Volunteering at Cheltenham Science Festival

So, I’ve just got back from Cheltenham Science Festival. It was a really fun and hectic week!

Like most volunteering experiences, a lot of the work we were doing was basic slave labour—cleaning venues between talks, getting water for speakers, clicking people in and out of venues, making tea, carrying messages etc etc. Even while doing these routine tasks however, we were surrounded by such great communicators and lovely people, from the speakers in the talks we attended to the stall holders in the drop-in zones, and the other volunteers.

There was a wonderful atmosphere of inspiration and urgency in many of the talks—most of the speakers were funny and excellent at communicating, but even the ones who seemed initially slightly dumbfounded by the large audiences, had such a depth of knowledge and passion for their subject area that their talks were really brilliant. It was amazing to be surrounded by people who were trying their best to reveal to you incredible things—look, look at what my lab does and how it is going to make things so much better for people! Look at what we are starting to understand!

Science Festival T-Shirt!

There were opportunities for us to do some actual science communication to the public as well. In the Discovery Zone for example, the main drop in area, we helped to run a stall inside a structure built to look like Doc. Brown’s invention shed from back to the future. Our table was covered in balloons and tissue paper and bits of pipe cleaners and the idea was to give each child a plastic car and let them use whatever materials they liked to try and keep it in the air for as long as possible.

Some children really got into the swing of thinking like inventors and managed to fire the car into the air using deflating balloons. Others made parachutes and paper aeroplanes to fit onto the car, and it was a great chance to show them how a quick experiment (dropping a modified car and unmodified one at the same time) could help them out, as well as introducing ideas like air resistance and drag and the fact that heavy things don’t fall faster than light things—which some adults really took a while to accept!

compressed tents
Some of the event tents

I ended up staying at this table for four hours straight on the first day because it was so much fun talking to the children about their ideas.

Working with the public non-stop for a week of fifteen hour days (yes really fifteen —we started at 8.30 and didn’t finish until after 11.30 most nights) was also a good experience, as before this I was not sure that I would enjoy interacting with new people all day. In fact, I actually found that I enjoyed being cheery and helpful and could deal, by the end of the week, with the silliest people and the worst complaints.

The experience of helping set up in venues was also invaluable in learning about the difficulties and dramas involved in staging events—I think almost everything that could have gone wrong, short of the tents actually catching on fire, did at some point!

Just in the events I was in, we had a virtual reality talk with lost virtual reality goggles and no screen for the presentation, a full evacuation, a lost child, someone throwing up, and an event where the speaker turned up late and hadn’t written the talk he was due to give in five minutes! In one event some of us even ended up running round the kitchen helping pipette fancy sauces onto plates and arrange fish artfully that we were meant to be serving to the audience, because the chef hadn’t given himself enough time to prepare.

In the world of event management I now feel like I’ve seen a pretty decent cross-section of what can go wrong behind the scenes. After a while you stop panicking though, because everything turned out fine in the end, and most of the time the audience were blissfully unaware.


Working behind the scenes and in the front of house, for example running up and down the seating with microphones in audience Q&A’s, has also allayed a large portion of the nerves I have for any future speaking on stage, because the transition from backstage to onstage now doesn’t feel like such a terrifying thing.

One of the best parts of the week was the chance to attend so many wonderful talks. It has really given me motivation to continue to pursue a career in science communication and science in general, as well as opened my mind to so many topics that I didn’t even know I didn’t know about!

Meeting the other volunteers, staff and speakers was also a real pleasure—many of them have been working in science for a long time, and it was great to hear about their experiences. Almost all of the science communicating greats were around the festival at one point or another—Brian Cox, Robert Winston, Martin Rees, Alice Roberts, and so many more, and with almost everyone I met having interesting science backgrounds it was easy to accidentally network!

Doing some Astronomy

Between the long days and the late nights socialising after the events, I am now even more sleep deprived than I was when I finished my exams!

Anyway, Cheltenham was amazing. You should all at least go to visit the festival next year even if volunteering may not be for you. 🙂

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