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The University of Southampton

Bringing chemistry to life for new audiences

Chemistry researchers at Southampton are sharing their passion for science with a wider audience through a series of innovative hands-on activities, helping the public to learn more about electrochemical processes and the impact of scientific research on everyday life. The activities have led to more than 6,000 face-to-face interactions at large-scale events, and to the installation of a permanent exhibit at Winchester Science Centre that has been visited by more than 35,000 people.

Research challenge and context

Generating public interest and trust in science and technology is an important part of the University’s work. As well as demonstrating how fundamental research leads to benefits in our daily lives, it can demystify what happens in university labs and give an insight into the working life of researchers. It can also play a role in encouraging young people to study science subjects and to see research as a potential career path. 

The challenge lies in designing enjoyable, informative activities that will capture people’s attention and give them the opportunity to learn from, and talk to, researchers.

Our solution

Electrochemical Circus logo

The researchers have created the Electrochemical Circus, a collection of public engagement activities that act as a gateway for new audiences into the world of synthetic chemistry, electrochemistry and materials chemistry. Framed in a context that people can easily relate to – consumer electronics and the demand for smaller, faster and smarter devices – the activities explain underpinning scientific principles and highlight research advances that have taken place at Southampton. 

The activities include making a personalised, gold-plated fingerprint, which gives an insight into the process of electrodeposition (a way of making metallic coatings), and controlling a ‘water transistor’ – a model that uses water to represent electric current – that shows how the switches used in electronic devices work. 

Having identified key messages and learning outcomes tailored to specific research areas, the researchers continue to optimise the activities through a cycle of rigorous testing, evaluation and development. 

What was the impact?

Since 2014 the researchers have interacted with 6,000 people at large-scale events such as the National Big Bang Fair, Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, Southampton Science and Engineering Festival and CHEMFEST at the Science Museum in London. Feedback from participants demonstrated an improved understanding of the concepts underpinning electroplating, for example, and an increase in the number of people who could correctly identify a transistor as an electrically operated switch. 

The gold fingerprinting activity has proved incredibly popular – at the four-day CHEMFEST event more than 800 visitors got involved in making fingerprints. The process takes two to three minutes, allowing time for the researchers to talk to each participant about the underlying science and its relevance to modern life.

Winchester science centre

The water transistor inspired a permanent exhibit at the Winchester Science Centre, which received more than 35,000 visitors between January and September 2019. The exhibit includes a working water transistor model, alongside modules that demonstrate how transistors enable computers to make calculations, and a video explaining the underpinning research and introducing the researchers involved. The video was played 2,630 times between January and August 2019, and responses to a touch-screen questionnaire showed that 76.5 per cent of people found the water transistor enjoyable to use, with 65 per cent stating that it helped them to understand how transistors work. Further in-person evaluation showed that before interacting with the exhibit, around 35 per cent of people recognised the word transistor and knew of their role in modern electronics. After viewing the exhibit this increased to 80 per cent and 75 per cent respectively. 

Both activities featured in a series of Electrochemical Circus school visits at Winchester Science Centre in June and July 2019. Particular schools were invited in order to reach groups who are currently underrepresented in science and technology sectors. Evaluation showed that children enjoyed the workshops and gained new knowledge about electronics and chemical reactions. In addition, questionnaires conducted following a number of Electrochemical Circus activities have shown that they increased people’s likelihood of studying or encouraging others to study science subjects.

What’s related?

Electrochemical Circus

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