Another school year has been completed for Lab in a Lorry, so it is time for me to have a well-earned breather and recharge the batteries before hitting the road again in September.
I’m certainly looking forward to a few days sat in the garden listening to the Test match or on the golf course, and won’t be going away anywhere – I do enough of that every week. I’ve been doing this since 2009, travelling the country spreading the word of physics and it has taken me to all corners of the UK from the Isles of Scotland to the cities of England and deepest rural Wales, which has been a great experience.
Reflecting on it, it can be quite a mad existence, racking up the miles each week and sampling the B&Bs and school dinners of the nation, but I still enjoy it, because I am passionate about what we are doing and firmly believe in the importance of giving young people the chance to explore every avenue open to them, so that they can decide for themselves what path they want to take in life. Obviously not everyone will become a physicist, but understanding its importance and relevance to their lives is valuable nonetheless.
It is also great to meet so many people from varied backgrounds through the volunteers who come along to help us run the events. During the 2015–17 Cymru tour so far, I’ve signed up 190 new recruits as potential volunteers to add to our pool of 381 people from our previous visits to the country. So far, 170 people have given us 294 volunteering days on the tour. Many of our volunteers come regularly, which is a great help to me when getting new people up to speed – and also shows the goodwill people are willing to give us. We don’t just recruit physicists any more, although that is the majority through our industry and university links. The STEMNET Ambassador scheme is a great source of help in getting us people from all STEM backgrounds. Giving the young people who visit the Lab the opportunity to engage with people from their local communities with this variety of backgrounds, is a great way for them to see a pathway for their futures and see opportunities in their area that they may not have considered before.
I often get asked by our volunteers when I’m training them, which bit of the Lab the pupils enjoy the most. Well, that’s obviously down to the individual, but I hope that we’re giving them the chance to explore for themselves, give them the confidence and trust to have a go, removing that fear of failure and go away with the kind of experience that will be a memory for them that they reflect on later in life. Everyone has a teacher, experiment, activity or moment that they remember clearly and has been one of the events that has helped to shape who they are now, so if we can be one of those experiences and the volunteers can help facilitate that, then I think they have done a good job and the pupils will be happy. And if the kids go away bouncing and saying it was sick, then, job done.
Personally I enjoy traveling around Wales and would recommend it to anyone who hasn’t been before (you can even come and volunteer on the Lab…), with its mix of cosmopolitan capital in Cardiff, sleepy villages down in Pembrokeshire to dramatic mountains up in Snowdonia. This term we’ve been to the more rural parts of the country as the weather has improved, allowing us better access with the lorry – including the highest school in Wales at Brynmawr, with its dramatic backdrop as the new Heads of the Valleys road is carved out of the mountains. As a Doctor Who fan it also gives me the chance to see some interesting locations: Brynmawr is where they filmed The Green Death, a famous Jon Pertwee story, and I’ve also managed to get to the Eye of Orion, a very tranquil place up in Snowdonia. We finished up in Dolgellau, where we parked in the local supermarket car park since we couldn’t get into the school, and took a team of regular volunteers on tour as I couldn’t find anyone local. But it was a nice way to end the school year, and our final meal was in the local Sospan bistro – formerly the local gaol where you spent your last night before being hanged.
Before my summer break my last stop was a trip to Belfast for the BIG Event, an annual conference bringing together leading science communication practitioners, including many current and former IOP colleagues. It was the first time I’d visited Northern Ireland, and took the short hop from Blackpool International airport (literally a portacabin) via the Isle of Man. The three-day conference was a mix of workshops, skill-sharing discussions and practical demonstrations, with lots of networking in the evenings too. It’s a really useful and enjoyable conference, with a welcoming atmosphere giving people new to the field a great boost in confidence. It was also a good showcase for some of our other activities too, with Charlotte Govan and Esther Mander’s session on Improving Gender Balance and Abi Ashton’s storytelling session, highlighting some of our projects. In a dramatic vote reveal at the AGM, I even managed to get elected to the Committee, so I’m looking forward to my greater involvement with BIG in the coming year. The week flew by and I was sorry to be leaving Belfast – it has a lot to offer as a city with its renovated industrial architecture and dramatic murals, and I will certainly return in future to explore the city and country more.
Time to sign off for another school year before we go at it again in September with more schools to visit – and young people to inspire.