Monday, 13 June 2011

University of Nottingham Mayfest - Part 1 - The Event

Universities have long had "Open Days" for propsective students, but having such events for the local population is a much more recent, and very welcome, phenomenon.

Nottingham University had their first open day for the community in 2009. The success of this initial event resulted in a bigger and better open day in 2010 and then in this years extravaganza called "Mayfest".

A free, day-long occasion held on May 7th, Mayfest is perhaps best descibed in the words of the programme - "Old favourites return to sit alongside many exciting new activities. The fantastically popular 'Thunder and Lightning' sessions are back, you can find out what it takes to be a vet, try some brain games or chat with scientists in the labs about the world-leading research being carried out on your
doorstep. Or you could explore our campus with a tour of the secret gardens. We’re a major employer in the region, so you’ll also be able to find out about opportunities to work or study here."

The programme goes on to give a comprehensive listing of all the events taking place which cover subjects as diverse as archaeology, astronomy, biology, geography, physics and eco-housing !

Having been to the (much smaller) 2009 event and enjoyed it tremendously, BFTF was very excited about the 2011 gig and found that, quite simply, there was not enough time in the day to fit in all the stuff that there was to do and see. The wee ones also really enjoyed the event, especially the "Thunder and lightning" demonstration. . .

Now, if you only remember one thing about science lessons at school it is likely to be the experiment where the teacher showed what happens when lithinum is put in water, or the one where mangnesium reacts with a ferocious white flame to form magnesium oxide. Well, in "Thunder and Lightning" they took it to the next level. High points included the spectacular ammonium dichromate "Volcano reaction" (the clue is in the name) in which the amount of material present after the reaction seemed to be a lot more than there was before it; the rather loud "Barking Dog" reactions that demonstrated how flame fronts propagate and a series of demonstrations of the chemistry of some explosive compounds. This latter part of the programme included firing a wax candle from a breech loading musket through three layers of plywood and also a demonstrantion on how small amounts of explosive can bend metal plates (and make a bang so loud that it will leave your ears ringing ! Utterly top quality stuff- guaranteed to make science seen interesting and exciting. BFTF will certainly be there next year.

Later, in the physics department, BFTF was able to see the Universities telescopes and see live images of sunspots on the. . .er. . .sun. Also, a range of experiments and demonstrations were on show, including a desktop microscope that can resolve down the atomic level (let me say that again - it can see individual atoms!!!) and experiments involving liquid nitrogen (there seems to be no limit to the fun that can be had with this cryogenic material).

Moving to the Portland Building, where further activites were on show, BFTF was able to "fly" around a 3-D model of the lake disrict in the geography section, move a ball through the power of thought alone in the biology section and talk to a researcher from the "science and society" department about the assessing the risks of introducing new technologies.

This last point touches on something that is a wonderful feature of open days such as Mayfest - you can talk to the researchers and students who are working in these specialised fields. Now, it is certainly the case that students are called students for a reason, and it is remarkably easy to trip them up by asking the most innocent of questions. Most memorably in Mayfest 2011, asking a physics student about how light rays in a fibre optic cable "knew" whether to bounce off or go through the outer wall of the fibre resulted in the student saying that this was a very good question and that he would need to find out the answer in the library that night!). In contrast, talking to the senior researchers is rarely anything other than a fascinating learning experience that brings the opportunity to see many aspects of a field that the mainstream media simply does not report.

Sadly, as mentioned earlier, there simply was not time to see everything, so BFTF missed out on the chance to see how Nottingham Universtity is a Human Rights Hub, any of the Engineering displays, the interactive poetry areas, the Philosophy section, the Archaeology section. . .well, I think you get the picture.

The event was certainly very well attended, by both parents and children alike and numbers did not noticeably drop until the University staff started packing up at about 5pm.

It is worth mentioning that Nottingham University (as is the case with many other Universities) has a calendar of public lectures on various topics. These are a great way of learning about a field of study from an expert in the area. There is always a question and answer session, so you can quiz the presenter if you feel that they are missing a trick or if you want to clarify a point.

One need not feel restricted to lectures in a subject that you are knowledgeable about, public lectures are a great opportunity to find out more about topics that are in the news (for instance Nottingham

University has just had a public lecture on "European Politics in 90 minutes") or are simply interesting (such as another recent lecture entitled "Why do chemists want to make new molecules")

These lectures are, in BFTF's experience, invariably a great learning experience, and offer a chance to hear about topics from experts in their field without the distorting lens of the media gettting in the way.

For parents, particularly those of children in secondary school (and if you the youngsters are interested), public lectures provide an opportunity and reason to actually visit a University and to see what the buildings and lecture theatres are like. This can only help break down any fears a youngster may have about higher education. Also they get a chance to see, at first hand, the enthusiasm of researchers and the kind of teamwork that is characteristic of research activities. It is a real eye opener to hear the efforts that people go to in order to find answers to the questions they are puzzling over.

So there you go. University Public Open Days and Public Lectures. Its all Good.

Find out about the actions that this event provoked in part two of this posting - here.


Further infornation:
University of Nottingham Mayfest
University of Nottingham Institute for Science and Society
University of Nottingham Community Engagement

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