Getting Stressed at the Lancashire Science Festival

Getting Stressed at the Lancashire Science Festival

Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum. Christmas has just come early for this little girl. Instantly her face lights up as only a child’s face does when something so ordinary and everyday is discovered for the very first time. Today that discovery is the sound of her own heartbeat, a gift I felt privileged to have given her. After proceeding to then listen to my own heartbeat as well as her parents she resentfully handed back the stethoscope before turning to discover the next piece of the world in this cave of wonders. She wasn’t the first that I suspected just wanted to listen to the heartbeats of everyone (including soft toy companions) she came across today and as it turned out she wouldn’t be the last either.

This cave of wonders is in fact just the University of Central Lancashire’s (UCLan) sports hall but today and for the 2 previous days it has been a hive of all things science for this is the Lancashire Science Festival (for more info on the festival see here). From 3D printing and static electricity to virtual reality and playing with magnets and liquid nitrogen the hall was full of the wonders of all aspects of science and the people who love it and who want to share their passion, inquisitiveness and knowledge with the next generation. People that want not only to spark young people’s imagination but to ignite those young person’s very own fire within (well, not literally because I’m not really into burning people).

I feel slightly ashamed that the Lancashire Science Festival is my first proper science outreach adventure as it is something that I have been wanting to do for a while. However, it did not disappoint! I formed part of the Physiology Society’s team of enthusiastic volunteers in the biology big top area of the science showfloor (a.k.a the sportshall). Following a quick briefing about the activities we were helping to run over the next few days and dressed to impress in our ‘I love physiology’ t-shirts we were all set to engage our audience about the effects of stress on the body.

Getting Stressed

I’m not going to lie, it took watching our fearless (but super friendly) leader, Anisha, a few times before I felt truly ready to throw myself into the paths of wandering school children. Bracing myself for kids that were just not interested in what I had to say to them I approached a small group of primary school aged children. I needn’t have worried. They were full of questions as only children are and while some were not really that aware of exactly what stress is (personally considering their age I think this isn’t a bad thing) they were really excited to get involved.

We were running 2 main activities in our area of the biology big top and as it was still fairly quiet this first group were able to get involved in both. After talking to them about stress they then added their own post-it notes to our wall about what makes them stressed. Over the 3 days we gathered a wide variety of answers from your expected responses such as exams, homework and being late, to your not so normal answers such as ‘getting out of bed’ and ‘the teacher being dumb’ (what do you expect when you ask a young person such an open question?)

What makes you stressed?
What makes you stressed?

The 2nd activity, and far more popular, was a mini stress experiment. After measuring the participant’s blood pressure and heart rate we would then expose them to either a mental or physical stress. The mental stress consisted of playing whack-a-mole – a version of the popular arcade game where you hit the mole when it lights up- while being asked maths questions. Evil, I know right?

I had a go, to errm test it out, and one of my fellow volunteers challenged me to count backwards from 100. Not so bad I thought. She then added in 7s.

‘Oh errm.. 100, 93… errr…86. Yeah I’m out’

A few of our participants were amazingly good at this (unlike me) while some heard the word maths and immediately opted for the physical stressor, the cold pressor test. This basically involved sticking your hand in an ice-cold bucket of water for 1 minute (we toned it down to 30secs for the younger children because we’re not harsh). The shock on each participant’s face as they realised how cold the water actually was followed by the realisation that a whole 60 seconds doing this was far longer than they had realised was an interesting little additional study in itself. While most showed clear signs of discomfort, squirming and fidgeting in their seat, increasing their breathing rate and even providing a running commentary on just how they were feeling, there were others that sat quite still with a wry smile on their face that said ‘this isn’t that cold’.

Getting ready for the cold pressor test
Getting ready for the cold pressor test

Once we had suitably stressed our victims participants out we remeasured their blood pressure and heart rate. What would you expect to happen? Well if you said something like they would go up then congratulations you’re a winner!

If you know anything about science though, then you will know that it doesn’t always go to plan. That is precisely what happened to us. Yes we got the majority of people’s blood pressure and heart rate to increase but we also had participants who seemingly reacted to these stressors by relaxing or only their blood pressure or their heart rate would change. That’s science guys!

We did make sure that everyone left with the message that stress affects your body and chronic stress is not good for you. Plus a great big smile on their face and a sticker!

Our Secret Weapon

But what about the little girl and the stethoscope you mentioned at the beginning? How does she fit in? Well I’m glad you asked. The stethoscopes it seemed were our secret weapons. Used as a hook to bring people to our stand because, you know, who doesn’t want to hear the own heartbeat/pretend they are a doctor? Even better still, they made talking to the youngest children about the way their body works so much easier.

My Personal Highlight

I loved my time at the science festival, interacting with children and seeing them learn and try new things. It gave me the same kick I used to get while teaching swimming. I even got to check out the Heavy Metal Marine Biologist, Blowfishes show! My highlight of the festival however came in the evening. I got the chance to meet and chat to some of the other science communicators – the actual guys doing the shows at the festival. This is a group of people whose job it is to present science to an audience that might not totally get it when they walk through the door but by the end have a different perspective on it. Perhaps even an interest.

The world's only Heavy Metal Marine Biologist - Blowfish
The world’s only Heavy Metal Marine Biologist – Blowfish

While they openly admitted that they are never going to be millionaires doing this type of work, they are clearly not in it for the money. I can only describe the atmosphere around the table as exhilarating. I learnt so many things about different areas of science in such a short time. Just little tidbits like how the red blood cell of a camel is a different shape and how certain cheeses are covered in cheese mites (there’s one to put you off cheese!) to name a couple. I was already feeling more in love with science than I had been for a long while but just being surrounded by this group of people reminded me of how I used to feel about it, before the PhD journey, even before university full stop. Back in school when every lesson there was something new to learn and the experiments were as much fun as they were educational.

I eventually dragged myself away from this inspiring, addictive, bubble of science in order to get some sleep for the following day. Only the bubble hadn’t popped yet, I was still in it riding high on a wave of science love.

I Will Be Back!

I originally signed up to do the festival on the advice of my brother who had worked it the previous 2 years and loved it. I can totally see why it’s a great festival showcasing a wide variety of science in an area of the country that these kind of events don’t often reach. Outreach/communication is something I believe we should all be doing as it’s fun, challenging and you can see the impact you are having on people right there in front of you. If nothing else it will help remind you of why you got into science in the first place.

You get to see how even the simplest of concepts can engage, entertain and even inspire young people as it once did you. I saw science, specifically physiology, through the eyes of children while at the festival a sight I want to continue to remember.

I am sure this won’t be my last outreach adventure.


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