Science Learning Manager Olympia Brown explains how science and engineering are not just for Christmas here at the Royal Institution.

  • Credit: Paul Wilkinson

It’s that time of year again when the CHRISTMAS LECTURES starts to become very real for me – the set is being built in a warehouse, the demos are assembling in various rooms around the Ri and the rehearsals in the theatre are getting fuller and looking more like the real thing. So it’s a good moment to take a minute to step back from the hubbub and look at how over the last few years we have taken the successful broadcast and built an incredible project that reaches out from the theatre into the homes and schools of millions of people across not only the UK but the world, and not just for Christmas time but throughout the year.

At the heart of the whole project is obviously the live Lectures, which are recorded for broadcast on TV. The broadcast on BBC Four regularly reaches over 2 million people. The Lectures are also made available on BBC iPlayer.

Due to the incredibly high demand for tickets, the audience for the live events apply for tickets through a ballot – similar to the Wimbledon ballot system. The ballot is open to UK registered schools and Ri Members (Faraday junior membership starts at only £15 a year and provides free access to loads of public events). This year our audience will be made up of attendees from as far afield as Bath, Norwich, Loughborough and Exeter (travelling in school groups) and Bridgend, Leamington Spa, Chesterfield, Stockport and even Germany (travelling as individuals).

In addition to tickets allocated through the ballot, every year we set aside a number of tickets to prioritise disadvantaged groups attending the lectures. For example, this year, we are building on a successful ExpeRimental partnership with Barts Health NHS Trust to bring three groups of their patients and carers from the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel to watch the lectures who would otherwise not be able to attend. Find out more here.

Thanks to a generous donation from a Mr Reid a few years ago, we are able to provide tickets and cover travel and accommodation costs for students from a disadvantaged background who live in the North West of England to attend the lectures each year.

And in a partnership with the RiAus, an Australian science communication organisation, we welcome a group of disadvantaged students from South Australia every year, in a programme called Spirit of Science.

Of course before we are ready to welcome a live audience, we need to write scripts, build demos and research incredible content for inclusion in the Lectures. We have widened the research phase of the project this year with our online public gallerywww.hack-gallery.tumblr.com. We have invited submissions from the international maker community to highlight the brilliant projects that they have worked on in their community centre, club, garden shed or wherever they invent their wonderful gadgets and machines.

Once we have our first drafts of scripts, it’s time to test the content in front of a live audience. We take versions of the show for rehearsals in a different state school every year allowing even more children a glimpse of the exciting broadcast to come.

To build on the excitement of the live lectures in December, we also offer tours of the action behind the scenes, offering not only a peek into rehearsals for this year’s Lectures, but also a visit to the Ri archive to see some treasures from CHRISTMAS LECTURES past. During the filming of each of the Lectures, we also open up some of our other rooms to offer live screenings of the action in the theatre. These screening rooms are more relaxed affairs than the main event in the theatre – the audience can enjoy a drink while they are watching, and it’s also more suitable for the under 11s.

Once we have recorded the lectures, and they have had their premiere on the BBC, we make them available in full and for free for an international audience via our online video platform the Ri Channel. 14 full series of lectures from our archives are already permanent fixtures on the Ri Channel and thanks to a recent heritage grant we now have funds to help realise our ambition of digitising many more from our archives over the next 12 months.

Our next layer of projects around the live event and TV broadcast are the wide variety of digital projects that serve the content of the lectures up in different formats, to different audiences, all for free. 

Last year for the biology-themed Life Fantastic, we partnered with the award-winning online engagement team behind ‘I’m a scientist, get me out of here’. This year we are working with them to deliver ‘I’m an engineer, get me out of here’. This project introduces genuine interaction with the audience, as it allows members of the public and school groups to take part in live chats and have their questions about the science and engineering behind the lectures answered online by the Lecturer and a team of professional scientists and/or engineers working in related fields.

We also want these lectures to be used in the classroom, so we create a range of online teaching resources for teachers and home educators to use, including short YouTube clips which illustrate and explain the key scientific or engineering concepts in each lecture. You can see last year’s ‘Life Fantastic’ resources here. This year, as well as the resources aimed at secondary school-age students, we are delighted to be working with the University of Manchester’s Science Education Research and Innovation Hub to be preparing resources for use in primary schools too.

For our audiences on social media, including YouTube, Twitter, Google+, Instagram and Facebook, we deliver a collection of CHRISTMAS LECTURES-inspired content that takes the content of the lectures and presents new perspectives on it, or shares stories that expand and develop the content of the broadcast lectures. This year our focus will be on fun, simple and cheap ways you can get involved with inventing and tinkering at home, inspired by the demos in the Lectures. 

We are also partnering with the BBC Learning team to produce some iWonder guides. This popular format allows us to share yet more content inspired by the show and behind the scenes content.

While we support and train our Lecturer throughout the project on the various aspects of the skills that presenting the CHRISTMAS LECTURES requires, we also encourage them to try other forms of engagement new to them, like starting a Twitter account. This year’s Lecturer, Prof Danielle George, as well as tweeting under her own steam @EngineerDG took over the reins at the rotational account @realscientists recently, to share both her research and her preparations for the Lectures.

After the dust has settled from the main project in the winter, we can turn our attention to the international dimension to the project. Many people don’t realise that the Lectures travel internationally over summer and this year we will be repeating a version of the show to school audiences in Singapore, which will also be broadcast on Singaporean national TV.

Thanks to funding from the Royal Society of Chemistry, we were able to take the 2012 ‘Modern Alchemist’ lectures on a UK-wide tour this year which was a fantastic success reaching school and family audiences in community centres and local theatres in the Scottish Highlands, Edinburgh, Manchester, Plymouth, Norwich, Harrogate and more. It’s a model we very much hope to replicate in future years, although this is completely dependent on us receiving the financial assistance to make it possible.

As we receive no guaranteed support for the CHRISTMAS LECTURES, either from government departments nor through a legacy, to cover the costs of each year’s Lectures we are entirely reliant on what funding we can raise and generate. While we make as much of the content as we can available for free, we do charge for tickets to some of the events I’ve mentioned. We are also very grateful for the generosity of the supporters that have contributed to the costs of the Lectures.

However, this income is still not quite enough to pay for all the parts of the project. So to further supplement this support, we also hold an eBay auction of a small number of tickets (less than 1% of the seats in the theatre) as a further fundraising activity and we’re grateful to everyone who is able to take part in this.

Phew, it’s when I take a step back and look at the whole project all in one go that I realise why I’m so busy! So, if I haven’t replied to your email yet, sorry. I hope this goes some way to explaining how much the CHRISTMAS LECTURES have grown since the great Michael Faraday started them way back in 1825 and that you forgive me.

Find out more about this year's Lectures 'Sparks will fly: How to hack your home' here.


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