My fourth BIG Event and first blog

The BIG Event is the British Interactive Group’s (BIG) annual conference, held this year at the Centre for Life, Newcastle on 19th – 21st July. BIG is a network of communicators working in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) areas, reaching across the UK and beyond. I go to the BIG Event because it’s a conference for STEM communicators by STEM communicators and the level of learning, sharing of skills and experience as well as occasionally commiserating is intense and often my most important learning experience of the year.

The BIG Mingle

The Mingle is legendary and uses an algorithm worked out by Ben Craven that solves Kirkman’s Schoolgirl Problem (how to ensure people in a group don’t meet twice). We’re asked to bring something along linked to our work, in my case some 3D printed spanners provided by my colleagues in Additive Manufacturing that proved rather popular. With these props and a limited amount of time you meet and speak to a large number of delegates without the ice breaker games that make everyone cringe. Due to the number of delegates there were three separate Mingles going on at the same time; in a room full of STEM communicators I leave you to imagine the noise and atmosphere.

As a taster before the Mingle we’re asked to “Stand up if you’re from…” with different sectors of STEM communication identified one at a time; it’s a bit like a refined version of Musical Chairs. Two things struck me this year: about half of the delegates were from universities and about half (not necessarily the same people) had never been to a BIG Event before. First timers were also identified by a coloured “jewel” on their name badge corresponding to one on that of a committee member, ensuring the newbies always had someone to go to with questions or for support if required. This was a really interesting technique and one personally I would use with caution as I’m not a fan of anything that singles people out as different, however the organisers had obviously thought carefully about their audience: it worked really well and us old timers ensured they were included in conversations. In truth it’s the kind of event where you just join a group of people, everyone shuffles about to make room and includes you but not everyone realises this or is comfortable with inserting themselves into a group of strangers at first.

Why bother with blogging?

One of the sessions I attended was by my friend Becca Smithers who was looking at the whys and wherefores of blogging. I’d been thinking about blogging for a while and a combination of circumstances meant I was just about ready to take the plunge but needed to know more. Becca’s session was aimed perfectly at the audience, looking at things like hosting; the Flesch Reading Score; the where, who, what and why of blogging; and a useful template for planning a blog. I enjoyed the session, Becca’s delivery style is excellent and it achieved its objective: I’ve written a blog post. I hope other participants have too.

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Becca in full flow discussing a plan for a blog about the BIG Event. My photo, apologies for bad quality.

To make things a bit more interesting Becca and I both decided to blog about the BIG Event and look at the similarities and differences in what and how we wrote, an unusual opportunity to explore the technique.

Other sessions

Dr Helen Featherstone’s session on Scoping the Professionalisation Public Engagement with STEM was very interesting and thought provoking. It’s something we’ve asked ourselves about as a sector in the past but the challenge is we’re such a diverse bunch that producing let alone imposing anything could be rather tricky. I take my hat off to Helen and the ScoPPES team for attempting it and for working with the sector rather than trying to impose a top-down solution – that really wouldn’t work and we’re a group unafraid of saying so.

Sort of linked to this was a session attempting to map the sector. Run by Dr Suze Kundu and Dr Dominic Galliano supported by Helen we attempted to make an Euler diagram (pronounced “oiler”) showing how we all fit together. At the end I came to the conclusion it’s not something you can easily capture on paper but more like a neural network with links constantly forming and changing and probably not something you can print out.

Euler diagram
Our attempt to identify sectors involved in STEM communication for the Euler diagram. Definitely a work in progress. My photo.

Take home thoughts

It was really interesting to see the number of people attending from universities, possibly linked to the importance of the Impact agenda. The session I co-delivered on Impact was well received; we might run a Skills Day or a follow-up at the next BIG Event. This also reflects the evolving nature of BIG which began as a group  who built interactive exhibits and has grown into a large network of anyone involved in STEM communication, everyone is welcome. I think this organic and open ethos is why so many first time delegates attended: BIG is welcoming to any and all who identify as STEM communicators.

So will I blog again after this? Hopefully, you’ll have to come back to find out. Will I attend another BIG Event? Try stopping me.

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You meet all sorts at the BIG Event. My photo.

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