I didn’t know it at the time, but when I joined the chemical engineering department at Strathclyde to study for my PhD I was entering a department with an incredibly active public outreach programme. It wasn’t something that was on my mind when I was looking for a PhD, I thought I was just choosing the best place to study, but I’ve had the pleasure of working with the Really Small Science team for the past eight or so months since I started and it’s been nothing short of incredible.
Really Small Science is a public outreach group based in the Chem Eng department and they do a whole host of great things with one clear objective – to educate people of all ages about the nanoworld through a range of interactive, hands-on experiments in a wide variety of different spaces. From spending weekends in Glasgow Science Centre teaching parents and children the importance of filtering water to make it drinkable with our ‘Nanodirt’ workshop to travelling to primary schools around Glasgow with glowsticks and tutus to get pupils thinking about what happens on the nanoscale to make things glow and fluoresce.
There’s something tremendously rewarding about doing science experiments with pupils. The amazement on their faces or the resounding “WOWWW” of the class when something counter-intuitive happens. Like when we remove the colour from Irn Bru with charcoal or when we use ultraviolet light to cause tonic water or other household objects to fluoresce. They’re impressed at the experiments and have great fun doing them themselves but the best part is having the opportunity to teach them a little bit about the underlying science. Amazing them with charcoal filtering the colour out of Irn Bru is one thing but when a class of primary school pupils can tell you that the “dirty particles are too big to fit through the tiny nano holes in the charcoal so they get stuck and the clean water comes out” is what’s truly rewarding. But it’s bigger, more important and more worthwhile than them just replying with the same thing you told them. You’ve taken a real global problem like water filtering, made it accessible and exciting for them and also given them some understanding about the process. That’s what I think public outreach is really about:
Giving people from all backgrounds across all age groups the opportunity to engage with topics they wouldn’t normally engage with and gain a bit of knowledge and understanding in a fun and friendly environment.