The Bubble Lab: A PER Lab case study
29 March 2021
Public Engagement - case study
Shamit Shrivastava (formerly Engineering Science), Kelly Richards and Carly Smith-Huggins (Museum of Natural History) created a pop-up experience in communities in Oxford, targeting young people (10-13) and their families. A free kit of ‘do-at-home’ experiments and investigations was given out, providing a way to connect with researchers, and to visit the Museum of Natural History to share what they’ve learned and discovered.
Project at a glance:
- ‘Pop-up’ interactive science activities in communities and do-at-home experiment kits
- £13,000 awarded
- 5 Oxford staff involved plus supporting DPhil students
- 1 bubble artist
- 3 events with interactive activities, a bubble show at the museum
- 600+ people reached
- Project being adapted for future school-based activities
Why is soap so good at cleaning things? Why does it form bubbles?
Simple questions, but perhaps not many of us could offer convincing answers. Dr Shamit Shrivastava's PER Lab project aimed to get school students in the Oxford area thinking about the science of soapy bubbles, which can tell us much about the workings of cells in the human body.
Shamit, formerly a postdoctoral researcher in Oxford's Department of Engineering Science, said: 'I'm always looking out for opportunities to get involved with public engagement at the University. I want to inspire others to take an interest in science, and also to improve the way I'm able to talk about and explain my own work.
'My research looks at the role vibration plays in biological functions – for example, how brain cells send signals to each other. Soapy films and bubbles are excellent models of the membranes that surround all biological cells, so the idea was to use this familiar concept to engage young people with the science of vibration and how the brain works.'
With 'tweens' and younger teenagers often seen as a challenging demographic for museums, Shamit's Bubble Lab project was designed to engage children aged 8-13 from less affluent parts of Oxford and the surrounding area. The aim was twofold: to empower children and families from underprivileged communities to visit Oxford's museums, and to introduce young people to scientific research.
Working with education and outreach staff at Oxford's Museum of Natural History, a two-phase programme of activity was drawn up. The first phase, delivered at community events and in the museum, involved a series of workshops featuring a bubble artist and fun experiments with bubbles. Participants at the community events were given a home science kit and travel voucher and invited to share their findings at a museum-based finale, giving them an incentive to visit the centre of Oxford. Demonstrations were also uploaded as short videos to Instagram and Twitter.
In phase two, resources and training will be provided to teachers of relevant age groups in community schools. A printed booklet invites young people to carry out simple home experiments exploring the science behind soapy bubbles.
Shamit said: 'The activities were a huge hit. The final event coincided with the museum's busiest day of the year, with 5,000 people coming through the door. Our community-based events were also really popular: 56 families, for example, were engaged at the pop-up we held at Banbury fair, and 41 in Wheatley.
'It was fantastic to work with the knowledegable museum staff and the team of volunteer researchers who helped deliver the activities. As researchers we spend so much of our time in the lab, so this was a great opportunity to do something different, and although it was a lot of hard work, I'd definitely recommend it to others.'
One of the biggest challenges the team faced was reaching its target demographic. Shamit added: 'We found that the presence of younger children at our stalls seemed to put off the older children, who may have felt they were too old to be taking part. So the lesson seemed to be that if you want to engage that age group, you have to do it in a separate, controlled environment.
'My hope was also that the demonstrations would lead to a deeper level of discussion about the science and studying STEM subjects, but in the end they turned out mostly just to be fun activities. There were, however, a few instances where that deeper discussion did develop, and I think my most rewarding moment was when the mother of a child on the autism spectrum said it was the first time she'd seen him so engaged with an activity.'
Janet Stott, who leads the public engagement team at Oxford's Museum of Natural History, said: 'I think the project was successful in many ways, allowing both the museum staff and the researchers to take risks, to experiment and to try new approaches. It was an ambitious project and some elements didn't come to fruition, but that was very much part of the ethos of the PER Lab.
'As museum staff, we got more experience of working with researchers – particularly engaging with concepts in engineering and physics – and a chance to build new and develop existing relationships with community partners. We were also able to pilot outreach work tracking people who returned to the museum after attending community events. The families themselves had the opportunity to meet researchers who were keen to share their passion for science –
The museum took on three undergraduate interns who were involved in delivering the outreach sessions. Asher Winter, a second-year chemistry student, said: 'I went as part of the Bubble Lab team to an event in Banbury, which was really fun. We engaged with children of all ages, demonstrating and supervising some bubble-based experiments as well as trying to explain the science. We also linked some of the science about the bubbles to natural history, such as structural colour in insects. There was a real authenticity in this.'
'I really enjoyed this experience – going out into a community and engaging people with science is something I've never had a chance to do before, and it was really rewarding when the children got excited or successfully understood a concept.'
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