An email buzzed my phone: Volunteer Meeting at 4 pm. I smiled. It was that time of the year again. The silent maze of aisles wrapping our labs will come alive with bustling curiosity, eyes glazed in awe of the grandness of all the shiny things around, heads and hearts absorbing everything the ears get to hear. "Soon," I said to myself. "Hey, Google, set a reminder to go to the auditorium at 3:50 pm". I smiled throughout the entire day. Memories. Ideas. More memories.
Planning and Creating
Just a few months into my PhD program, I was introduced to Open Day - a day when a research institute, university, or any place usually beyond the access of the general public throws its doors open for engagement. One of our faculty members organizes our Open Day each year with fresh PhD students at the helm. 2015 was our turn. She briefed us about the various workshops, exhibits, tours, and activities that are undertaken this day and how it is done. Participation was voluntary. Yet many among us jumped in.
Preparations began days before the actual event. Responsibilities were effectively delegated. Creativity was on full throttle. Volunteers designed attractive posters and handled emails and social accounts, spreading color far and wide. People who would manage coordination on the floor created detailed route maps for the shepherds, allocated time slots for each activity, and checked-in on others' progress. The many volunteers who would run the show were busy building exhibits and models, gathering material for workshops. The zeal that steeped the usual academic air became more palpable as the event drew closer for volunteers and non-volunteers alike.
Even though the general public is welcome, open days are primarily attended by school students, escorted by their schoolteachers in groups of 20-40. They are split into groups, each group assigned to a shepherd volunteer to take them on an intellectual joyride. Footfall came by the hundreds and filled the entire institute. If one were just to walk around, the variety would amuse them.
Visitors can ask many questions, and observe science they may have never seen previously. Volunteers explain how machines work. There is a stall where participants can take home their own DNA as a souvenir. And visitors can view a model demonstrating how neurons send messages or an exhibition of how movement of objects can be triggered by light. Open Day is like a huge science fair with a mix of kids and adults. Younger participants' playful curiosity is contagious.
That year, a few other batch mates and I aimed to carry forward a popular workshop from last year – Tod-Phod-Jod (Break-Burst-Join!), an activity that familiarizes kids with computer parts. A bunch of bioinformatician fellows handed out non-functional laptops and peripherals like a mouse (generously donated by colleagues and staff) to disassemble and reassemble, getting to know the various parts as they went along. We inherited some leftover machines from 2014, but they wouldn't suffice for hundreds of children. Our calls for more defunct machines met no end. We had to improvise. But none of us were bioinformaticians. Any idea we came up with did not connect well with the previous theme.
With time slipping out of our hands, we thought it better to 'break' the mold. Learning a few science tricks off the internet, a range of demonstrations were planned. We were given 45 minutes to conduct the workshop per group. Our sole purpose was to engross the attendees and generate sustained interest in all-things-science. We wanted them to exit the workshop wonderstruck. Twenty minutes of disassembly & demonstration of a gadget. Fifteen minutes of tricks based in viscosity, energy transformation, and fluid dynamics. Ten minutes of Q&A. And lastly, a 4-minute video on sixth sense technology. That ought to do it. "Each stall will see a minimum of three to four hundred students," the faculty's words rang in my ears. Would we be able to deliver? Anticipating a full house, we entered that dawn with our fingers crossed.
Early on the event day, we spent time debating whether the children should be allowed to disassemble the gadgets at first. Most of us gave in to the conviction of the teammate in charge of the demonstration. Wary if we would manage to reassemble the laptops before other groups entered, we ruled in favor. The first two rounds went as planned. But the crowd swelled soon after early-bird hours, and there was no buffer time to reassemble the components back into a computer. Before we knew it, we were catering to two groups at once! Anyone would have expected the demo to derail. Eventually, each team member got busy playing their part. Were we losing it as a team? Was the workshop going to be a mess of disjointed tasks?
Adrenaline. Rushing through. All senses on high alert. I noticed the computer guy had changed his narrative. Now, he was just showing the parts to the students and where they fit in the computer and what they did, asking them to guess what the piece was! The kids scrambled to answer first. "Me! Me!" each shouted. And it continued. Once through, he asked them to guess the next section of the workshop, keeping them intrigued.
Science or Magic?
One after the other, they watched the tricks. Some gasped in amazement, some exclaimed. No one was uninterested. We would ask them, "How do you think this is happening?" and skim their guesses for accuracy. As if by a divine intervention, just once, my teammate doing the trick responded, "No, all your guesses are wrong. I am doing magic!". That left the students dumbfounded for a moment. I intervened with "Magic is nothing. There must be a reason! There's science behind everything", coaxing them to examine the setup of the trick. Within moments, some students came up with the answers:
"This water is hot, and the other is cold!"
"What's this liquid? It's not water. It's very sticky."
Temperature affects density. Sugar increases viscosity. Round after round, each group of students called out the magic hoax. Our magic was done. The video on sixth sense technology showed them how science could, in its own time, make 'things of fiction' real. All the students promised to go back and explore more of science in everyday life
Having catered to at least 12-15 such rounds in that one day, interacting with 300 students, we were exhausted and bedazzled. We made it - Tod-Phod-Jod was a popular workshop in later years, too.
Since that first experience, I participated every year. Open day became my sole doorway to the public domain where I can bust myths, ignite curiosity, and educate others about the ways of science and research in a direct and engaging manner.
Science, a way of life.
It was that time of the year again. 2019.
"Which scientist do you want to name your group after?" she asked me.
"Rosalind Franklin," I answered.
I'll tell them the story of Rosalind Franklin, give them a taste of 1950s Europe, and then stress the role of evidence in the quest for truth. By sharing true stories, I'll convince them to look for proof. Always. In everything. Science is, after all, a way of life. And I'll tell that to anyone and everyone I can — a few, or many, at a time.