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By Patch Scales on

Science Showdown: Behind the scenes

Have you ever wondered what goes in to creating one of our fabulous Explainer shows? Well, wonder no more. Here, Explainer Patrick 'Patch' Scales takes us behind the scenes to see what it takes to get a new Science Showdown on stage…

Please note: The event discussed below took place in 2019. To find out what exhibitions and activities are open today, visit our What’s On section.

An Explainer show at the museum
Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

I’m Patch (that’s me in the yellow t-shirt) and I’ve been an explainer at the Science and Industry Museum for three years. As part of my role here at the museum, I write shows for our learning programme.

If you’ve visited the museum during the holidays you may have seen one of our Science Showdowns, where we take three different ideas, inventions or people and show off their science using exciting and dramatic demonstrations. Over the years we’ve covered you with toilet paper, threatened to tip buckets of wee over your head and even challenged you to a dance off with a robot, all in the name of science.

This October, we’re going live with our new Science Showdown: People Power. Given the theme, I’d like to show you some of the people power that goes on in the Explainer team to get a show ready for you to enjoy.

In this new show, we’re looking into all the different kinds of power we as people make. Whether it’s from our muscles, our brains or even our toilets…

Our first demonstration in the show will focus on muscle power. To bring home the idea of moving or powering machines with our muscles, we’ll be challenging two members of our audience to face off and produce the most power.

They’ll be competing using an incredible prop produced by our fantastic Gallery Maintenance team. The team has a wealth of experience and has produced some amazing props for our shows over the years. I asked Gil, a member of the Gallery Maintenance team, about the new prop:

“Making props for the museum’s public programme is always a really interesting and rewarding process—mainly because we never know what wacky requests our colleagues in the Explainer team have in mind for us. Over the past few years, we have been asked to make a giant shadow box and an interactive table made of robot parts so, it wasn’t exactly a surprise back in August when our Explainer team enthusiastically asked us to design and build a hand crank dynamo voltmeter…

…that can be used on stage and easily viewed by an audience of hundreds of people…

…by October…

…so… no pressure then!

To make the voltmeter, I programmed an Arduino board to transfer voltage from a hand-crank to generate enough power to illuminate two 1-metre tall polycarbonate tubes illuminated by Neopixel LED strip lights. It looks spectacular, especially in the dark. I’m sure it will look even better once our Explainer team start using it to tell the story of hand power during the shows in October.”

Here at the museum we like science to be big, bold and brilliant. By incorporating brilliant props like these, we want our visitors to be able to engage with science; in this case, quite literally in a hands-on way. It’s important to us to build up our visitors’ confidence and ownership in science. Staging the show as a contest means each of our visitors has an investment in the result, even those that haven’t volunteered to take part in the demonstration.

An old toilet roll
Toilet paper, ‘Bronco’ brand, London, England, 1935–50

We like to surprise our audiences here at the museum too, and what could be more surprising than poo power? Believe it or not, right now here in Manchester, we’ve got poo power going on. Daveyhulme Sewage Works is processing sewage to produce methane, to make the plant self-sufficient in electricity and gas.

This is a fact we will be bringing to you with a bang. We’ll be igniting hydrogen, another product we can produce from sewage. Have no fear though; you are in very safe hands. Our Explainer team undergoes intensive training, learning to handle explosive gases, and practicing igniting hydrogen bubbles safely.

Hannah Ford, one of my fellow Explainers, described learning new, potentially dangerous demonstrations as:

“One of my favourite parts of the job—finding new ways to blow our visitors’ minds, in the most impressive ways possible! But we can’t do that unless we keep them—and ourselves—safe.”

We like to link all of our topics to our visitors’ lives, and I think this is a great example of that. After all, as a wise philosopher once said, ‘everybody poops’. By doing so we’re helping our visitors to discover the science all around them, and to find their own value in science.

A girl with a headset on
Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

In our final section of the showdown, we decided to look to the future. We wanted to investigate the power of the brain. The Explainer team aren’t at the cutting edge of science, but we are fortunate enough to work with a fantastic STEM Ambassador team. They work with volunteers from all around science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and as a result, we’re always likely to find a STEM Ambassador suited for our needs.

The team put us in contact with the amazing Marcin Poblocki. You may have been lucky enough to meet Marcin at one of our many events, but if you haven’t we’ve asked him to tell you a bit about himself:

“I have been a STEM Ambassador for almost six years and I have been involved in many various activities including Manchester Science Festival, MakeFest, Late events and promoting physics in many schools in the Manchester area. Currently I’m working at University of Liverpool on the ALICE project, which is a silicon detector that will be installed at CERN. I’m also passionate about 3D printing and in my spare time I design mini robots, school apparatus and experiments that can be used in lessons.”

Marcin was kind enough to lend us one of his projects: a 3D printed robotic hand controlled by brain activity, which one volunteer will pilot during the show.

We’re proud to have produced this show in six weeks from brief to performance, and we hope you enjoy watching it yourselves. Come and visit the museum this half term and decide which of our three demonstrations is your winner.

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