By Victoria Metcalf 06/11/2015

If you were in Christchurch anytime over the last few weeks you would have probably noticed posters advertising the Big Science Day. This event, run by Science Alive and with funding from the Unlocking Curious Minds fund, an initiative within the government-led “A Nation of Curious Minds” programme, took place on a stunningly fine day, Saturday 31st October, in Cathedral Square.

The Nation of Curious Minds initiatives are coordinated by MBIE, the Ministry of Education and the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.

Bringing life back into the central city, more than 20,000 people of all ages attended the event. The place was heaving. And there was a lot to see. For the Big Science Day aimed to showcase local innovation and highlight possible science and technology career paths within the Canterbury region.


The plant BBQ demonstration from Tim Curran of Lincoln University was a great hit
The plant BBQ demonstration from Tim Curran of Lincoln University was a great hit.

Miss5 and I spent much of our time watching Dr Tim Curran of Lincoln University giving a highly entertaining talk on his plant BBQ, which is uses to incinerate various plants to measure their flammability. Comparing New Zealand natives with Australian plants, with much Trans-Tasman humour (he is an Aussie), and deftly weaving in a lot of science and introduction to the science process (hypotheses, statistics etc), with a device so dear to the NZ psyche, this was one flaming (and yes there were big ones) good example of ‘well done’ scicomm.

Aside from the performances, there were various displays from a variety of companies or institutions showcasing mainly tech-based objects, such as Martin Jetpack, Garden City Helicopters, the New Zealand Fire Service and PoliceHITLabNZ.

Education-based stands such as Code Club, Futureintech, Imagination Station, and Aerospace Education were popular – most featuring robotics, Lego, simulators, unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, rockets or teaching how to code. These in particular allowed experiential learning- the chance for young or old to try things out and hopefully ask questions of those manning the stand to understand more.

Do one-day events engage people with science and tech?

The Big Science Day was clearly very popular- I understand they smashed their targets and CEO of Science Alive Neville Petrie was thrilled with the turnout. He was particularly happy with the number of teens present- a harder-to-reach target audience, who have often disengaged with science by that age.

As a visitor to the event myself I could see plenty of people engaging with the various activities. The chance to come and experience science and technology in a non-threatening public space hopefully enticed visitors that would normally find an institution-based event too intimidating. It definitely is an era of getting science well out of the hallowed walls and labs.

Opportunities for growth

It may well be that events like this seed an interest in young people that may propel them towards maintaining a science and technology interest or a career in this space. In order to do this though, one-day events like this need to sit alongside longer lasting opportunities for engagement. A more coordinated or networked approach to how we conduct outreach would benefit host and attendees and hopefully the A Nation of Curious Minds framework (which also provided funding to the Big Science Day) may facilitate this.

I also suspect that an event like this acting as a catalyst to an increased science and tech, engineering and maths (STEM) interest serves mainly those who already hold some passion for STEM, rather than reaching those for whom it is of less interest.

It is a difficult balance to achieve participation by various organisations and companies without it coming across overly as an advertising opportunity, rather than about engaging people with science and technology. This is a challenge for any event of this nature and could be considered more for future events.

With a predominant tech focus, which may lend itself to the notion of being more hands-on and perhaps more approachable, it will be interesting to see if future Big Science Days are held, how a science emphasis is delivered and received.

Much of how children learn is through play. And play-based opportunities abounded at the Big Science Day. I asked one stand-holder whether he had engaged much with the children over how the particular technology they were showcasing worked, whilst they were playing in it. He said no, they were just kids. That to me, is an opportunity lost. The skill is in weaving in the educational opportunities and allowing enquiry-based learning, all within the context of play. When we people in STEM can achieve that more consistently, long-lasting curiosity will more likely occur.