Slime Science - amazing engagement
This weekend I saw something amazing. I witnessed thousands of children and their parents choose to go to a university mechanical engineering department to spend a frenzied couple of hours getting down with slime. Anyone who has spent any time around any 8 - 16 year olds in the last few months probably knows how exciting this must have been for the youngsters. And if you don't understand what's going on, slime is the latest kiddie craze, and the Institute of Making capitalised on this fact to achieve an incredible piece of science outreach. I have seen dozens of science outreach events and I'm not sure I have ever seen so many young faces looking so excited. The place was mobbed. So what was the secret to their success?
I had the pleasure of chatting to Mark Miodownik, professor of materials and society, and was surprised to find out that they had invited teenage expert slime makers to show them the secrets of slime. What is cool about the slime craze is that teenagers are making it from raw ingredients and know how to do it better than the academic chemists. Here was an example of mutual learning. Academics learnt skills from teenagers and in response provided some scientific context to their expertise. In this respect it was the genuinely two-way communication which should be a goal of any public engagement.
The two-way nature of good communication should not be taken lightly. Effectively the young people turned up with a weird phenomena that they find fascinating and the scientists did their best to explain it. The scientists were able to exploit the fascination of the young people by getting them to learn stuff about polymers, or that labelling things as solid or liquid is sometimes quite hard. They also gave the kids the opportunity to make and test their own hypotheses by creating their own slime. On a deeper level, by giving a space for young people to show off their slime-making prowess, they showed the young people that they have a contribution to make. That is an empowering thing for a teenager and it gives them the confidence to see that they can get involved in science whenever and however they like.
But what could the scientists learn from something as useless as slime? The chemistry going on in the slime production was not clearly understood by the scientists so the very act of trying to explain it's behaviour will push them to think in directions that they are not used to. Who knows when a slime like substance will suddenly become useful. If it ever does, those scientists got a masterclass in the properties of slime by staging the event. The fact is that young people are not restrained by the prejudices of a specialist in what works and what doesn't. Kids work inefficiently by trial and error and in the case of slime-making, this means mixing in anything that they can get their hands on. It is not that far fetched to think that a chemist may have been inspired by the alchemical wisdom of slime-making teens.
Young people generally have a great combination of time on their hands to play. It means that they get really good at the things they love, whether it is computer games, Rubik's cubes, slime making or any other passing fad. 2017 was all about fidget spinners, 2018 will be slime and there will probably be plenty more fads despite it being impossible to predict what they will be until they happen. I can't help but wonder though, how many physics teachers picked up on the the humble fidget spinner to get students thinking about circular motion or engineering. So scientists, science teachers and communicators, keep your eyes open for the next passing fad. It may be more than a teaching opportunity, it might be a learning opportunity too.