In a couple of weeks it'll be time for Fieldays again. We've lived in Hamilton for 13 years now, but last year was the first time I'd ever been out to this major agricultural event. And I went out there every day - because I'd been closely involved in the development of the Univesity's stand at the show, so I had a deep interest in seeing how it was received.
Where is this heading? Well, I want to make the point that science communication can take many forms, that it can involve quite a bit of creativity, & that it is fun. Last year's theme was 'Science on the Farm' (& yes, there's a website of that name as well; now, that was a lot of work!). While Waikato's not an ag-focused university, we do have an awful lot of research going on that has direct links to what's happening in the land-based industries. So the trick was to come up with a way of communicating about some of that science in a way that was not only accurate but quirky, attention-grabbing, & entertaining.
Some of my colleagues came up with the suggestion that we have a 'walk-through' rumen (the part of a cow's gut where grass goes when it's first swallowed, for bacteria to begin digestion of the cellulose before the gooey mass is regurgitated for some more chewing). Interesting idea but a bit tricky to do, not least because they wanted the smells - and once some of those smells got out there, I'm not sure that people would have come back to the stand. Or come in, in the first place :-) But a model of a rumen, that bubbled & gave off gas... well, that could work - & link to work being done on the enzymes that digest cellulose, & also on ryegrass staggers. (The gas was actually helium, & we used that to fill balloons. This led to a large queue of kids most days - but we had to bring in a rule that only little kids could have a balloon, because some of the bigger ones were sneaking round the back, inhaling the stuff so they'd sound like Donald Duck, & then coming back for another dose. Which isn't really that good a thing to do.)
Obviously that wasn't going to be enough for a whole stand. But - what does much of that grass get turned into? Milk! And the dairy industry is hugely important for our regional & national economies. I had a 'eureka' moment - what about an udder, that dispensed gold-wrapped chocolate coins if you squeezed it right? (Sounds good in theory but it gave the Station Creative team building the thing endless headaches. And if we'd known how many kids would pull the teats too hard, well, the design details would have been a bit different!) We thought that was quite a good metaphor, & it related to research on getting product from farm to plate.
But the real attention-grabber was - the back end of a cow (I was particularly proud of that one!). Not just any cow: every 3 minutes or so she urinated into a bucket. (We kept a mop out the back, as there was the inevitable mess.) This was intended to highlight the environmental problems associated with waste (urine & faeces) from dairying: the University's engaged in a significant bit of research around restoring aquatic ecosystems that have been degraded by years of agricultural run-off. Word certainly got around: apparently at least one person walked into the stand that backed onto ours, said 'oh, your's isn't the right cow', & walked out again ;-)
So there you have it - several research teams + some creative thinking (there's actually a lot of creativity goes into most science) + some talented designers + a lot of teamwork + passionate & enthusiastic 'interpreters' at the event = a rather nice piece of communicating about science in a fun & engaging way.
Of course, that means we've been asked to come up with something just as good this year! Watch this space...