Two hundred tubes of sweets, a toy tea-set, myriad dolly pegs, safety scissors and glue, aren’t my usual choice of essentials, when I head off to engage others with my research. But in March this year, I replaced my poster tube for some Smarties tubes, and my USB stick for a rubber hand, and set out, with some postgraduates to try to get the public at the Oxford Festival of Science excited about what we have been up to in the Department of Psychology, Social Work, and Public Health.It had been a challenge over the past few months to think of activities in which we could successively and safely engage hundreds of families, in a 3 x 2 metre tent. But eventually, we ended up with too many. We had vision goggles that turned the viewer’s world upside down (how easy is throwing a ball now…?), a demonstration of the rubber hand illusion, and reading by touch, with wooden letters. We had brain-shaped cookies to tempt visitors, courtesy of Brookes catering, and in a twist on an academic engagement favourite, lift-the-flap posters: how well do you know your brain? For my part, I ran tea parties for under-fours. This was a version of a non-lexical Stroop task, developed by Dale Hay. When you ask a child to give a big bowl and spoon to a little teddy, and a little bowl and spoon to a big teddy, children follow this instruction the wrong way round, giving the bigger things to the bigger teddy.
All was quiet as we finished setting up, with Op-Trix, our 3-D illusion cardboard Tyrannosaurus Rex, on the lookout for a photo’ opportunity. Most of the activities we had were new this year: had we done enough to encourage visitors to explore? And please don’t let it rain…. I needn’t have worried. It was one of the first sunny days of the year, and hundreds of families visited the tent in Bonn Square, and at the Science Bazaar, to try out their hand against our rubber one, and to test their brain’s capacity for deceiving them. In fact, some families wanted to stay long after the event had officially closed. I know I made well over 100 peg dolls, and we had no Smarties tubes left over*.
Afterwards, I was exhausted (there was no caffeine associated with any of the tea parties I gave…). That said, I’d do it again. The visitors’ enthusiasm gave me a motivational boost to get on with my research…. 🙂
*Fortunately Hoover and Milich (1994) have debunked the sugar-hyperactivity cause and effect link, so I officially take no responsibility for hyperactive children who may have been at this event.