Picture it…


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Picture It… Chemistry Workshops (2014-15)

As I get back into the swing of delivering workshops based on the Picture It… Chemistry project and this blog, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the first round of workshops and give you some of the details and stats. You can also find a blog post summarising the first three workshops in this run here and details of past events here.


From one of the feedback labcoats.

For our first “season”, two workshop topics were on offer, “Coming Up Smelling of Roses” and “The Acid Test”, the former looking at some of the scented molecules in plants and the latter at the acidity/basicity of some of the things you might find in your larder or in the cupboard under the sink, where most of us end up storing household cleaning products. The “Roses” were by far the most popular, selected by 9 WI federations (Gloucestershire, Lancashire, Cumbria-Westmoreland, Wiltshire, Kent (with an encore a week later), Avon, Derbyshire, Oxfordshire and Warwickshire) as well as the Thornbury Science Festival, while “Acids” were only requested twice (Hampshire and Jersey).

The experiments in these three-hour workshops were developed and tested by Dr Jenny Slaughter, Lexie Miles-Hobbs (Roses) and Luc Foley (Acids), with tweaks and unreasonable demands by yours truly; I also did all of the presenting, observed on some occasions by Jenny, Lexie, Chris Holland (also at Bristol) and Jason Lynam (University of York and my research collaborator). Development and delivery was subsidised by the National Federation of Womens’ Institutes (NFWI) and a Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) Small Outreach grant. In addition, each group paid a cost contribution for their workshop.


Cumbria-Westmorland Federation of WIs, all ready to go


Ready to go in Jersey


All set in Derby


Kitted up in Hampshire

These workshops were attended by almost 400 ladies (394 by my count), with audience sizes ranging from capacity crowds of 50 and 47 participants in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire respectively, to more exclusive gatherings of 9 (Thornbury), 16 (Warwickshire) and 22 (Jersey). In terms of age, the youngest was 10 years old and accompanied her grandmother, while the oldest who told me her age was 87, with a good spread of ages in-between, albeit biased somewhat towards the retired end in day-time workshops.

There was a lot of travel involved, racking up more than 1800 miles on the road, as well as a return flight to Jersey from Bristol Airport. And, as you might expect from England, the weather ranged from hail and snow in Derbyshire at the end of March 2015 to the most glorious summer days in Wiltshire, Kent and Oxfordshire. My personal favourite, if I’m allowed to have one, was the weekend on Jersey, enforced by the availability of flights, where early delays due to fog gave way to beautiful summer days in June 2015.

We used up in excess of 1000 plastic test tubes and depleted my selection of essential oils and scented waters, as well as consuming many packs of paper plates (used as work surfaces) and cotton wool pads (for perfume blending). Many scented-leaf geranium plants and rose bushes were raided to provide samples for the extraction of scents, and we worked our way through several bottles of vodka, vinegar, cheap wine and lemon juice, all in the interest of scientific experimentation. There were also breakages: one pestle, as well as several beakers and conical flasks broke when dropped or were lost in transit. Two labcoats collected comments and have since been given to the NFWI and RSC to thank them for their financial support, and the feedback collected led to further support from the NFWI to develop two new workshop topics (“Cream Tea Chemistry” and “In A Pickle”) and deliver workshops to 14 further federations in 2016.

Did we learn anything? You bet! We found out that, just as mixing all colours other than black will give you brown, all scents and essential oils added together will give the smell of cat urine. Unless you add eucalyptus, in which case everything will smell of eucalyptus. And, in the same vein (and don’t try this at home), a random combination of acids and bases found in your household will almost inevitably give a fairly vigorous reaction and make bubbles. Furthermore, bleach kills cabbage indicator, dyeing white wine to look like red wine is difficult, as is blending pleasant perfumes (see above), and pounding plant samples when extracting scents will not always give the best results; you also need a lot of flower petals to get very little scent, and they go off quickly. Trained scientists are the worst for forgetting their personal protective equipment (PPE) and your sense of scent becomes saturated after about 20 minutes of blending perfumes.


Testing acidity (Hampshire)

My informal analysis also suggests that floral scents were preferred in the South, while citrus scents were requested more often in the North, but bad weather makes everybody turn towards the aromas of cooking and baking found in vanilla, cinnamon and cloves.┬áParticipants commented that they didn’t realise chemistry can be this much fun and that they would have liked these kinds of hands-on activities when they learned about science in school. And finally, I learned that physical frailty, as the years take their toll, may mean you need help from your friends, but you can still enjoy a day out and learn something about science, for which I take my hat off to the wonderful ladies I’ve met so far. And with that, I’ll get back to preparing for my next workshop… perhaps coming to a WI federation near you soon.

Thank you to all contributors, local organisers and funders for their support!

Contributor: Natalie Fey.