We’re Here to Inspire….

Midlands Science is pleased to be teaming up with Birr Castle Demense & Science Centre this year to deliver some exciting workshops for a number of fortunate Midland students during Science Week.
The interactive Science centre at Birr Castle reveals the wonders of early photography, engineering and astronomy with a special emphasis on the brilliant design and assembly of the world famous Great Telescope. We caught up with Alison Delaney, Education Officer with Birr Castle Demense & Science Centre to talk about what we can look forward to this November and to learn a little bit more about what is offered at the castle itself….

Alison, we are delighted that you will be taking part in this year’s Midlands Science Festival. Can you tell us a bit about Birr Castle, its focus on science activities and what you will be providing during Science Week 2018?
Thanks very much, Gillian. There has been a castle on this site in Co. Offaly since early medieval times, but it was really when the Parsons family arrived in Birr in 1620 that the castle started to develop into what it is today. The Parsons family have been resident at the castle for nearly 400 years, Lord Brendan and Lady Alison Rosse being the current owners. The family are known as a Family of Inventors and have achieved some remarkable things over the years. The third Earl of Rosse was responsible for designing and building the world-famous telescope the Leviathan, his wife Mary Rosse became known as Ireland’s first female photographer and the dark room in which she worked was painstakingly moved piece by piece from the castle to its current location in the Science Centre here, it’s believed to be the oldest complete dark room in the world. One of their sons, Laurence invented the Lunar Heat Machine that was able to accurately measure the temperature of the moon for the first time. Another of their sons invented the steam powered turbine which was used in ships like the Titanic and the Dreadnought. The current Earl, his mother and father share a passion for horticulture and have developed the 120 acres of magnificent gardens within the Demesne. There’s such a richness of scientific history at Birr Castle that it’s a real pleasure to be able to draw upon these achievements to share and inspire others.

Hopefully, we’ll be able to do that with the workshops and events that are run throughout the year but, more specifically, with the interesting programme of activities we have for Science Week this year. Two fantastic workshops are being run as part of the Midlands Science Festival, the first is called, “Da Vinci – Inventing the Impossible,” where the artist Paul Timoney, dressed in character along with his Mona Lisa, explores how art can be used to develop ideas. How by using both detailed, accurate observation and the freedom of expression and imagination incredible scientific progress can be made. The other is a photography workshop being run by Veronica Nicholson. We’re going to visit the dark room in the Science Centre and then discover the impact of light in an expressive photography session. We’ll be learning how to literally draw shapes using light. Continuing on from the Festival, we’re also running further workshops for both schools and families entitled, “Common Sense.” We’ll be looking at how our senses work in isolation and experimenting to see how good they actually are and how we compare against the rest of the animal world. Bit of a spoiler here, we’re not as good as we think we are! It’s a really fun, fully immersive workshop and I’m looking forward to running that during the week.

The Astronomy of Birr Castle is one of its greatest attractions. It is unusual for a Castle in the centre of Ireland to have become a great centre of astronomical discovery. Can you give us some background on this and how it evolved?

Yes, that’s right during the late 1800’s Birr Castle was very well known within astronomical circles worldwide. This was seen as the place to study the distant features of the universe. It was William Parsons, the third Earl of Rosse that set himself the challenge of investigating the universe. He definitely had an unconventional education in that he was tutored at home with a solid focus on maths and engineering, but it was exactly this type of education that enabled him to achieve the extraordinary feat of building the moveable Great Leviathan 72” telescope which was the biggest telescope in the world for nearly 75 years. Lord Rosse initially used 18” and 36” telescopes through which he was able to observe the moon in greater detail than ever before but he realised he needed more light to see further into the universe to study star clusters and nebulae. It took him three years to design and build the telescope but what he found was worth waiting for, he discovered the spiral nature of galaxies. His original charcoal drawings of his discoveries are on display here, he was incredibly accurate with them.
I do also want to mention the third Earl’s eldest son Laurence, because he contributed greatly to astronomy too which was probably pretty inevitable given his upbringing amongst telescopes and astronomers. He was particularly interested in the moon and, towards the end of his life, built the Lunar Heat Machine which is on display in our Science Centre. He was able to accurately measure the heat of the moon using this machine, but it was only 80 years later, after the moon landings, that his calculations were verified and he was believed. There is a letter from Neil Armstrong on display next to the machine thanking the Parsons family for their extraordinary contributions to astronomy and scientific exploration.
Last year Birr became the home of another great astronomical project called I-LOFAR. To me it doesn’t look as visually impressive as the Leviathan, but the fact that it’s capable of ground breaking research in modern astronomy certainly makes up for that. It’s one of a network of radio telescopes that is connected to a further eleven stations in Europe and makes for one very, very large telescope, it is therefore capable of capturing some pretty unique data. It’s an exciting time for Irish astronomy and wonderful that such a significant project is located at Birr Castle Gardens and continuing in the great tradition that is very much a part of the fabric here.

What is your own background? Did you study science at university?

