C2I 2018: SMASHFestUK delivers STEM by stealth in space

'STEM by stealth' has helped raise science capital in an area of London where youngsters can feel estranged from the mainstream

Collaborate to Innovate 2018

Category: Young Innovator  

Winner: SMASHFestUK

Partners: Middlesex University, The Refinery, Deptford Green School - Design and Technology Year 9 students,  Llangatwg Community School Year 8 students, Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham College Sixth Form,  Christ the King Sixth Form, AstroCymru, Monster Paw Games, Little Inventors, University of Greenwich, Science and Technology Facilities Council, Royal Academy of Engineering, UK Space Agency

How do you get children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds interested in STEM when they’ve already decided it’s ‘not for them’?

If you’re one of the organisers of SMASHfestUK the answer is simple: take STEM-oriented activities into underserved communities but don’t put participants off by badging the initiative as overtly STEM-related.

If you think this sounds familiar it’s because SMASHfestUK were winners in the Young Innovator - Engagement Initiatives category of C2I 2017 and here they are again, picking up the accolade of Young Innovator for taking their unique offering across the UK and into space.

To recap, SMASHfestUK defines itself a ‘narrative driven festival with a specific mission to widen participation and build diversity in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) through the arts.’ The multi-award winning, free-to-attend festival does this by engaging participants in STEM through a combination of activities that include comedy, interactive workshops, performances, games and experiments.

Each SMASHfestUK is themed around a disaster scenario that poses dire consequences to humanity unless ways can be found by participants to adapt and survive using engineered solutions.

Problem solving at SMASHFestUK

The event began – and continues to be - a week-long set of activities that take place in Deptford, South East London, but has grown – with funding from the UK Space Agency, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Science and Technology Facilities Council - to pilot activities outside London with the Earth and Sky tour.

Living in Space - framed around a worst-case scenario of Earth being too inhospitable to survive following a massive flood - was formulated during The Earth and Sky tour and brought to life by numerous collaborators who helped to inform a set of activities that would inspire youngsters to look at the engineering and science necessary to live in space.

The public co-creation element alone involved members of the public participating in space engineering and science based activities with seven universities, UCL Women's Engineering Society, Fraser Nash, plus space scientists including Hannah Sargeant, Space Exploration Systems Researcher, OU; and Jess Durk, Theoretical Cosmology Researcher QMUL & STFC Astronomer.

Ideas generated during this process informed the Living in Space project brief, culminating in a multi-part semi-immersive experience during the main Deptford 2018 SMASHfestUK festival.

The experience had multiple stages of engineering engagement, which required visitors to register and train before embarking on their mission. The experience was designed to ensure that participants considered themselves to have a role other than ‘astronaut’. These included being a member of the Asteroid Mining and Resource Section, the Science and Engineering Team, or being a Space Colonist.

Helping hands at SMASHFestUK

Consequently, visitors could engage with various engineering disciplines and concepts including aeronautics, robotics, mechatronics, software, energy, electronics, materials, asteroid mining and design engineering. Industry experts could then meet members of the public to discuss the principles and practicalities of the activities being presented, and to discuss broader opportunities in education and future careers in those fields.

SMASHfestUK is the brainchild of co-founders Wyn Griffiths, Middlesex University product design course leader, and Dr Lindsay Keith, a science broadcast specialist and research fellow at the University of Greenwich. In 2017 alone, the festival was experienced by over 16,000 people from the organisers’ target demographic.

Despite its success and myriad collaborators, Griffiths explained that finding backers can be problematic because they’re conflicted by ‘good will in principle’ and the ‘measurement culture’ that drives companies and educational establishments.

“There’s a lot of lip service paid by companies,” said Griffiths. “I will positively assume there’s good intent but other things get in the way in terms of diversity, inclusivity and collaboration. Obviously, companies are driven by commercial requirements first and foremost, but the same goes the for organisations that aren’t necessarily fully driven by commercial restraints, such as educational establishments, whether that’s higher education [or] schools.

