our Patreon page!

The billion dollar question: science as a tool for wealth creation

Hollywood tends to do two things with science. Let the imagination (and the CGI) run wild, or else focus in on one of the biggest clichés in the business: the lone genius battling against odds on a breakthrough that will change (or save) the world.

Sadly, this isn’t how scientific breakthroughs tend to happen…

There’s nothing we love more on ‘Stories from Science’ than a hoary old stereotype that we can bust apart, and this one is particularly dangerous and pernicious. Because whilst there are individuals who slave away in a lab, science breakthroughs that can be moved successfully from research environment into business – science commercialisation – are long, complicated, expensive and often heartbreaking journeys.

Many entrepreneurs think it’s all about the idea. In reality, it’s about everything but, from people and politics, to finance and legal wrangles. Above all it’s not for the faint-hearted.

No-one knows this better than Stephen Bennington, founder and director of science spin-out consultancy Krino Partners. His science journey took him from one of the world’s biggest research facilities (the ISIS neutron source at Harwell), to helping spin-out science and technology companies at universities including Sussex University and University College London (where he was visiting professor for Nanotechnology).

In 2011 he founded his own science spin-out – hydrogen storage company Cella Energy. His experience of the highs and lows on the cutting edge of science commercialisation forms the core of our interview.

As well as being a primer on hydrogen storage and the future of 3D printing, we cover teamwork, transferable skills and the often harsh reality of venture capital. And we get to the core of why science and technology start-ups can fail, and the changes you can do to allow them to succeed. It’s about creating an environment where scientists and engineers can work together in harmony…

How to win friends and STEMfluence people

During 2015, anyone driving down Faringdon Road in Abingdon would have seen an impressive building taking shape on the edge of the campus of Abingdon School. But as the bulk of the work on its new £14 million Science Centre progressed, behind the scenes the school was wrestling with a problem.

Tensions between public and private education are well-known and raise strong feelings on both sides. From the outset the school was committed to providing significant public access – and thus benefit – to the science centre, but just opening up the labs, even with the help of skilled technicians, wasn’t much of an option. Aside from practical safety considerations, the big challenge was to translate the needs and requirements of science users in the wider community into co-ordinated activities – and leverage resources available through wider STEM programmes across the UK.

(Listen now on SoundCloudiTunesStitcher)

The solution was to recruit a specialist science teacher and have that teacher spend 50% of his or her time co-ordinating activities, partnerships and connections to schools organisations in the local community and around the UK. The result was the Abingdon Science Partnership – and the results have been both impressive and significant.

On March 6, we travelled across Abingdon to meet with Megan Milarski and Jeremy Thomas at the Partnership (or ASP as it’s known to those in the know). Now three years old, it’s an almost unique science outreach organisation, but its success is offering up a template which might be replicable in other parts of the UK.

The sheer range of activities, clubs, services and partner organisations sometimes makes it difficult to neatly summarise the ASP, and so our interview was an ideal opportunity to dig down and understand the ambitions underlying the partnership. In doing so, we explore how the ASP works with local primary and secondary schools, scouting organisations, and partner organisations such as the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS), the Young Scientists Journal, Polar Explorers Programme, the Ogden Trust, CREST and many more.

Along the way we took a detour to the Southern Ocean, found a neat way of combining STEM and exercise – and explored the critical concept of ‘Science Capital’ in society.

(Listen now on SoundCloudiTunesStitcher)

(Update 1: two weeks after we conducted the interview, on Sunday March 18, over 500 people – mostly Abingdon-based families – attended the free Family Science Fair hosted by the Abingdon Science Partnership as part of the annual ATOM Festival and Science and Technology. It was a fitting example of the potential – and power – of the partnership, around which ATOM volunteers, University outreach groups, local schools, and science engagement organisations such as Curiosity Box and Bright Sparks Science coalesced to produce a stunning hands-on science event. You can see images from that event here.)

(Update 2: In April 2018, the Abingdon Science Partnership were shortlisted in the ‘Contribution to local community’ category for the #tesFEawards TES FE Awards 2018. This is a significant recognition of their work and activities, and wish them the best of luck when the awards are announced later this year)

A day out to the hottest place in the solar system

An iconic building in the Oxfordshire countryside – obscured by trees!

On Feb 20, we took a short trip southeast from Abingdon to the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) otherwise known as JET (the Joint European Torus). Basically, it’s the world’s foremost (biggest, most advanced, most successful) research facility for fusion energy.

It also means that temperatures at the core of the giant torus (or doughnut) regularly reach in excess of 100 million degrees centigrade.

We were there to chat to two members of JET’s Tritium Engineering Team – Sarah Medley and Zoltan Kollo – and if you want to know what tritium is, how crucial it is to the physics of fusion, and what fusion scientists and engineers do all day, then you’ll really enjoy this episode.

We conducted the interview in the Control Room – and felt incredibly privileged to do so.

It was a wonderful – and constantly surprising – interview. We discussed what it’s like to work in fusion, how you get to work in the field, and the challenges of working on the very frontiers of science.

We discuss the power of diversity in teams, there’s some great wisdom and advice to anyone wondering what subjects to study at school – and we bust a few stereotypes about scientists and engineers along the way…

Stories from Science

discover the ordinary extraordinary stories from science

Do you love science and technology? Are you excited to discover more about it? Do you want to get involved with science in your community?

If you want to explore big questions and global issues with local scientists, then we reckon you should listen to the Stories from Science Podcast!

Stories from Science talks to ordinary people doing extraordinary things: people using science to bring about positive change to their communities and the planet, with many of these ordinary extraordinary stories happening on your doorstep.

The podcast is focused on the global hotspot of science innovation and enterprise that is Oxford and the Science Vale. We want to help you:

  • explore the diversity of science and technology that goes on in and around the Science Vale
  • discover the stories behind companies and research organisations – through the day-to-day work of the scientists themselves
  • energise and connect with scientists via an engaged community and a crowdsourced digital platform

So what do scientists do all day? Are they saving the world or blowing things up? Filling in paperwork or inventing the future? How did they get into science in the first place – and how can you do the same?

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Mark, Nicki and the Stories from Science Team xxx