Sensing Volcanos: Exhibiting at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition
The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition is a prestigious event where researchers from diverse fields showcase their work to thousands of visiting members of the public. In this case study, we delve into the experience of Prof. David Pyle, professor of Earth Sciences, who led a team and shares insights into their preparations, experiences, and the impact on the audience.
At a glance
- The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition is attended by a broad and diverse range of people, from school children to ministers.
- The exhibition provides an opportunity to find creative and engaging ways to convey your research.
- The production quality expected is high, meaning a lot of time and money is required; this is achievable if planned for in advance.
The Royal Society Summer Exhibition, attended by over 10,000 individuals, including 2,000 students annually, amplifies its influence through substantial television, media, and online coverage. It offers a unique opportunity to amplify your research and institution's presence, fostering connections with influential stakeholders such as the public, potential sponsors, and government officials.
In this case study, we explore the journey of Prof. David Pyle (Earth Sciences), who led a team showcasing how researchers and communities employ 'sensing' and decision-making to forecast volcanic eruptions. Prof. Pyle shares valuable insights into their preparations, experiences, and the exhibition's impact on the audience.
Setting the stage for success: Project Inception and Preparation
Prof. David Pyle's journey began when the call for the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition opened in 2022. Having previously participated in a science exhibition in 2010, he recognised the importance of careful planning. There was a core team from Oxford’s Department of Earth Sciences, University of East Anglia and University of the West Indies. They had the advantage of 12 months of funding for a collaborative research project with a creative and engagement component. They also had a postdoc who contributed background material. Additionally, David highlighted that he had research leave, allowing him to devote time without needing to try and “find it from somewhere”.
Choosing the theme was a critical first step. David explained, “you have to be able to say in about 100 words what it is you want to do… it's this process that really helps you crystallise what you want to do”. The team settled on "Sensing Volcanoes," a theme that encompassed both scientific instrumentation for monitoring volcanoes and the unique ways in which people living near volcanoes sense their environments. They distilled their approach into three words: sense, detect, and imagine. These words encapsulated the core of their exhibit, emphasising the importance of sensory experiences, scientific instrumentation, and the imaginative aspects of research.
David himself commented on the theme selection: "We chose 'Sensing Volcanoes,' which is deliberately ambiguous. We wanted to capture the process that scientists use, you've gathered some data, and you still have to use your imagination to make sense of it; you might not call it imagination, but you develop hypotheses."
Funding: securing resources
Securing funding and resources was pivotal for the success of their exhibit. Between October and December, they applied for various funding opportunities. David explained their funding strategy: "Some of that money was specifically for public engagement. But quite a big chunk of that money was specifically for university impact. And so there were two of us in the UK, different universities. Both universities had an impact scheme opened in the autumn and funds had to be spent by the end of March."
The total cost of their exhibit amounted to approximately £30,000. They hired a postdoc as a project manager and leveraged existing grants for materials, ensuring they had sufficient resources to deliver a high-quality exhibition. Additionally, they enlisted the help of 25 volunteers, who played a crucial role in the exhibit's success, and their expenses for travelling to and staying over in London needed to be included.
The team embarked on a collaborative effort to design, build, and create the exhibit, which was trialled in February 2023 at the Norwich Science Festival and culminated in the week-long event at the Royal Society. The exhibition attracted a diverse audience, including school children, teenagers, parents, teachers, journalists, dignitaries and politicians.
The exhibit's success lay in its interactive and sensory experiences. The team incorporated various elements, such as a digital floor that simulated volcanic scenarios, a scent-based activity using volcanic materials, and audio-visual displays that allowed visitors to listen to conversations related to volcanic events.
David highlighted the importance of interactivity: "The really nice thing was the way that our activities brought people in, it looked curious and brought people in that somehow aren't the standard," referring to the number of teenagers eagerly engaging with the activities.
David was keen to add that flashy stands and gadgets aren’t always the answer, sometimes keeping it simple and tactile is the most engaging.
David explained, “our activities weren't showy and flashy. We had simple activities, things you could pick up. That would surprise you. One of the senses I was most proud of being able to use was smell.” The team worked with a retired perfumer who was able to create a complex scent that evoked the tropical and volcanic nature of St Vincent by applying it to a rock people could pick up and sniff. “It really drew people in because everyone would smell something different, and then you could have a conversation about it”.
One notable aspect was their focus on uncertainty, exemplified by the digital floor scenario. Visitors were tasked with making decisions about where to live on an island as a story of volcanic unrest unfolded, sparking engaging discussions and providing a unique learning experience.
The team also aimed to raise awareness of the experiences of people living near volcanoes. They incorporated old-fashioned telephones that played conversations related to volcanic ash and used storyboards accessible via QR codes to share historical accounts and stories.
Lessons Learned and Advice for Future Exhibitors
Reflecting on their experience, Prof. David Pyle highlighted several key takeaways for researchers considering participation in the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition:
- Storytelling: Craft a compelling narrative that can engage a wide range of visitors, from children to adults. David noted, "Crafting a story and thinking about how you want to tell the story is crucial."
- Interactivity: Prioritise interactive and sensory experiences. Encourage visitors to engage with your exhibit through touch, smell, and sound, as this can make your exhibit more memorable.
- Feedback and Adaptation: Gather feedback from volunteers and visitors to continually improve your exhibit. Be open to adjusting based on their input. David explained, “For each of the sessions one of the volunteers was also a note taker. So we gathered photographic evidence of the way that people interacted with the exhibits,” and underscored, "You get automatic feedback on the things that aren't working so you can improve the experience for the volunteers and for the people visiting the stand each day."
- Modularity: Consider a modular approach to your exhibit, allowing different activities to cater to varying visitor interests and ages. This was especially useful when at the Summer Science Exhibition unstructured groups didn’t end up following the flow along the different activities that the team had originally envisaged.
Differentiation from Other Exhibitions
The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition stands out from local fairs and smaller events due to its scale, quality, and the expectations of the audience. Exhibitors are given a significant space to showcase their work, and the audience consists of a diverse range of individuals, from school children to experts in the field. The emphasis is on creating an engaging, informative, and memorable experience that transcends traditional science engagement events. David noted, “there's definitely an expectation of high-quality production”.
If this feels distant and too big for you, David’s journey in public engagement started out with small scale activities, and he recommends that researchers earlier in their careers get stuck in. Sharing his story David said, “I think it probably just started with, ‘can you come to a school and talk about volcanos and bring some rocks?’, you just gradually accumulate a few more props and things… Ten years on, you're doing things that you wouldn't even have thought of doing.”.
- Take your research to the Royal Society Summer Exhibition (the call usually opens in September each year).
- Read more about the Sensing Volcanos project
- Read about including engagement in research grant proposals
This case study was drafted with the assistance of AI: the interview transcript was generated with AI. ChatGPT was used to generate text according to human directed key points. The final text was edited for content and clarity by Michaela Livingstone-Banks.