I didn’t come from a science background at all so it’s very interesting that I have now found myself in a position where I love teaching it. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career when I was at school, I’m still unsure how it’s even possible to know given that many career options are so far removed from a school curriculum and experience at that time. I had an interest in astronomy thanks to a primary school teacher that used to run an evening club for 6th class. I didn’t get the chance to explore that in any great detail at secondary school but kept an interest throughout. I think astronomy is universally the most interesting, wonderful, inspiring and terrifying of the science subjects. The stereotype, however, that you had to have the genius intelligence of Stephen Hawking, Isaac Newton or a rocket scientist to choose that as an option at university made it a non-starter for me. I also had a huge interest in wildlife but studying biology was closed to me as I refused to dissect animals – it was a compulsory part of the curriculum at the time. That one decision has definitely altered my career path and it’s a shame that pursuing a genuine interest wasn’t available to me on an academic level because I was expected to do something I was very uncomfortable with. I may well have gone on to study zoology or ecology at university just because I was interested rather than because I had a career path mapped out. I was drawn to creative artsy subjects at school and chose subjects based on this and my like of the teacher of those subjects. I’m sure I’m not alone in that! I eventually found my way into teaching via Theology and Philosophy degrees and so I could argue that I did study science at university, just not in a conventional way. I qualified as both a primary and secondary school teacher, but decided that I was more drawn to the variety of primary teaching and spent a very happy twelve years in the classroom. My love of wildlife, botany and ecology continued throughout the years and I was appointed the environmental education co-ordinator at the school in which I was teaching. In 2012, I became a Head Guide with the National Parks and Wildlife Service and a door that closed all those years ago was reopened. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching groups about our native flora and fauna in Ireland and, as a part of the Frontier Bushcraft team in the UK, teaching groups about how to appreciate and utilise these as resources for living comfortably within the natural environment. Living, sleeping and working outside for many weeks at a time really gives you a unique connection to the natural world and our place within it. It’s actually amazing how our bodies and senses adapt back to a more primitive state under these conditions and that’s something we explore in “Common Sense” the Science Week workshop we’re running this year. We explore the limitations of our senses, how they’re numbed by the modern environment we live in, and how we can train ourselves to refine our senses to be more nature aware. I feel so fortunate to have been appointed as the new Educational Development Officer here at Birr Castle Gardens and Science Centre in July of this year. It’s a brand new post and a big exciting challenge. I can share my passion for biodiversity and the natural world in the 120 acres of gardens, arboretum and river walks developed by generations of the Parsons family. It’s astonishing what an oasis the demesne is for both native and non-native species. Really incredible. The historical and modern links to Irish astronomy from this site and all that offers from an educational perspective are unparalleled in Ireland. We have the oldest complete dark room in the world within the Science Centre here; a rich history of engineering achievements, actually a rich history full-stop. So, although I didn’t study science at university, I’m fully immersed in it now and loving it.

What experiences in school or otherwise influenced you to pursue a career in science?
Rather than encouraging me to pursue a career in science, I feel that my experiences in school achieved exactly the opposite. The lessons were formal, stiff and irrelevant. No obvious connections were made between science and everyday life and I remember my lessons at the time as being saturated with rights and wrongs with no room for manoeuvre. Doesn’t all science start with curiosity and a question? I never got that at school. It seemed that science was taught in a historical, fact heavy way and it wasn’t presented in a way that I could connect with, it was difficult to understand and boring. There were students that enjoyed maths and science and others that enjoyed English and art and never the twain shall meet. The cross curricular links were never highlighted, it’s not that they didn’t exist rather that subjects were defined, prescribed and separate. I think schools have become better at the merging of subjects and proactively searching for links between them. I think this immediately makes subjects more accessible to all students that may have previously boxed subjects into likes and dislikes. I particularly like that the Da Vinci workshop running here for Science Week is removing these boundaries that I experienced and embracing the connections between art, science and progress. Now that I’m involved in the teaching of science, I actually think that my negative experiences of learning science at school have enabled me to teach it better. I remember leaving science classes thinking, “So what? Why do I need to know this? It doesn’t mean anything to me,” so I now try to ensure that every workshop and lesson I deliver is engaging, accessible, inclusive and relevant. Encouraging curiosity, discovery and relating things back to modern life and keeping things interesting is something I work very hard on. It’s always nice to learn when you don’t know you’re learning. We’re here to inspire and we’re never going to achieve that if we’re only reaching out to a handful of people in each workshop that have an interest in “Chemistry,” “Physics” and “Biology.”

What do you think we can be doing to inspire and encourage more young people to choose science as a subject and indeed as a third level college choice?

One of the biggest barriers, and certainly it would be applicable to me, would be the thought that science in secondary school and beyond is difficult, boring and hard to relate to. It’s conducted by people that speak an intimidating scientific language in white lab coats and goggles in a sterile lab, obviously that’s not always the case, but I do think it’s still a common perception. So many people are challenging these preconceptions and working hard to get the message out there that science can be cool and varied and interesting. In my experience, children are unfailingly enthusiastic about partaking in science experiments and demonstrations, but it’s important for them to realise that science isn’t all fun and games like workshops often suggest, getting their attention in this manner is a good starting point to pique interest though and demonstrate possibilities within the blanket term, “science.” There are more opportunities than ever before for children to access science through interesting festivals, STEM week programmes, teachers getting involved in CPD etc and these opportunities might allow some of the themes to land in a meaningful and life changing way. Also, echoing what I said earlier, linking the arts to science is something that is very important, it can broaden the reach of the subject in so many ways, I know there’s a lot of people focussing on this right now and I’m really enjoying hearing about how they’re achieving it. Our Da Vinci event ticks all the right boxes there. Very young children are naturally curious and constantly ask the question, “Why?” Does this eagerness of discovery wane a little at school? It’s something we need to encourage for sure, the relatability and the asking of questions and guiding them to explore and discover the answers and continuing this through all levels of education. I do think that students can become accustomed to learning what other people think and what other people have discovered, but if they can ask questions that resonate with them and reach beyond that, there’s exciting stuff to be found there.