Mars Bars, White Heat and dads: Brighton Science Festival 2013 inspires families

By Ben Miller | 13 February 2013

Festival preview: Brighton Science Festival, various venues, Brighton, until March 3 2013

A photo of two young girls enjoying themselves carrying out a foil-based science trick
© Colleen Slater
Although Brighton’s annual science month has been well regarded for its accessibility and sense of fun since launching eight years ago, there’s a definite anti-curricular sense to this year’s ethos.

Popular fixtures such as Philosophy in Pubs, Café Scientifique and poetry slam Hammer and Tongue return for adults (as well as the usual insights into love and sex), but the core of the programme is aimed at 12-14 year-olds.

“When they arrive in secondary school from primary school they are fired up with enthusiasm for science,” says Richard Robinson, the Festival Director.

“Within two years they hate it. Why? The government has recognised the problem and fiddled with the school curriculum, trying to make it more user-friendly, but that hasn’t worked.”

The cause, he believes, is down to a rigorous rather than forgiving formula for teaching, as well as a lack of family participation which, he reasons, would be inconceivable were school sports days to be as deserted as science classrooms.

The antidote is exemplified by the festival’s designated family days, including the determinedly hands-on central White Heat Sunday.

“They are there for parents and their children to play, experiment, discover and share the experience,” says Robinson.

“One year, at the Family Fun Days, a big man entered the room with his two young children and surveyed the turmoil around him. Hove Park Upper School was heaving with 1,000 mums, dads and kids, playing with 60 different kinds of science delight.

“In this particular room the challenge was to build a bridge across a 40cm gap strong enough to support as many Mars bars as possible, using only four sheets of paper.

“The dad’s eyes lit up. He said, ‘stand aside kids – this one’s for me.’ For the next 15 minutes he was immersed in the task.

“As I watched, I didn’t worry that the kids were being ignored. I knew that they were going to be engineers when they grew up, because imitation is the key to career.

“What the parents enjoy, that’s what the kids will enjoy. We hope to make science so irresistible to young students that the A-level courses are flooded with applicants.

“Everyone needs a science festival. It’s the best way to discover where we came from, deal with where we are and debate where we might go in the future.”

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