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Maxwell Hamilton catches up with Frederike Gerstner, half of the ‘Ben and Fred’ duo who won the 2019 Josh Award for STEM communication. Find out how they created ‘The Juggling of Science’, and how they adapted it for the Science and Industry Museum’s half term crowd.  

People power was the theme of the October half term activities at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester. As part of the programme of activities, the 2019 Josh Award winners Frederike Gerstner and Ben Nicholson got hands on with the public, running juggling workshops and performing their show ‘The Juggling of Science’.

Your show combines juggling with atomic physics, an unlikely combination! What gave you inspiration?

When Ben was training at the National Centre for Circus Arts (London), he decided to use one of his assessments as an opportunity to combine his previous engineering studies with the circus arts. This led to the development of the first version of the ‘The Juggling of Science’, initially performed as a short solo piece.

When we started working as a duo one of the projects we embarked on was expanding Ben’s piece. We thought it could have great potential and provide more possibilities as a duet.

The show we perform together explores key concepts of atomic physics through the medium of juggling. It contains topics studied as part of the secondary school syllabus, using juggling and a voiceover soundtrack to visually illustrate scientific ideas.

After touring with the piece, a lot of the feedback we were getting really emphasised its educational potential and, reflecting on this, we were keen to explore how we could make it accessible to a wider audience.

What has been your favourite thing about performing in Manchester? What things did you have to consider to work with our audience?

It has been great to perform this show to the public, where anyone passing by the museum can stop and watch and even take part. Our usual format is a closed event with a seated audience, so it has been valuable to try this out and challenge ourselves in different environments.

When we first began working with the team at the Science and Industry Museum, we were advised on your typical audience and your experience of developing popular shows for them, such as Science Showdown.

Something that came out of the discussions was the idea of being more “ourselves” onstage rather than developed characters, helping to broaden the perception of people who use and benefit from science and lessen the stereotypical idea of a scientist. Another element we spent time over was reflecting on the language we were using in the piece and substituting some of the more complex scientific words to make the piece more inclusive.

Developing the show was a really interesting creative process for us and emphasised the importance of tailoring experiences to your audience. A great benefit for us is that we now have different versions for different performance environments.

Do you have a particular part of the show you especially love?

The addition of the real hydrogen fuel cell was one of the reasons for us winning the Josh Award. We feel that adding a real-world example of emerging technology really elevated the show, giving it a link to contemporary science. We were really lucky to have the support of our employers in order to do this, Ben’s engineering company supplied the hydrogen fuel cell and my company the LEDs it powered.

How have you found the experience of winning the Josh award?

It has greatly helped us to extend and improve the show which is now worthy of winning such an award and on the same level as previous winners’ work. Having the opportunity to meet people from the STEM communication field and find out more about it has also been great as it’s something we’re still relatively new to!

Are you planning to expand this show or make any changes after performing in Manchester?

We will be working to combine the elements we put into the half term version into the original show. After that, we’re always thinking about which scientific elements can be described through juggling! 

As the current show deals with secondary school (Key Stage 3+) science, we’re now starting to look into developing a show for a primary school audience as well, thinking about which topics would be interesting to explain through juggling. Aside from this, we’re both involved in other juggling projects with other companies.

The Josh Award allows Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) practitioners to develop their practice and pursue innovation and creativity in science communication and engagement. The Manchester Science Festival website shares a list of past winners.

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