How we created Science in the Park event in Malvern

Image © Ruaridh Macdonald, reproduced with permission

Being always on the lookout for good speakers for my local IOP centre’s future programme, a chance meeting with the Institute’s CEO, Professor Paul Hardaker, got us talking about his academic subject of meteorology.

Having received a warm reception about visiting Malvern to talk to us on the science of thunderstorms, he told me of the summer-evening outdoor events the IOP hosts after work and beside a local canal for anyone who is interested – and which get big audiences. This was something new and exciting – an outdoor popular talk on science. I mentioned that we have a lovely park in the centre of Malvern, Priory Park, and that it would make a good summer venue for a science event. That was late summer, 2016.

Each October our local IOP centre supports the Malvern Festival of Innovation (MFI) with some hands-on experiments at the Family Day, at the end of the week-long business programme. During the week, the event organiser, Dr Adrian Burden, also organises the parallel, full-day, school-parties-only, Next Generation Innovators fair (NGI) where we also stage many tabletop experiments for children. It is a large event and almost 800 children attend. We had the enthusiastic support of nine STEM Ambassadors, three from the committee and David Wilkinson, our energetic regional officer, to staff the IOP tables – and we were all kept very busy. It was physically draining, but very rewarding.

At the Festival of Innovation’s Family Day are many local companies and professional bodies supporting the day with activities and experiments for young scientists and engineers. Through my support to the local IOP centre and participating in a number of similar outreach events over the past few years I have got to know many key people who share similar outreach aims. Therefore it was a good place to sound out colleagues about an open-air science event (coincidentally to be held at the same location as the MFI).

With a vague and arm-waving “large, colourful, safe, outdoor and no-mains power” guide for experiments, and which were to be significantly different from those at the NGI fair, I soon found that I had a small number of key people who could deliver something at the embryonic summer event and thought the idea worth exploring further. Including our local STEM Hub manager, Linda, (from Worcester University) and staff from the Malvern Hills District Council, we held a one-hour feasibility meeting in early December at Adrian’s company office to see if the concept of a summer science fair was, well, feasible.

I purposely kept the group small – down to nine people who were experienced professionals from different organisations and who could add to the discussion. After my short welcome and introduction I said that the event was far too big for me to organise but I would support anyone who would like to chair the organising of it. Back came the unanimous response: “You can do it, Alan!” So, inwardly hesitant, I continued to chair this meeting and we discussed, then agreed, the concept and who our target audience was to be.

Further discussions soon led to a long list of hurdles to be jumped. It was all very daunting but I knew the hurdles would be surmountable and that the make-or-break would be whether we could get enough sponsorship and exhibitors – and good weather. A further feasibility meeting a few weeks later refined our thoughts:

  • This will be a pilot event
  • We want to
    • enthuse youngsters about STEM subjects
    • advise parents of the wide opportunities a STEM career offers
    • reach those folks who don’t necessarily come across STEM in their everyday activities
    • make Science in the Park accessible to all who would like to participate
    • show that science can be fun.

Soon a list of potential sponsors and exhibitors joined the list of hurdles and I didn’t know what to do first. Fortunately my feasibilitiers helped to put a shape to the list and drafts of this, plus a draft overall risk assessment, photos of the location, and a map of the park were put on a web-based document site where we could all share and edit them.

Image © Ruaridh Macdonald, reproduced with permission

This was how the event germinated. Later it emerged that of the nine of us two took on the task of organising the event with other members championing Science in the Park with their respective management and professional bodies (for sponsorship) and for other, more defined, tasks. Again this worked well. Everyone had their say and everything was welcome input for a newbie event-organiser.

Adrian had a wealth of contacts, event experience and web-site development facilities, while Amanda, from the Malvern Hills District Council, had much to offer (including the park!) and lots of knowledge about local essentials. We had only one day available for use of the park: take it or wait until next year! It did cross my mind to delay for a year as we had a very long list of things to do and no money. However we had got sufficient momentum to pencil in the date – and a target to aim for.

Margaret was already planning several activities, which we rehearsed a week before the event in her garden. They all got the thumbs-up and we all liked the big bubbles.

I don’t want to give you the impression that I managed the whole show: I didn’t. I was part of a team that worked well: we respected each other; we had sufficiently distinct contributions and we were all sufficiently motivated to offer leadership where a gap in the needs-list opened up.

Some months before the event I prepared a bid to the IOP for sponsorship. The West Midlands Branch committee gave me advice and support at a time when I didn’t really know that we could pull the event off. I also didn’t know what to expect from the IOP’s outreach officer, Hannah. Margaret and I were invited to London to discuss Science in the Park and en route we worked out our pitch and answers to likely questions. Fortunately we didn’t get a grilling! Hannah was fully supportive, solved issues that arose and gave us encouragement throughout the planning of the event.

We didn’t need our Bad Weather Plan, either: the day was sunny and warm and everyone was delighted with the event. Margaret ended up making fully 13 gallons of bubble mixture.

  • Hannah adds: As outreach officer, I was delighted to hear about Alan’s plans to organise his own outreach event and was more than willing to offer any support we could. If you’ve been inspired by Alan’s post and are thinking you might like to get involved in something similar, get in touch at engagement@iop.org to find out about what resources, funding and contacts with your local branch is available. We want to ensure our members feel appreciated for taking part in the IOP so we are asking for those that volunteer in outreach, sit on panels or branch or group committees, test our resources, assess applications or in fact spend any time in a voluntary capacity for the IOP to fill in our short survey.
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Alan C Smith

Alan C Smith

Alan is a committee member of the IOP’s Herefordshire and Worcestershire Centre and West Midlands Branch both of which support local outreach events and organise evening science lectures for Institute members and the public. He also works with the Institute promoting the professional development of physicists across the UK.
Alan C Smith

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