Learning from Nature: a hands-on stall with something for everyone
Dr Holly Reeve and team (Department of Chemistry) developed a suite of activities to engage people at different levels as part of the Curiosity Carnival. Here, she describes how it all came together.
What is your research area?
We’re trying to bring together the best principles of chemistry and nature to build new ways of making fine chemicals, such as pharmaceuticals and flavours and fragrances. Our group works on enzymes, which are natural catalysts. We have invented a technology called HydRegen. that recharges helper molecules required by some enzymes in a clean and energy-efficient way, and also enables the enzymes to be re-used again and again. At the moment we are working on all aspects of how to commercialise this work.
Why did you decide to take part in Curiosity Carnival?
This was our first proper ‘public engagement with research’ event. It seemed like a good way to start, because there were clearly going to be so many people taking part and therefore it wouldn’t be ‘all eyes on us’. There was also lots of support available from Michaela in MPLS.
What was the activity you organised?
The planning was a joint effort between five of us. Our main activity was a live experiment demonstrating the power of enzymes, which we repeated every 15 minutes or so. We created ‘foam explosions’ using potato, yeast cells or isolated enzymes to catalyse a simple reaction that makes oxygen, and then we raced them against each other to see which one would make the most foam in the fastest time.
We also developed a set of supporting activities that people could work through while they were waiting for the next demonstration. Our overall theme was ‘bio-inspired technology’. At the simplest level, people could just help themselves to a sweet that you could buy in any shop in which one of the components is made on an industrial scale using an enzyme. Then we had a game to match things from the natural world to different kinds of technology. Next we focused on what chemistry can learn from nature by having a range of everyday items made commercially by the chemicals industry using enzymes, such as chocolate, lactose free milk and washing powder. A former chemistry student who now works for an Oxford spinout company Oxford BioTrans brought different smelly compounds that they’ve made using enzymes, with a game to match the smell to the flavour. Finally we were showing our Oxford Sparks animation about the HydRegen technology, which goes into more detail about our chemistry research.
What did you get out of the experience? Were there any challenges, and would you change anything next time?
It was great to be able to go as a team. It’s given us more confidence with outreach events generally, and helped us develop a set of activities that we can now take to other places. Because the audience was so engaged and there for all the right reasons, it was quite a soft entry into public engagement.
The ‘racing enzyme foam explosion’ experiment worked really well, especially with kids. They got very competitive – by the end there were two camps and they were all yelling ‘Enzyme! Enzyme!’ or ‘Yeast! Yeast!’ It also gave us the chance to talk about how things work in industry, where they use both cells and isolated enzymes to catalyse reactions, and discuss the pros and cons of each.
One great thing about Curiosity Carnival was that it covered the whole of University research. The message we were trying to promote is that science doesn’t belong in these little tiny packages – physics, chemistry, biology – that you get delivered in schools, and that actually the really exciting things often happen somewhere in between.
Are there any practical tips or suggestions you would give to researchers who are new to public engagement?
If you have ‘one big activity’, it’s also very useful to have smaller extra activities for people to do. So if people wanted to come and steal sweets from our stand, we could tell them that an enzyme helped to make that sweet. That’s very low engagement, but that’s fine! The card-matching game and the smell-matching activity were things that people could work through themselves with their kids. This suited quieter, more thoughtful visitors with a bit more time. If they didn’t want to talk to anyone they didn’t have to, but if they had questions we were on hand to help. The HydRegen animation is also great, because people can watch it if nothing else is going on!
Do be prepared for the layout you have planned not to work in the venue – you may need to be flexible and change things around. I’d made some arrows to carefully guide people through the activities but we had to set everything up going in the opposite direction, so I spent a lot of time cutting out arrows and sticking them on the other way round!
There is way more support in place for public engagement than people sometimes realise. I got involved in this because I’d been sitting at my computer for two days trying to make a video about what we do. Eventually I thought ‘This is completely crazy, I don’t have the time or the skill’. So I asked some people in Chemistry and they put me in touch with Oxford Sparks. We had a small amount of money and Sparks got us going with the animation. Initially you may get pushed around in a little circle until you find the right person – but once you do they can point you in all kinds of fascinating directions.
Do you have plans for any future public engagement activities?
I’ve just won some Public Engagement with Research seed fund money to develop work with schools. I want to put together the enzyme experiment from Curiosity Carnival and a talk I did this year for the Natural History Museum Christmas lectures, and take that into schools. At the same time I’m planning to build an online platform to support the activity with resources that are linked to the curriculum. Long-term, whenever we publish a paper I’m aiming to create a public-friendly version so we can start linking our outreach to the actual science going on in the lab. We are also working towards the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition at some point in the future.
This case study was written by Sarah Loving.