Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Christmas Break

This time of year the science centre is very quiet - no schools obviously and not too many public visitors so I can have a holiday!
Really enjoying being away from work and although a fairly quiet Christmas it has been really peaceful.
The long run up meant that I was so ready that there was no rushing around or anything!

Today almost all the snow and ice which has been such a nuisance has gone - there is just a patch on the front lawn. My cat Smartie is thrilled - it has been way too cold for him to stay outside for long but he hated being in all the time so has driven us mad coming in and then asking to go out again!
Am getting a bit stir crazy now though so we are thinking about getting out somewhere.
We plan to go and see TRON tomorrow - sad how much of the original I remember extremely well - like lots of the actual dialogue OOPS!
Have probably conned Mike into going - telling him it is all about computers... well it is... honestly!
Have been reading ( and listening ) to some trashy type sci fi over the hols but am now becoming very serious. Mike bought me Bettany Hughes book about Socrates - a little light reading before I drop off. Actually it is fascinating but much heavier than my usual holiday reading - I disappear into sci fi or fantasy to escape reality.
So off into the countryside somewhere before it gets too dark... enjoy the holiday if you are still off.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Scouts Sleep Over

Always looking to improve our "offer" at Catalyst we decided to take the plunge and have a Scout group sleeping the night. We have been asked to do this a few times but now with our new Director behind the idea all the other staff had to get invovled too!
44 scouts and leaders came in the snow to sleep over in our observatory which is a glass floor on the very top of the building. We kept the galleries open for them so it was fun to be able to stay when everyone else went home.
Lynn in our cafe made a great supper Hot Pot and then they watched a 3D movie in our theatre. Early next morning the education team and Lynn served breakfast and then we all made science pressies - we had done that with science club the week before so we were well set up.
Over night we had heavy snow but the scouts were really tucked up warm and said it was amazing being on the 4th floor with the snow falling and the Runcorn bridge all lit up.
Everyone really had a great time and it was certainly a super way to start the Christmas holidays.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Saturday Science Club

Last Saturday was the Christmas science club event - Scientific Santa!
The idea was that everyone could make pressies with a scientific basis.
So we made baths bombs - bicarbonate of soda and citric acid plus a few bits and bobs.
We used a thermo moulding plastic (biodegradable of course!)to create key rings and Christmas decorations - see the picture!
We used a variety of surfactants to make our own body wash with some very nice fragrances thanks to a local company who work with us on schools activities.
We printed T shirts with suitably festive images and we poured our own soap - again see the pics.
The soaps were a huge success - the colours are jewel like and they look a bit like wine gums!
We even helped to wrap everything up. Well I say we....anyone who knows me is very aware that I cannot wrap anything! Those grotty looking pressies under the tree - yes - they are from me!
So the extremely talented Carrie Anne used all of her amazing skills to create the most super looking gift wrapped goodies.
I have to say everyone had a great time - there were about 30 club members so the place was buzzing with activity.
Hope everyone enjoyed themselves - I certainly did. And a huge thank you to all the helpers who made it all possible - Helen, Carrie-Anne, Mike, Nick and Emma

Monday, 6 December 2010

Today's suggestions for Christmas science gifts

Went down to the Catalyst shop today to have a look around for scientific pressies. There are some really great ideas:
my top 5 gifts ....
* a great book Why is Snot green? from the Science Museum ( also explains how we can sneeze and fart at the same time!)
* Boom Splat Kabooey - a super kit for "explosive" science - just the sort I enjoy
* a crystal growing kit - we made some great copper sulphate crystals last month and these kits are a great way to start
* the slime laboratory - another kit but this one has all you ever needed to know about slime - and more!
* 100 chemistry experiments - one of those classic chemistry sets but this one really does have some chemicals in it... yes really!!

My top 5 stocking fillers
* alien oil - a glow in the dark slime
* Visual elements top trumps cards - the images are fascinating
* tornado tube - make your own tornado in a bottle
* a selection of 3D books with glasses
* instant snow - just couldn't resist this one - after all we haven't seen snow in such a long time!!

Now all I need are some big kids to try these out on.
Of course if you live anywhere near Catalyst in Widnes you could come and try them out for yourself

Thursday, 2 December 2010

science on a shoestring

The centre is becoming quieter as the holidays approach. Many schools are busy with nativity preparations and of course we have the snow!
So the Education Team are tackling some of those need to do jobs that we never have time for.
After trying to be very creative for a few days and come up with some new ideas for the holiday programme 2011 I think I have found a suitable balance.
What I didn't want to happen was what I did a few years ago when I advertised an almost totally brand new programme and as each school holiday approached I went into meltdown trying to write new shows and workshops. But as I said, last year I used all the old favourites so I need some new things for the coming year.
How about The Science of Your Summer Holidays - how does suncream work; what are freckles; can you make a great sandcastle; what makes the best sunglasses? And of course we will finish with ice cream - made with liquid nitrogen of course!
I also want to do a molecular trail around the building as part of the International Year of Chemistry 2011 celebrations. I have a little money to buy some great construction kits for making molecules but what I would really like to do is buy lots more and have a room full of people making molecules - it is actually good fun.
I need to come up with about 16 different events - 10 large and 6 smaller which is actually quite a supreme effort!
Of course we will make soap - we were a Victorian soap factory after all; and everyone loves the hands on bubbles workshop. Carrie Anne is going to create an Egyptian medicine show that will complement the Marvellous Medicine show so I think we will do that in February.
I don't think I can face another year of the chocolate show at Easter so I am going to create a slightly different take on sweet things - how about looking at why we like sweet things so much, what is does to our brains, can you taste without smelling too; chemical reaction sweets like honeycomb. I think that will go down well and of course we can always have the chocolate fountains at the end - it is after all easter!

