An Interview With Telus World Of Science “We’re the place that gets to inspire people”

Don’t expect to see this often but last week I managed to branch out into almost, sort of, kind of real journalism and had a sit-down interview with the Science Director at the Telus World Of Science, Jennifer Bawden. We talked about the upcoming International Science Centre Day, Angry Birds Universe, Research Zone and what else they have going on.

Nerd List: What exactly does being “Science Director” entail?
TWOSE (Jennifer Bawden): It’s a pretty fun title, hey? Typically I tell people that if you come and visit the Science Centre, my department is responsible for quite a bit of what you see. I lead the public programming team here and we have a few full-time staff and quite a few part-time staff as well as volunteers that help us out. If you were here on a weekend, it would be all of the purple lab coat people in the galleries. We do the demos, the gallery programming and you’ll see my staff in the Angry Birds Universe travelling exhibit we have currently. We develop programming for all our spaces, including travelling galleries. We develop programming for special audiences such as adult-only nights and Dark Matters night. We do sleepover programming for Girl Guide & Boy Scout troops.We do special event day programming, so things like Canada Day and Halloween. We have International Science Centre Day coming up as well. On top of all that, my team often helps when we develop new permanent galleries for our spaces. We’re working on a few new galleries, a new Space Gallery, a new Childhood Gallery and a new Natural History Gallery. We wear a lot of hats and have a lot of fun.

Nerd List: How long have you been with the TWOSE and how did you get started with it?
TWOSE: I’ve been here about six years and I started as a staff scientist. My academic background is in Microbiology and Immunology and the History of Science & Technology. I also have a graduate degree in Museum Studies.

Nerd List: So at some point in your undergraduate degree, you decided you wanted to work in a place like this?
TWOSE: I was working at a lab bench doing my degree and I realized that I much preferred to talk to people about science rather than do science. I enjoyed that process but there was something really exciting about working more closely with people and getting other people excited about science. That led me to look for what other options were out there. Science Centres & Natural History museums were a fit for me. I’ve had a very good time working here and I’ve been very lucky to have had this opportunity and I appreciate it very much.

Nerd List: So you have a new Space Gallery coming up?
TWOSE: We’re in the design phase for it so we are working on what content should go into it but that’s part of our upcoming renovation plans.

Nerd List: What’s involved in the renovation plans?
TWOSE: The first stage is what we’re sitting in right now (The new Purple Pear café) and then going forward we’re going to renovate pieces of our old building, the Cardinal Building. That’s the piece that was built in 1984, it’s the original building. Our Space Gallery has been there for quite a while (we’re quite well-known for being a Space Science centre and it’s a piece of our legacy and really important to the city) and we’re planning on re-doing that. We’re going to be updating the planetarium (The Margaret Zeidler Star Theatre) as well and putting in new seating and new technology.

Nerd List: You have International Science Centre Day coming up. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
TWOSE: The full name is International Science Centre and Science Museum Day. It’s a chance for places like this (TWOSE) around the world to celebrate our existence and it’s being championed by the Association of Science & Technology Centres. It’s coming up November 10th and we’re going to be doing a ton of fun stuff. The theme of it ties in to the United Nations sustainable development goals so a lot around sustainability, conservation and environmental goals. We’re doing a  lot of programming in our Environment Gallery, people can visit our touch tank, we’re doing special guided tours of the Science Centre. We’ll have special environment-themed IMAX movies playing all day. Then at 2pm, we’ll have our kind of our big event, we’ll be launching our liquid nitrogen ping pong cannon. We’re going to put 1500 ping pong balls into a garbage bin and pop them all out with some liquid nitrogen.

Nerd List: So they’re just going to explode?
TWOSE: They’re going to shoot out, the balls themselves won’t shatter but they’ll pop out of that garbage can.

Nerd List: The Angry Birds Universe exhibit just launched a few weeks back. How has the reaction been to that?
TWOSE: It is a really exciting exhibit so it’s full of interactive pieces (there are over forty) and there are quite a few full-body experiences so you get to be a bird and ride a zip line. We’ve up-sized quite a few of the experiences from the games that you know. There are giant slingshots and you can fire birds at structures you’ve built out of foam (with pigs you’ve placed strategically on them). It taps into other areas like space so we have a laser maze you can wind your way through.

