The British Association tries to make science more accessible to children and teachers. Peter Briggs previews its annual conference.
Where will you find thousands of people gathering to learn more about science and its impact on our lives? Next week, in Sheffield, at the annual festival of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The event, which has been taking place since 1831, provides a unique learning opportunity for young and old across a vast swathe of scientific topics.
The theme of the core programme of more than 300 talks and discussions is "Prospering Through Science", reflecting the interests of the association's president, Sir Richard Sykes, chairman of Glaxo Wellcome. Sessions ranging from "Making money with physics" to "Agriculture in the 21st century", from "Economic forecasting" to "Making new drugs", and from "Chemistry, health and the environment" to "Mathematics and the financial world" deal with the theme in depth and breadth across the natural and social sciences, engineering, mathematics and medicine.
Already more than 1,500 students from Years 11 to 13 have signed up to attend, but there is room for more. The festival also provides HE students and professional scientists the chance to broaden their horizons by finding out what is happening in other disciplines. Teachers can up-date themselves and discover topics that bring the curriculum to life. Members of the public can learn about key science-based issues.
Younger age groups are not left out. A special programme of curriculum-related, "hands-on" workshops is expected to attract more than 5,000 children aged 5 to 13. Among many activities, they will be able to encounter a musical clown who explains friction and gravity, have a close encounter with birds of prey, watch custard explode and investigate the physics of ice cream.
The festival, one of the country's largest science attractions of its kind, aims to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers and to empower the rest of us to live with confidence in a scientific and technological world. Opportunities to participate in discussions and meet some of the UK's leading scientists are an important part of this process.
Some 139 years ago, when the association met in Oxford, TH Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce clashed over Darwin's ideas on evolution in a classic confrontation of science and religion. That debate continues, as the recent decision in Kansas to ban the teaching of evolution in schools in favour of Biblical creationism reminds us. And this year's programme is not short of controversial topics. Genetically modified organisms, future energy sources and patenting life are issues likely to spark debate.
Although it's the festival itself that often hits the headlines, the association's activities continue throughout the year. They include activity days, science clubs, award schemes and opportunities for young people to get to grips with major contemporary issues.
Peter Briggs is chief executive of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. For more information about the British Association's annual festival and other activities, phone 0171 973 3074, or consult www.britassoc.org.uk.