A whole day out in Cheltenham… from the middle of Birmingham!

By Joanna Chustecki

Ever wondered how you could be in two places at once? Cheltenham Science Festival 2020 seemed to have the answer. By moving the online this year, the festival, running annually since 2002, have managed to bring viewers the essence of the festival right to their screens. Between 2-7th June the virtual science festival was streamed for free, and contained a wide variety of talks, topics, demonstrations and interviews. I tuned in for the Wednesday programme (seen in the picture below), and immediately noticed the wide range of topics being covered, and slick presentation style of the different events. The Cheltenham Science festival usually welcomes many school groups over the week, in order to get them enthused about science, and to supplement topics they cover at school – it also looks like a really fun day out. Despite its main audience, I was surprised to find a lot of content older audiences may enjoy (like the cocktail class!). An interview from the 2018 festival between Jim Al-Khalili and Demis Hassibis on the future of AI had an older audience, who had come to see the founder of DeepMind talk about his research- so it was an interestingly mixed approach, spanning many audiences.  The aim of the engagement run by Cheltenham is to get people excited about science, and offer a broad range of subjects and activities to get people debating and thinking.

In terms of the effectiveness of the engagement, the festival provided a good example. Audience interaction had been built into some of the talks, such as the ‘Colourful Science’ demonstration at the start of the day, which ran a quiz in the chat stream, asking participants to answer the questions as they came up. However, as this was a pre-recorded session, results weren’t displayed in real time, unlike audience participation would otherwise be at a live event.         

The organisers encouraged the use of social media throughout the day, and used AIDA, an AI ‘Festival Curator’, encouraging the audience to get chatting to her online. I do believe however, that in order for the organisers to increase engagement levels, the sometimes long gaps between time slots could have been used for some more interactive-style quizzes, activities or games. This comes with the caveat of the organisers having to move everything online very quickly- and I think they did a great job of that! There was also a chat box open to people throughout the festival stream, so the audience could provide feedback and get talking there.

All you need for a day out in Cheltenham!

Overall, Cheltenham Science festival 2020 aimed to be able to enthuse audiences and teach them something new,  and by choosing interesting particularly relevant topics to cover (such as renewable energy or wildlife under lockdown) their engagement achievements were impressive, given the circumstances they were working under- and it showed flexibility, something all public engagement activities should all have an innate amount of- because you never know when things are suddenly going to change!