“People are under a huge amount of pressure because of these structures they’re working within, so the idea of doing something outside of those structures – of those metrics – is very appealing to many people, but the practical reality of it then becomes very difficult,” he added. “That’s…the conflict we’ve been dealing with. We know loads of people want to do stuff, lots of people have great ideas and incredible capabilities but how do you then work with them and help them, or give them opportunities or challenge them, to try things outside their normal metrics? That’s been our battle from the start.”

By any measure of success, the battle has been worth it. As well as C2I accolades, SMASHfestUK has won the Royal Academy of Engineering 'Ingenious' Award two years running (2016 and 2017), and was acknowledged with an NCCPE (National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement) 'ENGAGE Award for 'Public Engagement with Research in STEM' 2016.

Living in Space VR journey at SMASHFestUK

Griffiths acknowledges that these have given SMASHfestUK a degree of visibility and credibility but new challenges await in relation to funding, which has so far been provided smaller engagement grants.

“We’re at that kind of transition period now where we’re a small-scale organisation that’s overdelivering on its funding,” he said, adding that the organisation is considering how to ‘leverage the next level’. “There are lots of models we could do that would make it sustainable very quickly, but they are the easy routes. Charging people, going to well off communities: very easy to do and exactly what we won’t do, and will never do.”

Free access is vital to giving the local community the opportunity to engage with STEM presenters, academics and professionals on a one-to-one basis. This ‘science by stealth, engineering undercover, arts in the open’ approach has helped to increase participants’ so-called ‘STEM capital’ and challenge perceptions of STEM that are formed at an early age.

Welcome aboard: youngsters qualify for space at SMASHFestUK

The concept of STEM capital arose following the 2013 publication of Kings College London’s ASPIRES project, which found many young people aged 10-14 characterising STEM as for 'for clever people' or, as mentioned earlier, ‘not for them’. This is further compounded by the belief that science qualifications apply to aspiring doctors, teachers or 'scientists' with little recognition of STEM careers. Further studies have found the uptake of STEM among young women stymied by a lack of visible role models.

According to the study, the situation could be improved by increasing science capital, which is defined as a conceptual tool for measuring an individual's exposure and knowledge of science, which can then be used to help understand how social class affects people's aspirations and involvement in science.

SMASHfestUK didn’t appear overnight, formulating as an idea in 2012 and launching in 2015. According to Griffiths, people initially turned up to SMASHfestUK 2015 curious to find out what it was about, which is exactly how the organisers wanted it.

“As the thing has grown we talk more about STEM and arts and the mission behind it, but the front-end branding was ‘big story, big adventure, come along and find out what’s happening here,’ and that was a critical aspect,” said Griffiths. “We don’t water it down but it’s all interwoven into the narrative. It’s not about diluting it, it’s about how you represent it and how its delivered.”


Young Innovator – runners up

I'm an Engineer, Get me out of here - Mangorolla CIC with Teachers at 307 schools, Engineers at 169 companies and organisations

An online engagement activity that connects schools students across the UK with engineers.

Academy9 - Transport Scotland with Secondary Schools - Breadalbane Academy, Grantown Grammar School, Kingussie High School, Pitlochry High School

Primary Schools - Abernethy Primary, Alvie Primary, Aviemore Primary, Blair Atholl Primary, Breadalbane Primary, Carrbridge Primary, Daviot Primary, Deshar Primary, Gergask Primary, Glenlyon Primary, Grantown Primary, Grandtully Primary, Kenmore Primary, Kingussie Primary, Kinloch Rannoch Primary, Logierait Primary, Newtonmore Primary, Pitlochry Primary, Royal School of Dunkeld, and Strathdearn Primary.

A9 Consultancies - Jacobs, CH2M Fairhurst Joint Venture and Atkins Mouchel Joint Venture

Using real-world engineering projects (in this case the A9 dualing programme) as the basis of a host of engineering education activities.