March 2016 saw me being fortunate enough to be crowned the winner of the Gold Zone on the online, science engagement project I’m a Scientist Get Me out of Here! This programme is a phenomenal way to engage in science discussion, chat and whimsical wonderings with primary school students from all over the UK.
From being asked ‘Does lightning karate?’ to ‘Do twins sleep the same?’ and ‘Do people with autism sleep differently?’ I had a diversity of different questions to answer and explore. The students were ruthless with their questioning and honest about our responses. Thankfully though, the students must have liked at least some of my responses as I won my zone which also included a geneticist and astrophysicist. I pledged that I would spend my £500 in a manner which meant engaging with communities in Cardiff and specifically with primary school pupils as they were the ones who crowned me the winner!
To be able to portray what I do day-to-day to the pupils in a fun, imaginative and engaging manner was difficult and needed a lot of exploration before we could go into the schools. I wanted to at least impact upon these children’s education in a way that was memorable and hopefully inspiring.
Fortunately, at Cardiff University we have a well-established and innovative scheme called ‘Community Gateway’. This scheme works with communities in Grangetown, aiming to develop long-term, equal and mutually beneficial partnerships between the residents and the services which surround them. I worked with the school involved in the project, Grangetown Primary School.
My project was devised alongside Community Gateway to go into schools and promote sleep as a science of great importance, need, focus and current opportunity. The significance of sleep in our daily routines is under-represented and misinterpreted as an excuse to laze around. The fundamental need and dependence of sleep is something I whole-heartedly believe needs to be reinforced in the minds and lives of children across the globe.
The essential health, academic, social and occupational benefits associated with sleep cannot be overlooked. To be able to convey this view, I needed to devise a fun strategy.
Why not make sleep fun?
We started by devising postcards shown below. These postcards were delivered to schools to enable the pupils to ask me a question regarding sleep. I also wanted to know what they dream about to plant the proverbial seed in their minds (maybe it should be sheep in their minds, relating to sleep). This ensured that I had an open path into discussing sleep.
Making dreamcatchers, designing pillow cases and class dream-bed sheets sounded like a pretty reasonable route into discussing sleep with 9-10 year olds after that! Having the option of hands-on crafts (painting and colouring) alongside brain hat-making and cuddly toys around to ‘talk’ about their sleep made for a child friendly and engaging activity.
The school were amazingly accommodating, with heavy teacher involvement and interaction with both myself, my colleague Katie and the pupils too. Katie, is an undergraduate at the University of Bristol (where I did my undergraduate degree in Biochemistry.) I was fortunate enough to have her facilitate the session.
Not only did the session create an open forum for discussion with the teachers, the pupils and Katie and myself regarding sleep and particularly dreaming, it opened the possibility of expanding the project and taking this into more schools and events. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience even with the challenges on talking to 30, 9-10 year olds about a topic so rarely touched upon.
Being granted a rare opportunity like this by I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here! has inspired me to deliver my project in more contexts; to focus on public engagement as an inherent part of my work and PhD and to never stop being excited by and interested in the minds of children.
From wanting to know how giraffe’s sleep to whether I could read their dreams – the future of science is in their hands. I have an obligation to aid their journeys along this path, and if I can do that with dream-catchers, pillow cases, brains and cuddly dolphins, then sign me up – I will be along for the ride!
Hayley Moulding receives PhD funding from MRC (Medical Research Council)