This is a guest post by Philip Pearce. Philip is currently an EPSRC Doctoral Prize Fellow in the school of Mathematics.
The Big Bang UK Young Scientists & Engineers Fair takes place every March and is the largest science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fair for young people in the UK. This year the School of Mathematics put on a stand for the first time and, as one of the helpers on the stand, this is how I found the experience…
Arriving bleary eyed at the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) in Birmingham after a 6am start, it was slightly intimidating to see the huge crowd of young people in front of an entrance hall approximately the size of an aircraft hangar. A man with a megaphone asked if they were ready to go in; the huge “YES!” only increased my trepidation. I’d taught plenty of young people before and I had given talks in front of large assemblies, but this was the first time I’d seen anything on this scale (over 75,000 attend the Big Bang Fair each year).
Once I was safely in front of the posters comprising our stand, I quickly got into the swing of things. Rather than hundreds of young people visiting the stand in one go, they came in a steady (if relentless) trickle of three or four visitors at a time. This was quite exhausting but it was also really rewarding to see how many youngsters were interested in talking about mathematics.
Our stand was split into two. On one side was the applied mathematics section, which demonstrated some of the mathematical modelling done in the School, including some simple experiments to show the physical phenomena being investigated. On the other side of the stand was the pure mathematics section, including fractals and cryptography. In particular, this section publicised the Alan Turing Cryptography Competition run each year, with an activity to find some lost treasure (in the form of chocolate coins). I personally found it especially rewarding to see the visitors try to break the various codes and ciphers necessary to find the treasure.
I’d recommend attending such a large-scale science fair to anyone doing research. Whichever department you’re based in, it’s a very good way to make you think about how you can condense your research into an easily understandable and interesting soundbite or activity. There’s so much going on at the science fair, from dancing robots to flying paper aeroplanes, that you have to be inventive and engaging. Being able to communicate research to an audience of all ages in such an environment is a skill that would benefit anyone.
As I left the fair on my third and final day of presenting on a Saturday (yes, Saturday!) evening, I felt like I’d gained more than just some extra communication skills. Hopefully, along with the other presenters on the stand (and in particular the organisers Dr Andrew Hazel and Dr Charles Walkden), I’d inspired some young people to think about how interesting and useful mathematics can be. I’d love to be at the Big Bang Fair at the same time next year, showing young people that mathematics can be just as fun as dancing robots!