Nerd List: So you’re injecting some science into it then?
TWOSE: There’s a ton of science when you think of the physics involved. The games are pretty well grounded in physics so we can talk about trajectories and ballistics. We can talk about velocity and angular momentum. There are versions of the game where you race cars so we can talk about engineering and there’s actually a nice art studio so we can talk about the art concepts that go into building a game.

Nerd List: The exhibit itself is a travelling exhibit but you’ve added a few components?
TWOSE: The Angry Birds Universe exhibit is put together by a company called Imagine Exhibitions and it does travel but we have added some programming on top of it. The exhibit itself touches a bit on birds and we’ve amped that up. We can talk about the birds that are native to Edmonton. We can take a look at feathers under a microscope and see how feathers from different areas on a bird look different. We’ve also got a few more hands-on physics things that we’ve added on. We can play around with programming tons of science with an exhibit like this. The other thing I’ll add is that is that on Thursday nights we have a chance for adults to take over, you don’t have to worry about maybe bumping a child off of the zip line or taking up too much time at the slingshots.

Nerd List: You have another Dark Matters night coming up. Are you responsible for programming that as well?
TWOSE: I don’t lead that team, we have an excellent staff scientist who does but it’s part of our programming repertoire for sure. Dark Matters is a night that we kind of amp up the adult programming in the spaces. We rotate the themes and we run it every couple of months.

Nerd List: The theme for the next one is DIY “Do It Yourself.” How do you link that up to the TWOSE?
TWOSE: In a couple of great ways. One of the really excellent places we have here is our Science Garage. It’s an area that’s very hands-on and really looks at the iterative design process, the engineering process. You can think of any number of facets of science that deal with this. We have some folks, some external partners that are going to come in and help us do some programming. We do programming here with lego robots, we program here with a language called scratch that MIT developed. Kind of drag & drop, it’s not too tough to pick up. We often have guest lecturers as well, we might have some folks who’ll talk about projects that they have taken on.

Nerd List: In terms of upcoming events, what are you most excited about?
TWOSE: Well, we’re hoping to do a kind of a live-action Angry Birds event in January. We’re still working on it but it will kind of an engineering challenge. You might have to build your own bird-launching device. We’ve also got our next set of Dark Matters events that we’re planning out, we’re still putting themes to events for next year though. I don’t want to give it away… I don’t want to give out wrong information to anyone. We will have six events next year, we’ve got some interesting themes that we’re tossing around and we’ll very likely be doing our very popular “Science of Sex” event again as well. It’s a chance for us to deal with a topic that is very scientific but not always presented in that light. So that’s a fun one for us.

I’ll tell you a couple of projects that I’m personally working on that are really exciting to me. Right now I’m running a pilot session called “Research Zone” and it’s a multi-week science communication program for scientists. It’s four sessions long and they learn how people learn in an institution like this, they learn some tricks for facilitating on the floor and over the course of the program they build their own table top activity.

Nerd List: So this (Research Zone) is exclusively for Scientists?
TWOSE: We define scientists pretty broadly so it might be research scientists at the university or Grad students. It might be people working in industry or commercial enterprises, government or hospitals. Anywhere like that.

Nerd List: This obviously isn’t just a recreational activity, this is to help you develop professionally as well?
TWOSE: Exactly, they’re learning to be better science communicators, to be better at doing science outreach and speaking to a public audience. That’s not a skill that’s taught often. you’re expected to maybe pick it up on your own.

Nerd List: You’re helping the stereotypically withdrawn people reach out a bit more?
TWOSE: Yes, some are great at it naturally and this will help those that are maybe less comfortable at the start or folks who just want to polish some of those skills. Our goal is to get guests to interact with real scientists, to understand what it’s like to work in a lab or the field, to see what kind of cool research is happening in Edmonton. We’re the place that gets to inspire people.

 

For anyone who’s interested in working in a field like this, I mean, folks come from all kinds of different backgrounds. One of my staff scientists has a graduate degree in Math and did a lot of outreach in that area so there’s lots of ways to get to the same point.

Nerd List: If you could pick one of the many things going on at the TWOSE that you’d really like people to know about, what would that be?
TWOSE: Definitely International Science Centre Day. It’s our first year doing it so I think that’s one that people may not be aware of; and it’s on a Thursday… we don’t often hold our big events on weekdays. I think that’s something that people would find really exciting.

Nerd List: This has been fantastic and thanks for having me.
TWOSE: I’m glad you were able to come out!

For more information on everything going on at the Telus World Of Science, visit their website at TWOSE.ca or follow them on Facebook & Twitter.