Renee loves explosive ideas and is partial to a flashy science show. If she isn’t up to her eyes experimenting or in a school making kids go Wow! she can be found on her soapbox about science being for everyone! Renee trained as a Biochemist before setting up WATS.ON. She ran the Oxford Science Festival and is the founder of The Curiosity Box, a STEM community and subscription for families.
Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.
Oh wow, there are so many things!! I have recently been back home in Australia and I find the bush SO amazing, it is so different to the woods in the UK. It is dusty and rugged and everything looks like it is struggling to survive in the dry heat but when you look closely there is an abundance of spectacular plants and animals. Eucalyptus trees look like they’ve been tortured but the colours of their bark range from pastel pinks to baby blues and they smell so good. There are parts of Australia that have thousands of endemic species (species found nowhere else in the world), more than all of Europe and Asia! I could stroll through the bush for hours on end and never get bored, searching for the vivid purple fringe lily or a glimpse at the shimmering turquoise of a Splendid Fairy Wren. I also recently attended the European Society for Gene and Cell Therapy congress and heard about a new stem cell therapy for cancer that blew my mind. I think the next 10 – 20 years will be a very interesting time for healthcare as we start to see curative treatments coming through that don’t quite fit the economics of our current healthcare system. Realising the greatest benefit to patients of these new biological therapies will rely on a doctors, researchers, politicians, pharma industry and patients all working together to redefine the future of healthcare.
How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?
Wonder for me, is an analogue of happiness. It is the happiness you get just from being alive, it relies on no one else and is a kind of spiritual Wow! I am here! Awe is the overwhelming feeling of amazement at the world, the universe and everything in it. Curiosity is the insatiable urge to continue to ask why. It is a child-like quality that drives the best kind of learning. These link together in my secular version of the holy trinity. They are the things that underpin a full life, that guide me and give me a reference for the sort of person I am and I want to be.
What inspires you to be creative?
There are two main things that inspire creativity in me. The first is simply the urge to find better ways of doing things. I like to fill my life with a really diverse range of activities like cooking, touch rugby, dancing and playing with my kids and I think I draw on all those things when I approach a challenge. I’m happy taking risks and am probably addicted to the trill of putting myself well outside my comfort zone which all mean that I can test things out that others might be reluctant to…often for good reason! But I have a well developed sense of “give it a go and who cares what people will think” which really helps to get to creative solutions more quickly. The second is people. I am like a sponge when it comes to watching and listening to people. I love chatting to people I haven’t met, from all walks of life and hearing their story. Humans are fundamentally creative creatures and I think I soak a lot of that up and store it away for use later!
Do you have any ‘rituals’ or an environment that aids your creativity?
I need to get out in among nature. Whether that be on a mountain, in a forest or by the sea, it doesn’t really matter. I find my mind starts automatically firing in new and interesting ways when I have spent time revelling in the beauty of the natural world. I’ve also found that the loo is a great place for random moments of insight to strike!
What do you love about magic? What do you think hinders an audience from experiencing wonder when watching a magician?
The more I understand about the world the more I love magic. I love to be surprised and to be left completely unable to explain something. People who are brave enough to be magicians are often pushing the limits of human possibility both physically and psychologically and that sucks me in completely. I also love how it is a great leveller – no matter your age or background everyone loves magic!
I think the best magicians are ones that bring you on an adventure with their storytelling. When you feel like you are part of the show the magic is captivating. I think if the magician is impersonal then you spend your time trying to unpick the tricks and find fault.
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
All you need to do is watch a baby for a few minutes to see that our curiosity is innate. We are driven by a need to understand our environment which is probably rooted in evolution and our ability to survive by observing, testing and knowing as much as possible about potential dangers and where to find food. For me, wonder is the product of curiosity so to cultivate wonder we just need to nurture curiosity.
Tell me about the concept behind The Curiosity Box. How did it start, what is the aim and what feedback are you getting?
The aim of the Curiosity Box is really to do exactly what I said in the previous question – nurture curiosity. To do that, we try to create activities that are fun, that build confidence and get kids doing science and engineering. It is the doing that is really important – using your hands to try stuff out and hopefully to start thinking of, and doing your own experiments. I started CB because I had been doing workshops in primary schools and running large public science events like the Oxfordshire Science Festival and I kept hearing parents saying “Why cant we have this kind of thing more often?” or “I wish science was like this when I was a kid” and I realised how much we neglect to value the learning that happens at home when we talk about education. Not only that but how much parents influence a child’s perceptions. So I thought, why not give power to parents, particularly those who might have found science “boring” at school but who are themselves curious and interested, and the tools to kids to be able to turn their homes into laboratories. I had this dream of families all over the world sitting around the dinner table or out in the garden having fun doing science together. I don’t come from a well-educated family, and that drives me to want to reach families like mine, who don’t fit the sciency stereotype, so I wasn’t sure whether we could achieve my dream, but 2 years in and the feedback we are getting suggests that we are making some impact. There is a long way to go but the way I see it, every child who does a Curiosity Box is one more child having a go at science and that is a win.
Why is important that families work together on the projects? What do children get out of it AND what do the adults get from it?
I think that experiencing wonder is the most powerful, positive way of building human connections. When families explore and learn things together it builds the relationship and makes us all feel like we are a part of something bigger. Anyone who has ever spent time with kids will know that you are always learning things, that you hear questions and think “oh yeah, why/how/when/where does that happen?” I, for example have learned more about history from my children than I remember from my history lessons at school. I absolutely LOVED watching Horrible Histories and working on their history projects with them. I think a child’s curiosity reopens our own child-like curiosity and then you have something fun in common.
What do you feel is the best environment to foster curiosity? What could schools and businesses do to foster and protect an innovative spirit?
I think the critical thing is to create an environment where we are encouraged to fail bravely – testing, failing, learning and re-testing all the time. This is the missing link in our current UK education system. Exams allow no room for innovation and structuring our curriculum around exams at best devalues, at worst eliminates creativity and innovation. Not great for our future leaders and workforce!
What stood out for you? Any questions? Things you disagree with? Write a comment and join in the discussion.