From cosmic rays and spatial awareness to cutting edge healing technology, co-producing the 1851der Tent on behalf of the Royal Commission for 1851 is one of the most creative challenges in the Big Ideas’ year. 

The Commission supports dozens of young scientists, engineers and designers through their Awards programme to realise their potential through innovative and exciting research. At Big Ideas, we work with the Award Holders to celebrate their work at the Great Exhibition Road Festival, which is itself a direct legacy of the original Great Exhibition organised by the Royal Commission in 1851. 

The process starts in the winter when the Commission invites Award Holders to join us for a development day. It’s a chance to share their research and to discuss about how information which might seem inaccessible can be explored at a big public festival. With audiences ranging from very young to seniors, ideas need to be playful and creative without diluting the intellectual content. 

This year the 1851der Tent featured three Award Holders’ work with support from many others who volunteered in the tent. 

Dr Patrick Stowell’s cosmic ray shower was a runaway success with queues to get in blocking the road on both days. Some festival goers waited 20 minutes to go in, and went straight back to the end of the queue for another visit.  Cosmic rays reach earth from deep space and are produced when stars super nova (or die). Although we don’t feel them they fall all around us and all through us constantly. 

The 1851der cosmic ray shower used a detector connected to lights and sounds which responded to rays as they passed through. Aside from the insight into interstellar particles, Patrick was on hand to explain how he is applying this technology to smart irrigation sensors.

Steph Jump’s research focuses on creating games for children that aid spatial reasoning. Spatial awareness skills are integral for engineering and STEM, however, many games designed for young girls do not utilise these skills; Steph is aiming to solve this problem of which – rather like the cosmic rays – most of us are completely unaware. Her hands-on spatial awareness games were in constant demand, and Steph was able to discuss the spatial awareness conundrum with parents while their children tackled puzzles and challenges. 

The final display delved into a complex innovation in the field of wound healing. The protein pinball machine interpreted Magdalene Ho’s research with support from design Award Holder Jacob Wellsbury. This was a fun and innovative way of showing festival goers how protein moves around the body, and Ho’s research on how we can use this to help people’s wounds heal faster using a little understood process called TrAPs.

Mag also provided bone samples from a rat femur to illustrate the types of injury which might benefit. The opportunity to look at these through microscopes was a draw to young and old alike. 

Younger festival goers were also invited to draw themselves as future Royal Commission of 1851 award winning scientists. They put these pictures, as well as an idea about what they may like to research, on the wall. This wall became a lovely visualisation of the future of science and the many varied interests of the festival goers with around 600 faces added to the board. 

Over 50,000 people attended and engaged with festival activities over the course of the weekend and it was a pleasure to be a part of such a huge celebration of science and innovation.

The Great Exhibition Road Festival is a free two-day celebration of curiosity, discovery and exploration in South Kensington, with partners and institutions across the South Kensington Estate hosting special events and exhibitions during that time.

With thanks to the Royal Commission for the Exhibition 1851, the Award Holders and the Great Exhibition Road Festival.