|Lessons learned from "Catch A Comet" at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
[Image from the Royal Society's Facebook page of me at the exhibit. The comet nucleus model with pockets containing molecular models is in front of me. The lander model is just visible in the middle in the background. I look knackered. This is because when this photo was taken, I had just begun my fourth 4-hour shift on the stand in three days, after handling delivery and supervising setup the previous weekend.]
I'm still recovering from the exhibition despite finishing my last shift on the stand at mid-afternoon on Thursday. The exhibit finished on Sunday at 1800, after which it was packed down and shipped back to the Open University in Milton Keynes.
StarkeyStardust and I almost single-handedly designed the stand, commissioned the interactive elements of the exhibit, weaseled the giveaways from ESA (thanks to Project Scientist mggttaylor), rounded up volunteers, organised the rota and arranged for delivery, setup and breakdown of the exhibit. Our nominal superiors got us the funding (which was helpful and not to be sneezed at). But most of the last five months' worth of work has been done exclusively by the two of us, in addition to our usual full-time jobs.
I learned some things about myself over the course of the organisation, which I felt the need to record.
- I'm not a natural media person. I can come across okay if I make an effort, but I don't enjoy it the way StarkeyStardust does. She is a natural, relaxed and effective communicator. Granted, she's had more media training than I have, but she also has a talent for it that I don't. She took on nearly all the press obligations during the exhibition. Beforehand, I thought I might have wanted to share the limelight, but as it turns out, I much prefer being a power behind the throne, as it were, rather than sitting on it myself. In Yes Minister terms, I'm probably a bit of a Bernard at the moment, with aspirations to become a Dorothy.
- The more volunteers, the better. We were told we would need at least four people on the stand at all times. I did most of the organisation of the rota which is a much more time-consuming task than most people estimate. I knew from previous experience (I've either helped design or volunteered at the RSSE since 2011) that ideally we would have at least six people on the stand at all times, but I should have recruited harder as there were times when we had only four scheduled and that really is the bare minimum. Especially when someone drops out, as a few people nearly always do. In the end we had 42 volunteers, five of whom had to drop their sessions. Also, I should not have put StarkeyStardust officially on the stand as much as she wanted me to. Four sessions over the course of the week really should be the maximum amount anyone does. Everyone underestimates how draining it is being on your feet talking and being enthusiastic for four hours straight.
The exhibition keeps running for longer every year as well (it used to open on a Monday and close on a Thursday). If I were to do it again, I would ensure I had at least 50 volunteers and that none of them were officially scheduled for more than four sessions. As it was I was worried because we had a few that I never even met because they didn't come to the dry run and they were scheduled at the weekend when I wasn't there. I know now that as long as they confirm they're coming, it isn't a problem.
- Do not try to stuff too many things into the exhibit space. I knew this one already which is why we only had two interactives, and was worried about how huge the lander model is. Its footprint is 1.5 metres by 1.5 metres and our space was 4 metres by 2 metres. Funnily enough this wasn't our biggest problem; it was the bases for the backdrop, which we hadn't realised were stupidly bulky, totalled 5 metres in length and were mostly useless. We ended up having to get rid of half of the backdrop in order to fit everything in and make it look decent.
- Small items that are part of the interactives will get nicked no matter how vigilant you think you're being. A few of our molecular models went walkabout, and our "comet without nucleus" magnet and replacement "comet without nucleus" magnet (a London bus fridge magnet with a cartoon drawing stuck to it, see here, were both spirited away.
- Be prepared for people to drop out of the soirees. This, I admit, was something we didn't anticipate. Most people love going to the Royal Society soirees and will angle for an invite. Both people who dropped out of the soirees (one each on Wednesday and Thursday night) did so on very short notice - mid-day on the day of the soiree. We managed to scare up replacements, but I think next time it would be clever to ask a postgrad volunteer who has put in a lot of sessions to be a backup attendee for an "important" guest at each of the soirees. They were the ones who ended up getting the places anyway, and they deserved them.
- Chase up the university press office for publicity. Both Imperial and the OU let us down a bit on that front, I have to admit. We got a bit of coverage, but not really enough before the actual event to build interest.
- Focus on only one social media outlet, or recruit volunteers to generate content. We tried to run a Tumblr and a Twitter just between the two of us before the exhibition. That was a mistake - we just about managed the Twitter account but couldn't keep up the Tumblr. Then, during the Twitter Q&A the week before the exhibition, we gave the Twitter account password to a few more people and suddenly it became way, way easier to maintain. I know this is a basic lesson of social media networking, but I've never really tried to do it myself as my accounts have always been exclusively personal.
- Don't get pregnant during the run-up to the exhibition. Fighting nausea whilst trying to work an extra two hours every day after your normal work is done and you've put the baby to bed and all you want to do is go to sleep? Yeah, that sucks.
To make myself feel better, here are the things I think we did well.
- Communicate regularly but not overwhelmingly with our volunteers. We tried to put a good deal of useful information into our group e-mails and send them sparingly. Also, we thanked them promptly after the exhibition even though none of us even wanted to think about it on Monday, which I think was good form.
- Pay people to do the stand design properly. Neither of us had the time or the necessary expertise to do it ourselves. It was much better to commission artists to make the comet nucleus model and the mechanical workshop at Imperial to make the Pin the Tail on the Comet interactive.
- Don't reinvent the wheel. For instance, I knew that purplecthulhu had helped design the Herschel and Planck stands at previous RSSEs, and so I asked him where to get shirts printed and for permission to reuse their rota spreadsheet. He provided these and many more helpful tips. (He definitely earned his soiree place!) Natalie knew that the backdrop for the Stardust exhibit some years ago had been stored at the OU, so she tracked that down and had the same person who did the design for the posters reuse his template for the Catch A Comet exhibit.
- Communicate enthusiastically and effectively with the public about SCIENCE. This is the whole point of the exhibition, and I think we managed it well in the end.
This entry was originally posted at http://nanila.dreamwidth.org/933537.html. The titration count is at .0 pKa.