A Beginner’s Guide to Outreach Events: greenSTEMS at the Festival of Ideas

If you walked into the big white tent in front of M&S in York’s Parliament Square on 3rd June, you would have found an unusual range of activities of offer, from archeology exploration to Lego construction. Right at the heart of it all was our greenSTEMS stand with volunteers in white lab coats and hand-on lab experiments waiting to entertain and educate the public.

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But how did we get involved in this event? Well, it all started with an e-mail call for the Festival of Ideas participants, which was forwarded twice before reaching us. When we received it, the application deadline was almost 2 months in the past. Luckily, there were still places available for the Science out of the Lab event, as we found out when we reached out to the coordinator.

At the greenSTEMS meeting, I volunteered to organize the event. It was my first time organizing an outreaching activity on my own, and I only had one month to prepare everything! The first thing we need was an idea for our booth. It wasn’t easy to associate the event’s theme “The Story of Things”, and the type of science out of the lab activities we could do on the date. The inspiration came from a viral Youtube video that describe the connection between consumerism, capitalism and environment. Our objective would be to make this story more sustainable by using renewable feedstocks instead of crude oil to make all the “stuff” we use. We had a title: The Sustainable Story of Stuff.

One thing was sure, I could not do this event on my own! My next step was recruiting volunteers.  I looked for volunteers within my MSc. class and even my housemates. In the end I mustered seven volunteers scientists. If you are looking for event volunteers, I highly suggest talking to societies and groups involved in outreach at your local university or community, such as the YSOC- York Science Outreach Centre at UoY. You will find the most enthusiastic people! You can also emphasize what volunteers will get from the event; for example, improve their employability or communication skills. Do not forget to chat with your colleagues and friends about your event; many will do what they can to support you.

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Next, we needed to plan our activities. I was quite lucky that as part of my MSc. I had a module on outreach and learned a couple of experiments aimed at the general public, specially kids. Louise Summerton and Tom Dugmore from the Green Chemistry Centre were very helpful in organizing my out-of-lab experiment. They kindly lent us the green chemistry materials and equipment for the festival. We chose two experiments related to renewable materials: making plastic from potato starch and making glue from milk. Both can be found at the Royal Society of Chemistry website and are suitable for young kids (though adults will also enjoy playing with the goop!). Find this and more experiments here http://www.rsc.org/learn-chemistry/resource .

The plastic from potato experiment was an organizational challenge for the event; it required a heating plate, more than 20 minutes of work and low concentrations of acid and base. We solved this problem scheduling especific times. We would have one plastic from potato starch experiment per hour. The glue from milk experiment, on the other hand, was much faster and less hazardous, so we decided to run it continuously.

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We organized a meeting for all volunteers to get the experiment procedure and fill our schedule for the day. We divided tasks such as printing the handouts, cutting out title and figures, carrying the materials to the spot, setting up the booth and packing up after the event.  The event ran for five hours. We planned to have always three people (me included for the whole day) on location during the festival, and added 1 hour each for setting up and packing up. Moving everything into place was not an easy task! We had three bags of around 10 kg, and getting a car around York city centre on weekend is very nearly impossible. greenSTEMS treasure- Tabitha generously offered her flat as storage before the event, so we only had to walk a short distance.

The setting up took longer than we planned. We had scheduled three volunteers for that one hour task, but delays slowed things down. I would suggest giving plenty of time for this task, maybe 50% more than you think you need, and always have a plan B for the decoration, because the provided booth might be quite different than you imagined. Don’t forget to bring some extra tape, scissors and glue; it can save the day.

The event itself was a success. The interest and curiosity of the kids (some as young as four) was rewarding. We also had adults, university students, elderly people, and young professors coming along. People had varying levels of interest and knowledge, so we needed to make a different pitch for each person that came to us. While it was mostly kids trying the experiments, we had a few adults getting messy and having fun. Our best idea was to have a real use for our glue from milk. After making the glue, each kid could choose their own picture and glue it to our “sustainable world” poster. At the end, we had a colorful globe which doubled as a metric for how many people tried our activity.

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One of the highlights of the day for me was when one of our visitors said she remembered making glue from milk when she was a kid, and told us her story of how she would make her own glue for school in the time of the war, because no market had it. It was a surprise for me; I had never heard that despite reading about the milk glue activity. I went to the event expecting to teach people about the use of renewable materials, but did not expect to learn something about the experiment I was presenting. Now I believe that it is the whole propose of outreach, not to only teach others, but to learn from the audience.

Of course, it wasn’t all perfect. We had some surprise delays and the flow of people was not steady, so at times we felt overwhelmed. In addition, we run out of coffee filters for our activity, so had to go buy it during our outreach event. Make sure you know where you can buy some extra materials if needed during your outreach event. We had initially planned to provide kids with lab coats that were generously provide by Annie Hodgson, but there was no time for that when it came to the actual event. Our other problem was the washing up of our plastic beakers and spoons; it took unexpected time and left us with a box full of water and residues to dispose. Nevertheless, after leaving our materials back at Tabitha’s flat, we celebrated our success.

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