Regular volunteer Chris Hamlett tells us about the chemistry activities at CoCoMAD festival, which he organised and ran alongside fellow volunteers from BrumSciComm.
If you go down to Cotteridge Park in south Birmingham on the first Saturday of July you will find thousands of people singing, dancing, eating ice cream and generally having a whale of a time. Welcome to the CoCoMAD festival (Cotteridge Community Music, Arts and Dance), which is run by the Friends of Cotteridge Park (FoCP) and has been every year since 1997.
I live a stone’s throw from the park – I have been to this fantastic festival a few times and felt like it could really benefit with some science outreach events to get the public enthused in science.
With this in mind I approached FoCP, along with Naomi Green, co-founder of #BrumSciComm – a community for science outreach enthusiasts in the Birmingham area. We offered to put on some science activities at the festival, and they thought it was a great idea. They asked us to run a science activity tent, do some science busking around the festival site, and give some talks in the CoCoLounge.
I was tasked with organising the hands-on activities in the science tent, and I drew on my experience of being an RSC STEM ambassador, and having represented Nottingham Trent University in their outreach activities.
Once the activities were finalised I got on with ordering equipment – with the help of an RSC Outreach Fund small grant – and my front room started to filling up with boxes of kit. A big thank you has to go out to my wonderful wife Kathryn for putting up with this!
As I live right by the park the day started out with walking the dog around the festival site to get a feel for where we would be located for the day and found that we had a prime location right beside the skatepark.
I then started filling our tent with the contents of my front room but, upon unpacking the Mission Starlight equipment I was horrified to find that the UV sensitive beads had already changed colour – a bit of an oversight as I had not expected such a sunny day!
So I quickly ran home and got a big cardboard box in which to keep the beads. Once they were in the tent, they seemed to work OK and stayed colourless for long enough to allow the UV-blocking behaviour of various materials to be investigated.
Our volunteers were quickly attracting visitors to our tent by blowing bubbles, demonstrating the water repellent properties of lotus leaves, and other busking activities.
In the meantime, I was first up on stage in the CoCoLounge. With the help of my 2-year-old daughter Betty I demonstrated the wonders of surfactants, using dyed water and washing up liquid solution. One of our volunteers, Aimee, then discussed the individuality of fingerprints before Naomi, along with another volunteer, Caroline, orchestrated a quiz in which the audience were split into teams and had to name elements alphabetically, with higher points awarded for the most obscure.
The tent was packed when we returned but the volunteers were doing a sterling job and the visitors were really enjoying it. There was great interest in the Wonder of Surfaces activities, in which we ran a leaderboard for how long participants could balance a water droplet on a duck feather and Mission Starlight was also drawing a crowd.
In the afternoon we packed up Mission Starlight and set up the Water experiment. Participants had to compare the water absorbent properties of kitchen sponges and nappies by weighing them before and after saturating them with water – it was like a nappy advert but it got the parents talking!
Naomi and I then took to the CoCoLounge stage again to present the data we had collected during the day’s experiments. It turned out that yellow – closely followed by green – is the best coloured cellophane for blocking UV radiation; someone had managed to balance a water droplet on a duck feather for an average of 52 seconds; and nappies absorb more than twice the volume of water than a standard kitchen sponge.
We received some excellent feedback from visitors, with one parent saying, "I think we might have a new scientist in the family, thanks to the CoCoMAD Scientists at CoCoMAD!"
We had the most fantastic day and can’t wait to do it all again next year!
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