During my recent trip to China I got the unique opportunity as an RSC member to help out on the RSC stand at the Beijing Science Festival (Chinese website). Which ran from the 12-16 September.

BSF Team

The RSC stand was organised by Prof. David Evans whose passion for communicating and sharing science is well just infectious and staggering. David is the RSC Beijing local section chair  bod and well he does a brilliant job of both organising monthly “Understanding Science” meetings which are informal public outreach science meetings held in various venues in Beijing. Where anyone can turn up learn some science and of course ask questions. He also organises the events at many schools in the Beijing area teaching “Practical Chemistry for Migrant Children”. Very worthwhile and if they are anything like the Science festival they will be very messy and fun. And of course educational.

I truly didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at the Beijing Olympic Green (between the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube) after an hour subway ride…..

Did you know you can pretty much travel anywhere on the Beijing subway for 2 yes two Yuan. That is about 20p yes £0.20 AMAZING. Plus the subway is clean and air conditioned I think probably one of the best in the world. If we compare my local Metro service I could make over ten trips in Beijing for the cost of a return ticket!

…..so I was pleasantly surprised when I walked out into the Olympic park to see how truly amazing the place was.

The Beijing Olympic Park Totally Amazing

A quick walk to the science event area. Some rather terrible Chinese and me flashing my RSC membership card - which NEVER EVER seems to work I eventually got through security and made my way to the UK stand. Word of advice for the world traveller the RSC membership card appears to not be sufficiently well known to let you cross borders or into certain international science events.

And what a stand I was greeted with!

RSC Stand at the Beijing Science Festival

A sea of science hungry childrenNow I would love to say I have fond memories of the 10 hours of that first day but to be honest I have almost no memories of it at all.


Well to be honest it was a complete blur a whirlwind event. Queues of local Chinese students and children brought by their teacher or parents were dressed up in lab coats and then released into the “experiment area” where David and his team (see note below) had arranged four tables with practical experiments on for the students/volunteers budding chemists of the future to experiment with.

Example experiment table - Traffic Lights from Red Cabbage Acid/Base IndicatorExample experiment table - All four experiments on one table

IMG_7723With an almost complete language barrier being broken down by waving my hands and pointing - a complete lack of knowledge of the actual practical experiments we were doing and the instructions being in Chinese I can only feel sorry for the first few groups I “helped”. Over the course of the day and thanks to people like Jane I eventually found my stride.

I’d been wanting to do outreach for a while. I must admit I’d been trying with the forum, YouTube, blog and websites in my own little way but after visiting an event organised by my old supervisor Frank Mair the RSC Manchester local section bod I had wanted to start giving something back and helping out a bit more. So the Beijing Science Festival was a great baptism by fire.

I’ve probably penned enough words about the event now - it is time to describe the team, the experiments and of course to bestow some more praise on David and his amazing outreach work and some more pictures.

What can be said about the team of volunteers that helped out?

Well unfortunately I wasn’t able to help on the Saturday due to a prior engagement with a big pile of clothes and a very small case. So I didn’t get to meet the entire event team. Those I did meet were great fun, full of energy and just brilliant at the experiments and working with the kids (and adults). From what I understand the team came from Beijing University of Chemical Technology and Harrow School. This of course included David and then there was help from Procter & Gamble  who provided much needed logistical support. You ask why and sadly I don’t have a picture of all the boxes of kit required to run the show for the five days of the event. Shall we say a lot of stuff and a lot of it being liquid and heavy - and then move on?


I must say a special thanks to “Jane” (picture on the right in this picture, which should also be on the right) and at least three blokes (whose names I’ve completely forgotten one of which is pictured left in the lab coat in this picture). It would appear I can remember the name Jane for two reasons. 1) She took me under her wing being one of two English (fluent) speakers, other than David, on day 1 and 2) My old bosses PA is called Jane and apparently my brain has a limited storage capacity for new but not previously learnt names.

The “blokes” again some of whom spoke really good English were great fun and a great laugh. The ones who didn’t “speak so good” English were even more fun as we both tried to cobble together sentences and ask questions. Thankfully they all helped correct and translate for me when I had accidently told someone the colour was blue when I meant green or when, and this happened a lot, a small child would ask a question back.

I should also make it clear that to my great relief many of the children spoke some if not quite a lot of English. That was also a rude awakening being called “Teacher” and being asked a question in a sea of smiling, happy, faces. Such energy! Such smart kids - watch out world!

The Experiments

David describes the day as a “rolling programme of experiments” and to be honest reading the list below you may be thinking that how can four experiments be a “programme” sufficient to fill five days. Well you’d be wrong. Four experiments is definitely enough. The logistics behind providing all the chemicals and equipment alone for each set of experiments is massive. We are talking seriously big boxes of stuff! A lot of the experiments below are based on the RSC great learning/inspirational chemistry tools or versions of them. Take home message lots of information out there if you want to do the same experiments at a school outreach events yourself.

  1. Red cabbage indicator - Traffic lights

  2. PVA slime and calcium alginate worms

  3. Iodine clock reaction

  4. Exothermic and endothermic reactions (these where yeast with hydrogen peroxide and baking soda with vinegar)

Firstly these are great experiments which cover a wide range of science. From pH to polymer crosslinking. They are hands on, colourful and all have some great hook that lets you and more importantly the kids ask “why?”. Of course that does mean you can explore and open up the science around the experiment so they are by no means dead-end visual treats just to occupy a few moments of time. They all leave you wanting to know more.

I do think David missed a trick he should have done food colouring + washing up soap + 30% hydrogen peroxide in a BIG conical flask and then added a “yeast” solution to that for a truly great exotermic reaction (sorry - Chinese people its a YouTube link). In fact that would be a great front of show event. Which is what I had almost forgotten to tell you about so I will now.

David being an old hand at these kind of things had setup a “flash” erm “bang” show of sorts at the front of the booth.

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On the big table was all sorts of cool visual and educational experiments. Some of which David could share with the audience via direct participation and others well visual participation was more than sufficient.

There was both adhoc and scheduled  performances to appease and entertain the rather large crowds that would come to the booth. On the Monday the Nylon rope trick was very subtle and performed at close quarters like a close up magician to the great fascination of the audience but by the Sunday it was an all out street performance drawing in amazed gasps as the rope (no longer a string) got longer and longer and then David ran out of room!

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To sum up!

I can not really bestrow enough praise on David and his team who volunteered and organised this event. Especially those that looked after me whilst I was supposed to be looking after the kids! For me and hopefully everyone who was involved it was truly brilliant and a great few days.

It really opened my eyes and made me want to be part of science outreach even more than before and to be honest it rekindled a little spark for performance practical chemistry. Something I had almost forgotten could be so powerful and so educational as it had become such a normal part of my life over the past 15 years or more. I do not know if you are a chemist or a scientist but I fell in love with science and chemistry along, long time ago but I am still caught out by how much enjoyment I still get from it. I hope you do too.

Keep a look out for the amazing outreach programmes out there from people like David and Frank in the RSC to the British Science Association. Don’t forget to go visit your local science museum (MOSI for me) and of course don’t forget to take your kids along as well.