Electromagnetic Field: Can geeks get kids into science?

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Media captionWATCH: Children can try their hand at the blacksmith's craft, at a portable forge

The government is desperate to get more young people interested in scientific subjects. Could a self-proclaimed "geek festival" held last weekend in Milton Keynes hold the answer?

The taxi-driver has seen nothing like it.

We drive for several minutes down a grassy track skirting a farm in Milton Keynes, following home-made signs for EMF. We are beyond the help of sat-nav.

Greeted by luminous stewards at a farm building, it is then time to continue the journey by jeep, down a bumpy track.

This is how you get to the Electromagnetic Field (EMF) event.

It is like a music festival but for people who like to make things. Or as they put it, "a temporary village of geeks".

As at Glastonbury, one of the headline acts this year is heavy metal but in this case attendees can expect a course run by blacksmiths.

There are also workshops on soldering robot badges, flying mind-controlled drones, lock-picking, and how to make a collaborative science fiction film.

Image caption Organiser Jonty Wareing addresses the crowd at the opening ceremony

Such festivals are well established in Europe, including popular ones such as Sweden's Social Web Camp, and Germany's Chaos Computer Club.

In its inaugural year in 2012, the UK's EMF attracted 400 campers. After a fallow year it is back and trebled in size.

But what's immediately apparent as the festival gets under way, in a frenzy of last-minute preparations, is the number of children on site.

Busy setting up their tent are Brita and Milosch from Cambridge, who have brought their two children both under five. They are veterans of the Chaos Computer Club festival, which they say is also child friendly.

Milosch has come for the Light Emitting Diode (LED) workshops and intends to take his four-year-old to these - his younger child will go to the dedicated children's events.

Image caption The Keating family are keen to try out some soldering

Is he worried the kids will be disturbed by the late night boozy dance parties associated with the maker festival scene?

"The subwoofer helps children sleep," says Milosch quickly. "Sleeping with their ear to the ground they pick up the bass and they actually sleep better."

It is midday, and already nearby there is a contingent of hackers playing some menacing techno music, so the theory may well be put to the test.

Image caption Children can solder their own flashing robot badges

Mark Keating who has come from Lancaster with his wife and two toddlers has a different take on the matter: "There's an equilibrium, the kids will get their revenge at 06:00 when everyone is nursing a hangover."

Mr Keating is looking forward to introducing his kids to soldering - the Nottingham HackSpace area is running courses on soldering robot badges that light up, for example.

The workshop on the art of the blacksmith is also a big draw. As he fires up his coals and beats his anvil, Ian Lowe says he is expecting children to come along.

"You have to be about eight years old we find, to be able to reach the anvil," he says. And some of them will struggle to hold a 4lb hammer.

"But I have even done one-year-olds, as long as it's one on one."

"Getting kids involved has been crucial," says Jonty Wareing, one of the event's organisers. With one ear on his walkie-talkie, he is also dealing with a food stall concession that has failed to turn up.

Out of around 1,100 campers this year, 75 are children, according to Mr Wareing, a big increase on their last festival.

Image caption Dad Jim prepares for the bumpy jeep ride with his daughters

One reason children are important is the sponsorship they bring, for a festival largely run by volunteers.

Companies and institutions want to be seen helping young people get into science, to help the government's goal of getting more people into Stem subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

For the first time, a childcare section with science-based activities has been provided on site, sponsored by University College London (UCL).

Image copyright UCL
Image caption Geek nursery? Childcare with scientific activities

Heading on a jeep back to Milton Keynes to print out some documents, is Dr Elpida Makrygianni, from UCL's Engineering Sciences faculty.

Charged with engaging young people with science, she thinks the festival is an important place to be.

"It's the social context, the fact that it is in the countryside, a million miles from the stereotype of a sterile lab."

That preconception is one of the first obstacles that has to be overcome when trying to engage young people in science, she says, especially young women.

Also appealing to females she thinks is the emphasis on teamwork and interaction in doing the science here.

"For creativity and curiosity to blossom, science and engineering need playfulness, mess and allowing for failure. This is why events like EMF are important."

Women make up only around 13% of the UK's workforce when it comes to Stem subjects, with as little as 8% represented in engineering.

However, most of the children at the event appear to be with people already somehow involved in the Maker scene.

The danger is obviously that in accordance with the obscure location, you have to be in the know already to find yourself here. Is it really reaching children who wouldn't otherwise be exposed to this sort of thing?

Image copyright UCL
Image caption An interactive exhibit designed to get children's feedback

Sponsors like MathWorks, who make the programming language Matlab which is widely used in universities, have a vested interested in getting a new generation into science.

Owen McAree, education technical specialist at MathWorks, is also at the festival.

"It is a challenge to reach children in the wider population directly," he says.

"It's great that events like EMF are open to families," he reckons though, as the children here will "share these experiences with friends and teachers", complimenting outreach work done in places like libraries, youth centres and coding clubs.

"It's true that most children who come have parents already in the Maker scene," says Jonty Wareing, who has organised the festival as a labour of love in his spare time. "There's not as much as I'd like from other backgrounds."

But one phenomenon gives him hope.

There have been cases of slightly bemused parents at the festival, who have been dragged along by their children.

"I'd love to know how they found out."

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