Thursday, 25 November 2010

time to reflect

Having a couple of days off R&R and hoping to be creative about next years holiday programme. Catalyst has always put on public engagement events for visitors during the school holidays. We have come to the end of the 2010 season so I now have to put together the 2011 programme of activities. This should be fairly easy but.... we have just had the most successful year since 2006 and a fantastic summer.... so no pressure then!
This year I put together a programme that used all the old favourites and known crowd pullers because, as ever, money was tight and we needed a really good holiday season.
So I put on a giant bubbles session, we made soap and bath bombs, I did a super cool science show where we made and ate liquid nitrogen ice cream ( over 12 litres!!). Our public loved all this - add to it an incredibly successful Spooky Science October half term with sell outs on many days and you can see my dilemma - what do I do to top all that??
My team - the creative Carrie-Anne and the amazingly organised Helen - all work with me to put on this spectacular so this year we have had not only the main attraction but also hands on events in the lab and self guided fun in any available space we can use! Science busking in the galleries, 3D films in the theatre, puzzles in the Gossage room plus of course all the hands on exhibits on the 3 floors of the centre. That is alot for 3 people to organise - how I wish we had some really good, energetic volunteers that we could rope in for more than the odd day or two.
We have had some super volunteers in the past but often they can only offer an odd day here or there which is great but I can't plan around them so I need to create things that 3 of us can do.
I have a hands on show/workshop based around old fashioned medicines which could be re-invigorated and I would love to do something about the incredible things you can see down a microscope.
All this takes time - and money would be a bonus. I found an old folder with notes from 1998 about the holiday programme - it was all free then and they had a budget! Plus they actually bought in a guest speaker for one week - what luxury.
So obviously writing this blog is procrastination - I know what I should be doing - being creative! So I'd better go and do it......

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Student teachers need inspiration

Had 90 2nd year student teachers in at the Centre last week. Their tutor asked me to organise lots of hands on stuff so that they could really get to grips with actually doing some science rather than just reading about it or watching clips on you tube.
We had a good time but I found it really sad that they were so excited about what were basically very simple ideas for class experiments.They are all off on teaching placement in a couple of weeks and I have had so many e-mails from them asking for ideas and help with planning something suitable and safe that is still exciting. I don't have a problem doing this but what are their tutors doing? When I was at college it was the tutors you went to who help you to create great lessons especially in scicne and D&T.
This is the very reason that we have made the DVD for the RSC. I went to see the final edits last week - the close ups are amazing and even though I don't like watching myself I have to admit it is a pretty good DVD and if I was still in the classroom I would love to have it to inspire me. It should be out after Christmas and  it will be free - what more could you want.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Trying to be Creative!

Having a much needed day off with hubby Mike who has just got back from three weeks working in West Africa.
Time like this is precious so I am always surprised when my brain starts thinking about work again - usually I disappear into  sci fi book to stop that happening!
However today I have found myself being rather creative - I have been asked for some advice from someone at Imperial college about green chemistry demonstrations. Chemists are becoming more and more aware that many of the processes they use are not very "green" plus lots of our resources are beginning to run low so we need to think about how w can change the way we do things to use less resources, less energy and protect the planet more.
Lots of the super demonstrations that you see in science shows use quite nasty chemicals meaning that schools or the public can't do them. Of course that is why we all love to put them in our shows - it is what makes someone come to see us!
But I have discovered working at Catalyst with very little money, in a very basic lab and no real technical support that I can't do all those classic flash bangs and smelly smoke style demos. Plus I can't dispose of the chemicals safely afterwards.
So I have developed alternative things and apparently so have one or two other presenters - mostly Americans.
It isn't easy to take an experiment or demonstration and use benign resources that will still give the WOW effect. Most audiences want to know you are using something really dangerous or that you could blow yourself up - Brainiac is still very close to everyone's consciousness!!

After a spot of being creative I visited one of my favourite web sites TED and found a super lecture by Mandelbrot - the fractal guy who died last month. I did a huge chunk of my degree on fractals and think they are so wonderful. Mandelbrot called  them bottomless wonders - he was right! I find it fascinating that a simple shape formula repeated over and over can produce something so beautiful! What a mind he had - RIP Benoit Mandelbrot

Monday, 1 November 2010

I actually get paid to do this!!!

