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Science Oxford’s Bridget Holligan wins Beetlestone Award

Monday 1st June 2020

Our very own Head of Education and Engagement, Bridget Holligan has been awarded the 2020 Beetlestone Award for informal learning in science. She talks about her 27 years of involvement in science education, working for Science Oxford and what it means to win the award.

For the first 15 years of my career in informal science learning, I spent most of my time engaging directly with the public. Firstly, on the exhibition floor at The Exploratory in Bristol and then for Curioxity, Science Oxford’s first hands-on science centre which first opened in 1990. I developed and delivered workshops, presented shows, and trained scientists and teachers. I have always loved working directly with the public and I have had some interesting experiences along the way – from showing Prince William a flame colours exhibit on a school visit to presenting a Flash Bang Wallop! show to John Major when he was Prime Minister. I have also co-presented a cable tv science show called ‘That’s Incredible!’.

Those early days made me passionate about unique value of hands-on science centres and greatly informed my thinking about engaging young people in science. For me, using hands-on face-to-face experiences has been the most effective way to engage audiences and to enable them to think more deeply about science and to explore and question the world around them. I have been a member of the BIG network for science communicators since it began in the 1990s and the early BIG Events at the Observatory Science Centre were always a real highlight of my professional life.

Inspiring young people about science

It has been a privilege and a pleasure to have been able to spend my career inspiring young people about science and helping to lay the foundations for life-long scientific enquiry and understanding. At Science Oxford, we want to give children the opportunity to experience the excitement of exploration, investigation and discovery. I am proud of the Education and Engagement programme that we have put together and how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together into a coherent whole: we have an extensive STEM outreach programme to primary schools all over Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. For teenagers, we have a STEM Careers programme to nurture their STEM skills and develop an awareness of where science skills and qualifications can take them. And now we have a new science education centre too…

A brand new science centre for Oxford

New hands-on science centres don’t come along very often but we opened the UK’s first indoor-outdoor hands-on science centre for primary and early years children in May 2019. The Science Oxford Centre is a small centre tucked away in a hidden woodland location on the east side of Oxford and it always been a personal ambition of mine to be able to create a centre from scratch. The exhibits have all been selected and designed to facilitate important science skills and behaviours such as exploratory play, close observation, questioning, pattern seeking, enquiry and problem solving. They are fantastic at providing open-ended inclusive challenges – visitors can access them at their own level and can have a completely different repeat experience if they come back and use the same exhibit again.

Joining the dots

At the heart of our Science Oxford programmes is the Thinking, Doing, Talking Science (TDTS) approach to science learning that I have developed with Helen Wilson from Oxford Brookes University since 2011. TDTS encourages higher order thinking in science through discussion and creative and challenging practical work. It is an evidence-based approach which has been shown to increase children’s attainment, interest and self-confidence in science. These are all important dimensions of ‘science capital’ – and research has shown that young people with higher science capital are more likely to choose STEM-based qualifications and career paths. TDTS has been an incredibly important piece of work for my own vision (and hopefully legacy!) in informal science learning, because we have evidence for its impact, something which is very time-consuming and expensive to do and which was only possible for us thanks to funding from the Education Endowment Foundation. TDTS underpins all of Science Oxford’s programmes, including the creation of the Science Oxford Centre, and I would like to use my experience to help develop best practice in informal science learning for the building of science capital over time.

Beetlestone Award

This week I heard that I’d won the Beetlestone Award – set up in memory of Professor John Beetlestone, one of the pioneers of informal learning in science and the founding director of the UK’s first purpose-built science discovery centre, Techniquest in Cardiff. This award means a lot to me because I have been around long enough to have personal memories of Professor John Beetlestone and the opening of Techniquest and because it is awarded by my peers; people I respect and have been able to learn from over the years. I am proud of my achievements and of course it’s always lovely to know that other people see that too! There is still so much more that I would like to do – the initial success of the Science Oxford Centre and seeing so many visitors feel at home in the space has been rewarding to witness and now we want to build on that. We want to work more with community groups, with schools for pupils who have special educational needs and with schools that serve areas where there is economic deprivation. We want to develop our programme so that the audiences we engage with directly can have other more self-led experiences at home or at school and feel that science is something that is most definitely ‘for them’. I also want to continue to be a champion for the skills and expertise of those who work in the informal science learning sector – they have such a positive impact on young people and on their development of vital enquiry and problem solving skills – and right now we need them more than ever!

Send us your memories of Science Oxford

I have fond memories of working at Curioxity and Science Oxford over the last 24 years. We’d like you to send us your memories – recent or in the past – of Science Oxford, visiting our centres and the impact it has had on you. Email us directly on [email protected] or share with us any photos, thoughts, or videos on social media and tag @scienceoxford. Not only will your memories help us celebrate our 30th birthday in October but science centres all over the UK are sharing memories on social media over the next few weeks to campaign for #ScienceCentresForOurFuture.

Bridget at The Exploratory in Bristol ~ 1994

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