The BIG Event 2016

BIG logoBy Leanne Gunn

The BIG Event is a science communication conference bringing like-minded people together to network and share knowledge about working in the science communication sector. Last week I attended my first ever BIG Event and it was a chance for me to meet the community and to learn from some amazing and inspiring people.

A BIG Welcome

Who knew Belfast could be this HOT?!?  CC-BY-Debbie Syrop

Who knew Belfast could be this HOT?!?
CC-BY-Debbie Syrop

The conference was held at the W5 Science Centre in Belfast. Having never been there before I arrived a day early to give myself a chance to explore, and it was HOT. Summer had finally arrived in the UK and I was over-dressed and under-prepared. I spent the afternoon with the guise of admiring the city, while really I was on a one woman mission for sun cream and cooler clothes!

As I walked to the science centre the next day my purchases did little to combat the heat and I still arrived hot and sweaty. This was sure to make the initial introductions more awkward that necessary… but to my relief, every other science communicator in attendance was fanning themselves with conference programmes or sporting interesting tan lines as a mark of also being caught unaware by the sudden summer sun. Phew… I was ready to see what this BIG event was all about!

The conference began with a welcome from BIG’s chair (and fellow science made simple-r) James Piercy. He talked of being part of a community, a shared love of science, and working in a career where play was not only permitted but encouraged. This was followed by “the BIG mingle”, a bit of light hearted enforced networking, where we all met each other and found out a little bit about what we all did and where we work.

BIG Decisions

A Lego Mindstorm Robot Rover Photograph by Leanne Gunn

A Lego Mindstorm Robot Rover
Photograph by Leanne Gunn

You know it is a good conference when you look at the the parallel sessions in the program and you struggle to decide what to go and see. Over the course of the three days I went to many sessions and learnt lots of interesting things. I heard people talk passionately about how they fell into the crazy world of science communication, I learnt just how powerful teaching science through story-telling can be, I coded Mars Rovers built out of Lego, and I gained tips on how to make audiences laugh.

Of all the things I discovered and learnt over at the BIG Event, I think it is this phrase used by Anna Gunnarson in the Hearts about Science session which will stay with me well beyond the BIG Event 2016.

“Don’t be afraid to use BIG words with little kids.

If they can say Tyrannosaurus Rex… they can say anything!”

CC-BY-DominikRe (


BIG Competition

Not all decisions were about what session to attend next. This year’s event marked the end of James Piercy’s three year reign as Chair of BIG and several other members of the committee were also stepping down or moving on as well. Elections had been taking place and the winners needed announcing. Bridget Holligan, former Vice Chair, became the new Chair of BIG and Karl Byrne won a close vote to fill her place. There is also a new Secretary (Natalie Ford) and Ordinary Members (Andy Miah and James Bamford).

There was also the BIG Best Demo Competition, a place for members of BIG to showcase a new demo or a novel narrative accompanying an old demo for the chance to win the Best Demo trophy. The competition was compered by this year’s Josh Award winner Katie Steckles, who did a fantastic job of keeping us entertained with mathematical challenges while previous acts cleared up and following acts set up.

The competition itself was highly varied. There were cheerleaders on segways, a visit from bio-plastic man, lurid yellow shirts and at one point a flying laminator! After much ooo-ing and ahh-ing the competition was over and we cast our votes. This years runners up were from Cancer Research UK with a wonderfully simple demo explaining how our immune system detects foreign cells and why cancer cells are so hard to find! However, Tobias Happe stole the show with his demonstration of what he could build using the things he WAS allowed to bring on a plane…

W5: A BIG Venue

There was plenty of time in the schedule for us to go and have a look around the W5 Science Centre. Their original title: Who? What? Where? When? and Why? really rings true as you wander through the exhibition halls. The activities and interactive exhibits range in scale from small to huge, and they do almost all the talking. Visitors are encouraged to follow the few, simple instructions and then to learn by playing and seeing what happens.

The BIG kids clambering around on Climbit - W5'd biggest exhibit yet Photograph by Debbie Syrop

The BIG kids clambering around on Climb it – W5’s biggest exhibit yet
Photograph by Debbie Syrop

There were a few favourites of mine, the augmented reality screen which put dinosaurs in the room with you was great fun to watch and to be a part of. There was also “Build it” a whole room dedicated to construction! Visitors could use small blue blocks to design and build a model tower before scaling it up and using the giant blue blocks to bring that tower to life. And finally, there was “Climb it” – a huge multi-story climbing structure at the heart of the centre. Although usually restricted to visitors under 16, W5 agreed to close the exhibit to the public for 15 minutes during our stay allowing the BIG conference kids to have a go!

Thank you W5 and Thank you BIG for a fantastic BIG event! I cant believe I had never been to a BIG event before, and now I cant wait for the next one!

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