Science for everyone: European Researchers’ Night digital extravaganza!

Will robots steal our jobs? Why washing hands with soap keeps us COVID free? How to recognise “good” science without understanding “bad” science? How much digitalisation does the pig need? These and many other questions were answered by researchers during European Researchers’ Night.

“Feedback Loops” danced by Anna Spink for Science in the City, Malta. Photo: Chris Scott.

Even in this turbulent year of pandemic, thousands of researchers from 29 countries across Europe (and beyond) managed to uphold the annual tradition of putting up an eclectic, inspiring and entertaining showcase of European research. On Friday 27 November and Saturday 28 November, thousands of universities, scientific institutions, laboratories and museums hosted a myriad of exciting live lectures, digital hands-on experiments, virtual workshops, film screenings, educational online games, science quizzes and other engaging activities.

European Researchers’ Night is a great way for the public to taste the diversity and vibrancy of the present-day research community. Discovering, in new captivating ways, about what researchers really do and why it matters should encourage a new generation of researchers, who will continue to push the boundaries of human knowledge. In 2019, this fantastic science festival involved around 36,000 researchers and attracted 1.6 million visitors in more than 400 cities. This year, you could attend multiple international events and meet passionate researchers from all over Europe without leaving your sofa.

We have interviewed a number of European Researchers’ Night organisers to offer you a taster of activities, which ran in a handful of European countries:

Fusion of science and art in Malta

In the moving performance called “Feedback Loops”, dance, music and physiological data (from wearable technology) were combined to reveal a deeper insight into mental conditions such as depression, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. Through the performance “Bats do Jazz”, you could learn about the science of echolocation while listening to smooth jazz music. As part of the festival, there was also a number of scientifically themed theatre performances such as “Jumping Genes” (tackling gender issues faced by women in research) and “Water – Be the Change” (raising awareness about water conservation through comedy). The three days long live digital broadcast organised by Science in the City crew, featured a multitude of creative shows that blended science and the arts.

“In Malta, we intentionally tried to pair up researchers and artists. Obviously this requires more time and networking, however it results in innovative performances about research, that engage people in interesting, dynamic, new ways”, said Andrew Firbank from the Science in the City team.

We intentionally tried to pair up researchers and artists. Obviously this requires more time and networking, however it results in innovative performances about research, that engage people in interesting, dynamic, new ways. Andrew Firbank, Science in the City.

Science at the Table in Spain

In Spain, this year, popular Science Cafés were replaced by a digital alternative, “Science at the Table”, where the audience was encouraged to sit at the dinner table at home, while listening to micro-talks by researchers on topics ranging from green energy and neuroscience to Palaeolithic art and biotechnology in agriculture. Some other highlights of the festival organised by Open Researchers 2020 Consortium were: a virtual tour of a real mathematical garden in Almería (where mathematical relationships, such as the Fibonacci sequence, are represented by sculptures or plants); a digital workshop on astronomical drawing of the moon from the 3.5m telescope CAHA; and a comic exhibition on women scientists. A particularly intriguing way to interact with the public was implemented in Cordova, where researchers with megaphones conducted informative talks on engineering, medicine, biology and history of arts from their balconies or terraces, whilst sharing highlights via Twitter and Instagram.

“This year is an experiment for us, as we are learning how to adapt to this new situation. We have planned more activities than in previous years, but almost everything is through the website“, said Miguel Carrasco, Fundacion Descubre.

This year is an experiment for us, as we are learning how to adapt to this new situation. Miguel Carrasco, Fundacion Descubre.

Germany: Solve the Covid crisis on your smart phone

In Kiel, Germany, you could take a stroll down the town’s virtual main shopping strip and solve world’s COVID crisis, while playing a point-and-click game on your smart phone. The aim of this digital escape game was to entice youngsters to dive into the world of research and to feel how it would be like to discover the vaccine against SARS-CoV2. Almost 18.000 researchers participated in Nacht der Wissenschaft in der Kiel,  delivering a diverse array of inspiring talks and activities for young and old alike.

“Kiel is quite a small town, yet we are the only German town participating in the framework of European Researchers’ Night. Since the event has been a success for the last 6 years, it has become an important tradition for the town and people are expecting it from us every year”, said Linda Pialek from University of Kiel.

The event has become an important tradition for the town and people are expecting it from us every year. Linda Pialek, University of Kiel.

Topics this year ranged from research on whales to innovative technologies for shipping without CO2 emissions, from plasma research to underwater archaeology, from astrophysics to agriculture. As European Researchers’ Night in Germany came to an end, scientific jargon and metaphors were turned into science poetry.

Ireland presents: “The tent of bad science”

In Ireland, START at Trinity College Dublin set up a series of engaging talks by academics, “the Tent of Bad Science”, aimed  to empower the audience with critical thinking to avoid being tricked by fake news and pseudoscience.

“Something that we were conscious of is that people take European Researchers’ Night as a science thing. So we made an effort to reach out to researchers from humanities and social sciences to get them involved too”, said Dr. Jennifer Daly from Trinity College Dublin.

Something that we were conscious of is that people take European Researchers’ Night as a science thing. So we made an effort to reach out to researchers from humanities and social sciences to get them involved too. Dr. Jennifer Daly, Trinity College Dublin.

There was also an opportunity to attend a live demonstration on how to read Homer’s poems in their original ancient Greek; a virtual trip to the INVISIBLE exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin; and an interactive workshop on how to slow down your biological ageing process. In an online escape room “Back for the Future”, participants of all ages could solve puzzles across space and time, to save the world from the devastating effects of the climate crisis.

Sweden: Researchers’ Grand Prix and countrywide food waste experiment

A successful digital ForskarFredag (Researchers’ Friday) was also held in 23 Swedish towns and cities (read more about it here!). Three highlights included a spectacular science show from Umeå; exciting geological adventures with Minecraft from Uppsala; and a rare chance to peek into an Olympic test centre for winter sports in Östersund. As part of ForskarFredag, Swedish researchers also had an opportunity to test their communication skills in the Researchers’ Grand Prix competition. Participating researchers were challenged to present their research in a captivating, inspiring and educational way in just 4 minutes. Whereas the public got to enjoy amusing and thought-provoking rapid-fire talks from some of the finest minds in Sweden!

Younger members of public could “borrow a researcher” for their class or participate in an annual citizen science initiative. There is also the “Swedish Mass Experiment”, an annual citizen science initiative, where schools and the general public are given the opportunity to collaborate with researchers in a real research project. This year’s project was the Food Waste Experiment; school pupils, equipped with a specially designed app and the world’s largest sustainability database, could calculate and document how much food they are throwing away on daily basis. The aim of this experiment was to find out whether or not more information on personal carbon footprint could result in less food being wasted. Thanks to this project, researchers have been able to collect large amounts of valuable data from across the country, while pupils have been given a hands-on-experience of what it’s like to be a researcher. Through ForskarFredag initiatives, young people could discover how exciting, diverse and worthwhile a career in research can be!

Article by: Ivy Mayor

Read more about 2020 European Researchers’ Night here.


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