Despite many names – outreach, public engagement, science communication; working with the public is important to me. By public I mean non-academic audiences, anyone and everyone that isn’t my colleagues or my students. I organise a range of activities throughout the year that relate to several of my research areas, particularly my work in the language of chemistry and around key chemical concepts.

What is Chemistry?

I run workshops with school pupils that always begin with a few key questions:

  • Can you name any scientists?
  • What is chemistry?
  • Who are chemists?

Once we get some discussion going about the difference between chemists and pharmacists, we can start talking about some of the key concepts of chemistry. I generally include a hands-on activity in these workshops, and this can be anything from making batteries out of fruit through to designing a ceramic periodic table.

Some ceramic tiles decorated with element symbols.

Why is Chemistry relevant?

Chemistry is often said to be the central science, but it is also the hidden science. Many chemical inventions are simply so commonplace, we barely acknowledge their laboratory origins. For public engagement work, I find that an interesting question is key to starting an interaction. Questions like ‘can we make an aeroplane out of seaweed?’ are attention grabbing, particularly with a hands-on activity to do.

Painted rocks with various molecules

My project for International Year of the Periodic Table is ChemRock. Rock painting is very popular at the moment and an ideal subject for an art-science crossover. There’s nothing like a bit of science by stealth. I am producing resources for people interested in decorating rocks with a chemistry or science theme and  setting up a social media presence for the project. The challenge is to create a periodic table of painted rocks.