Shaun Adams has spent the placement year of his university course gaining experience of science communication
BLOG: My placement
Hello, you might be wondering why I have my own little segment on the website? I would like to give a brief insight into what it’s like working at Cheltenham Science Group (CSG), why I am here and a bit of back story to who I am.
I should probably introduce myself, even though some of you may already know me. I am Shaun and I am doing a sandwich course at Bournemouth University. Doing a sandwich course does not mean I am learning to make sandwiches (although I wish it could have been sometimes). It means I get to take a year out to work in an industry related to my course, which is biological sciences by the way. I was told by my peers that it can be quite hard to get a decent placement within my course requirements as there is loads of competition. So, I did what every panicking student does and started to look for a placement early. Not finding anything that I liked I gave up and focused on my studies. In hindsight this was not a great idea, as I would be panicking even worse later.
This panicking did indeed happen towards the end of the academic year. However, I had now discovered the area of industry I wanted to move into: I wanted to talk about science but not in a class room. A bit of panicking later, I found PGL science outreach. I contacted them but they wanted me to have completed my degree for the placement. This misses the whole point of a sandwich course… I haven’t completed my degree yet. So the year was over, and I had confirmed that I was doing a year’s placement, even though I had not figured that part out yet. So, I went to my last resort and looked for something near my home in Gloucestershire and CSG popped up in the google search. I had a life line as I was beyond the point of no return as I couldn’t revert back to the no placement 3 years course.
Understanding that CSG was a small not for profit community enterprise, I fully expected not to be paid on this placement. This was ok because most of the placement opportunities regarding my course would have been unpaid, for example research positions. This did not concern me much as it was something that I really wanted to do. Knowing this, I wrote an email that I reread probably 9 or 10 times to make sure it was perfect. Nervously, I plucked up the courage and finally sent it hoping that I would get the placement. To my surprise a day later I got a reply. They were willing to try and fill my 30 hours a week for 30 weeks placement. I'd done it; I had an idea of what I was going to be doing this year.
I turned up for an informal chat in a shirt and tie, and instantly felt overdressed. This was the first and last time I would wear a shirt and tie to work. Meeting Dave for the first time was terrifying for me. This chat could have changed his mind on my placement opportunity. However, it went well, and Dave was open and laid out the plans for me. I agreed, and he allowed me to explore the science centre. The red puzzle that we have at CSG took me an hour to solve without any help and to this day he still brings this up. Cheers Dave.
After receiving a DBS check and my safety talk - “Just use common sense” stood out for me - I was set to work in the centre meeting and greeting customers. This was great. I got to share my passion for science in fun and creative ways using the exhibits to help explain scientific concepts.
The first challenge
In the first meeting with Dave, I had told him that I had run a couple workshops. This led him to throw me right in at the deep end: create a workshop relating to my area of study. This was quite difficult as practical elements for this area are either expensive or done in schools already.
Anyway, I had an idea to drug Daphnia (Water Fleas) to see what different drugs did to their hearts - by drugs I mean coffee and alcohol. After budgeting, planning, and refining, Dave and I reviewed the work I had done and we both agreed this was a good task to practice the planning skills I would later use.
The first half term
So, the centre and the CSG work schedule is very intertwined with the terms of schools. As the more popular times are during school holidays. Within the first term, I focused on networking and meeting multiple people that would help me throughout my placement. One of these was when we went to Campden BRI. Their focus was food research; just the idea of working with food all day was super interesting for me. This turned out to be great fun, having a look at their facilities and obtaining valuable contacts that can help with my dissertation, which is looking at metal poisoning within wheat plants.
The second half term
This is where the placement started to get going. I was tasked with coming up with ideas for the drop-in STEM club for the new year. These are the fortnightly STEM related workshop/experiments that we run.
So, of course I chose messiest ones I could! These ranged from making soap to modelling bacteria.
A lot of traveling was done so no place was the same. We ran parties and workshops for local uniformed groups - seeing the excitement and awe on the faces of the participant’s faces was rewarding.
During this period CSG started planning the Christmas lecture with Prof Adam Hart from the University
of Gloucestershire. I got to be involved with the experiments demonstrated, including the dangerous screaming jelly babies, which we didn’t do live. Reason? Well, the Centre was filled with smoke which strangely smelt of candy floss. If you could see us at that time we had flat packed cardboard boxes trying to waft the vast amounts of smoke out the door. What a sight to be seen!
After Christmas, things started to ramp up as I was given more responsibility.
I was tasked with running and planning workshops and even taking responsibility for a district event for the guides and brownies in the Gloucestershire area. I also prepared a bid for Cheltenham Borough Homes to get an 8 week course of workshops. We got the job! We were going to be doing a set of weekly workshops with the group so the young people could obtain a Crest Award each.
Half term and beyond
Spring half term was hectic to say the least. Within one week we smashed our target of 150 visitors with a total of 332 visitors throughout the week. We also ran our first robotics club which turned out to be super popular with 130 plus visitors in one day. Within the first 10 minutes we had 48 people in our small science centre. Even though we had some hiccups on the day, we now run a successful robot club regularly.
This job has some early starts, for example when we had to travel to the Avoncroft Museum in Bromsgrove for a week long pop-up science centre during Worcestershire's half term.
In March, I was “let loose on my own” with my first event which was an aspiration event called the GLA Tycoons where the pupils from Gloucester Learning Alliance had visitors from outside companies come in and run mini workshops relating to the jobs they do. Mine was obviously about CSG however I related it to university as that I how I got to where I am today. After the event the pupils made some thank you letters which were really cute.
The rest of this term was focused on planning and running the STEM clubs as well as the code club that we run with Create on the Square. The code club for this part of the year was given to me to plan even though I had no history and knowledge of coding. However, I came up with the idea of working with HTML and websites which, the members seemed to enjoy. Through the code club, I have picked up the basics of coding python and HTML.
Easter to the end
I have got to say that these last few months of this placement were the busiest. The Guiding district event was in May with 132 participants. The first group had stations with activities relating to their science badge and the second older group made a table tennis ball rollercoaster. It was a very big learning curve for me to plan, organise and run this event, but it ran smoothly and was great fun.
CSG also went to the RHS Malvern flower show. I have never been to one before, so I had no clue what to expect. The days were fairly chilled out and the weather was nice. I think it would have been a completely different experience if the weather was bad. Here we showed the families the technologies that were
brand new in the Great Exhibition of 1851. These included hydraulics, microscopes, Sterling Engines
and weaving with looms.
Finally before I finished my placement we went to the Cheltenham Science Festival. We were running the Slime Factory, so I spent the 6 days explaining how slime formed from crosslinking of the PVA glue, and of course making it. Dave and I saw roughly 4500-5000 people and got through 150 Litres of glue - completely cleaning out the Cheltenham craft stores of their glue stocks. Now I’m sick of slime!
This placement has been a great eye opener into the world of Science Communication. I have been taught some valuable skills relating to planning and organising. I have also learnt new ways to demonstrate science safely and in a manner that could be done at home. There has been so much that has been going on I have only been able to write about some of the highlights. Now that I have completed my placement, I would urge anyone that might be thinking of doing a placement or to volunteer to get involved. You gain loads of life skills and connections that you will inevitably use later in life.