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String, the super-weird and the story of life – children inspired by ‘Extinct’ tales

Thursday 14th April 2022

School children from Oxfordshire were inspired by string, the super-weird and stories of life at a recent ‘Extinct’ talk with scientist and TV presenter Professor Ben Garrod, for Oxford Literary Festival. The Prof’s ‘Extinct’ book series examines the world’s mass extinctions from the point of view of creatures living at the time, and describes science as a way of telling the story of life on Earth and across the Universe.

Thanks to Science Oxford’s partnership with the Festival, year 4-6 pupils from Windmill Primary School and St Andrew’s Church of England Primary School in Headington, Oxford and their families received free tickets to the Sheldonian Theatre. The talk was introduced by Science Oxford’s Director of Education and Engagement, Bridget Holligan.

“Here are the superstars of the story of life, from the super-weird to the super-ferocious. Usually a species has 10 million years or so of evolving, eating, chasing, playing, maybe doing homework, or even going to the moon before it goes extinct.” Ben Garrod.

The Festival’s Children’s Programme Director, Andrea Reece said: “Professor Ben Garrod’s event at this year’s FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival was one of the absolute highlights of the programme. He ran through the story of life on Earth via the major mass extinctions, half a billion years in just over one hour, taking questions throughout and using props to illustrate, including a killer plant and a very long ball of string. Everyone there had a fantastic time and learned so much. “Electric” in the words of one audience member! It was great to see so many young scientists there – many of them incredibly well informed – and we were delighted to link up again with Science Oxford who do so much to inspire young people with a love of science week in, week out.”

Science Oxford delivers programmes and activities at our Centre and across the region, to inspire young people about science – so we were delighted to hear what some of our guests had to say…

Sian Davies, teacher at St Andrews, told us: “It was the most enthusiastic I have heard them all year… they loved the talk and the whole book series. They discussed how they thought the artist (Gabriel Ugueto) was SO good, (two of the girls are very good artists themselves) and how Ben signed their books, and they couldn’t wait for the next one!” Here’s what they said…

Mimi (age 11) Esme (age 10) and Mia (age 10) from year 6:

If you could be an extinct animal from the past, which would you be and why?

Esme: “A Falkland Island Wolf, because I love wolves!” (Esme and Mimi are obsessed with wolves!)

Mia: “A Megalodon – it would be cool being a powerful animal everyone fears!”

What new things did you learn and what surprised you the most?

Mimi: “Plants caused one of the mass extinctions” (she showed how Ben had revealed this fact building up to showing a plant!)

What about Ben inspires you the most?

Mia: “His job sounded cool – I want to be a marine biologist now.”
Esme: “He is friends with super cool Steve Bagshaw!”

If you could be a scientist like Ben what would you do to help the world?

Mia: “Help the ocean – stop plastic – research aquatic animals.”
Mimi: “Investigate marine ‘micro’ fungi, which captures carbon.”

What do you think we can all do to protect endangered species in nature?

Mia: “We should all raise public awareness as Ben is – did you know there are only 25 Hainan gibbons? He was passionate about them.”

What was your favourite part of Ben’s talk?

Mia: “The bit at the end with the string experiment… and I loved that he proved David Attenborough* wrong, as there have been up to 20 mass extinctions not 6! It was funny when he told us about the day the meteor hit…” All three girls then followed by enthusiastically mimicking Ben’s actions as he was telling the story….

Prof Garrod said, “Really enjoyed my visit and talk as part of the @oxfordlitfest all about extinctions, big and small! So many engaged science geeks, young and old! With illustrations from the ace @SerpenIllus it was the first talk on our #Extinct series – and involved LOTS of string!!”

You’ll have to check Ben out in action to find out exactly what the Epic ‘string experiment’ was!

*Fact check – we’re not 100% sure, in case Sir David Attenborough happens to be reading this 😬😅

About Ben Garrod

Ben Garrod is Professor of Evolutionary Biology and Science Engagement at the University of East Anglia. He started broadcasting in 2014 with award-winning BBC4 series Secrets of Bones. Since then, he has presented a range of television programmes and series, including Secrets of Bones (2014), Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur (2016), The Day the Dinosaurs Died (2017), Hyper-evolution: the Rise of Robots (2017), Secrets of Skin (2019) and Baby Chimp Rescue (2020).  He has also presented A Grown-Up Guide to Dinosaurs (an Audible Original) and Bone Stories and The Human Hive on BBC Radio 4. See his Extinct book series.

Thanks to Andrea Reece and Ben Garrod for photos.


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