I really love my job!
Sharing science with people is great - watching them light up  as you do a demonstration that is just so cool that they can't help but enjoy themselves especially when they didn't expect to have a good time - that is magic.
When I am collecting the tickets before a show and I can see the expectation on the faces of the kids and then afterwards as they crowd round to ask how you did it all. That is such a good feeling. Yes I know I am a show off and I love the adrenalin rush of being on stage but I also really get a buzz from seeing people realise that science especially chemistry can be fascinating. Not just the flash bang stuff - Oh yes I do that sort of thing - but the colour changes, the stuff they can do at home and the slime!
Last week we had a super time with spooky science - this week a little more toned down with changing materials for primary schools but still great fun.
And I am so pleased with my pumpkin!!
Try this for a peek http://yfrog.com/7bhalloweenz

Friday, 29 October 2010

What a week!

Well Friday is here and boy what a week we have had. Tuesday and Wednesday especially were heaving with visitors
It has been huge fun - which is a good thing because we have worked very hard - but I am glad it is the end of the week. I don't think I could go at this pace all the time!
So a couple of days off to rest and recoup. Mike comes home from his West Africa trip today. He has been away for almost 3 weeks - I think he has missed me more than I have missed him! I have quite enjoyed the peace and quiet apart from Smartie the cat who has driven me mad!
He is so definitely Mike's cat and has wandered around the house miaowing after his dad, refusing to eat because it is me feeding him and even when he has gone out he has wandered around the garden calling after Mike. I have looked after him really well but he looks like a waif and stray. He got into a fight the other night so he has a tatty ear. Honestly! what drama!

Today's science with the public will be a breeze compared to Smartie.

So I am off to make up the chemicals for my seemingly magic tricks. Lots of colour changes and spooky smoke and of course the pumpkin. I am so impressed with myself and this pumpkin. I am going to see if we can take a video because it is so cool when the foam comes out of the eyes!!!
Still a child at heart!

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Spooky Science Show

This is half term and is one of our busiest school holidays of the year. So it is always very important to put on really exciting stuff for the very many visitors we expect. This time we have pulled out all the stops - which when you consider how few of us there are - we have really gone for it. Carrie Anne is doing a slime fest in the lab - about four different types if slime, goo and gloop. I am doing a spooky science show - which means lots of dry ice smoke, chemistry magic tricks and dressing up! I am a vampire all this week!
I first created this show four years ago and when I got the script out this year I was so surprised how simple the demos were - we have really come on in the last years.
So I have updated the show and I must say I am rather pleased with it. We still have some of the traditional tricks especially a cute one where we get out four very young volunteers and do a simple neutralisation disguised as a witches potion.
This time I have some really slimy alginate worms and instead of the usual elephants toothpaste, foam everywhere, type of finale I have carved a pumpkin and do the foam thing in it - the foam comes shooting out of the mouth and eyes and is totally gross - the kids love it!
We were amazingly busy today - which is great for the business - but I am absolutely wiped out and it is only Tuesday.
Tomorrow we have a private booking - a school holiday club - first thing and then we are putting on extra shows because we had sold all the tickets today by 2.00 so we need to be prepared. 
Of course that will probably be the kiss of death for visitor numbers and we will be quiet!!!

Saturday, 23 October 2010

First time for everything!

So here I go... this is my first blog. Yes I know, as a keen IT user why have I not done this before? 
Probably because I have never really had the time to sit and get it all sorted but I have just read such a great posting about the  Women Mean Business Conference, that I thought - here I am always going on about how my job is to inspire people to get into science and maths and I have never got to grips with the technology of a blog. So sad!

So who on earth am I and why am I doing this?
I work at a brilliant science centre called Catalyst. It is a small independent centre that has lots of hands on stuff for young and old to have a go at. We are special - we focus on chemistry! 
We started life as the Museum of the Chemical Industry - can you imagine! Museum and chemistry in the same sentence!! 
Actually the concept was great - the chemical heritage of the North West was fast disappearing so why not collect as much stuff together in one place as possible; especially if that place was an old chemical works. So Catalyst was born.
But museums have changed and people don't want to just read about the old days - so a much more hands on approach was needed and Catalyst did that by making a gallery of things to do and see that would inspire young and old alike.
We've been going for about 25 years and now offer workshops and activities for schools and families all based around Chemistry but exciting, colourful and making what can be  a scary subject accessible to everyone.
This is where I come in. 
I am the Education manager and my role is to create and deliver top quality experiences for schools and the general public.
Which is why on Monday I will be dressing up in my Dracula costume and doing Spooky Science shows; making more slime than you could ever wish to see and inspiring young and old to enjoy the magic that is a chemistry show.

So after a career as a medical technical officer, then a  teacher plus being a mum and lots of other things in between, I am now a professional science communicator and I actually get paid to show off. And boy! do I love to show off - my mum says she knew this all along but I have always said I am very shy. But put me on a stage and off I go... and this includes being on TV or radio or making professionally produced DVD with a film crew et al.
I would never have believed that this was where I would be now. I thought that I would be a teacher, probably a Head and couldn't envisage leaving the school grounds. But here I am with a class of over 25,000 each year. I even get asked for my autograph - how cool is that!!