By Diana Pearce, an ecologist and freelance science and museum communicator, who has set up Flashmob science .
When I was about eight years old, one of my first experiences of science in the field was going on a woodland walk. I’m not sure of the location but it is an experience that has stuck with me to this day. On the walk I was shown which trees were deciduous or evergreen and which trees produced edible fruits.
The warden who was leading the walk pointed out that one of the trees that I was stood under was a sweet chestnut tree (Castanea sativa) and if I looked hard enough I would find chestnuts which looked similar to the ones I played fierce games of ‘knockout conkers’ with. However these chestnuts were different, he explained. I could eat them!
I cracked open a chestnut casing and held the shiny brown fruit up towards the warden. “So, these are what the chestnut sellers sell to my mum at Christmas in Leeds? We put salt and butter on them and eat them hot!” The rather surprised-looking warden confirmed that they were the same. So I, thinking of my stomach, asked if I could collect some and take them home. “Well yes,” the warden said, “but you have to ask your mum, when you get home, to boil them for a few minutes in salt water so that they don’t explode in the oven while roasting”.
I spent the rest of that woodland walk collecting chestnuts, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. The trip was made all the more interesting to me because I was able to make the connection between the environment we live in, and the food that we eat. I also learnt that conkers and edible chestnuts were different. That afternoon sparked my love for learning about our environment and ultimately set me on the path to becoming an ecologist.
Now I am lucky enough to work with buzzards, research into the diet of wild hares/rabbits, climb thirty-foot Douglas fir trees, map and archive bridleways, sink into waist deep heather bog in Scotland and calculate flood drainage using innovative GIS technology, as well as working in museums. But how can I get other enthusiastic children, young people and curious grown-ups exploring science for themselves, just like I did on that woodland walk?
This is where the Flashmob Science project was born – a short, punchy, fun and informal introduction to any science subject, that uses a combined talk, demonstration and Q+A session. The project aims to break down the barriers to scientific information because science isn’t scary, it’s fun! Learning activities are provided and tailored to both the subject area and the target audience. For example, we ask the participants to take themselves through the stages that a field scientist would in order to identify an ‘unknown’ plant.
The flashmob part is incredibly important though. What we want is for people to congregate somewhere for 45 minutes or so, and really get stuck in, exploring the often overlooked side of science. It doesn’t matter whether it is a school hall, an old army base, woodland or a hillside. The important bit is to get people to think critically about their surroundings and ask the questions that could spark the enthusiasm of a future scientist!