lifting the lid on Outreach & Public Engagement

I started being involved in outreach activities when I was still a Postdoc in the department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Sheffield. This was well before the Impact Agenda appeared in the Higher Education landscape. At the time, although research assessment mechanisms already existed via the RAE, we had not moved yet into the era of the Research Excellence Framework, towards attempts at measuring impact. In these early days, only a handful of enthusiasts among researchers and academics dared to cross the walls of the university to venture into primary or secondary schools or even science museum. I was one of these early enthusiasts and I have continued my outreach mission through providing opportunities and training for other researchers to start having a go.

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Over the next 4 weeks, we are sharing through the Think Further pages a number of resources (from impact to outreach, public/media engagement and even commercialisation) that will help you consider your starting point in this area of professional activities and provide ideas for further explorations.

I have always felt that as a researcher and HE professional, I was inhabiting an incredibly privileged social space. Being able to engage in the creation of new knowledge in areas that we find interesting, being given the time to think analytically/ scholarly or having the opportunity to share ideas and talk to other researchers represent parts of our key roles and responsibilities; however, I think that we mostly take these gifts for granted, instead of considering how such privileged position may entail broader responsibilities.

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Often, in the articulation of the impact agenda, the responsibility of the researcher is formatted as responsibility towards the tax payer (if we are using public funds for our research, we have a responsibility towards contributing to changes in society/ the economy etc. ). Formatted as such, it can be difficult for early career researchers to connect their own research projects to a wider societal responsibility. Working towards something that really matters for the public good may feel quite remote, distant or unreachable to what an early career researcher may feel able to achieve.

I have found that engaging in outreach activities with young people allowed me to connect to this wider level of responsibilities (which we all owe to contribute to).

By engaging at an individual level (with a school, a class, a teacher, a pupil), I felt this allowed me to connect the big picture of why research matters to my role as an individual researcher. Our higher purpose as researchers is based on our conviction that knowledge and education matter; so, connecting this core value to that of sharing and inviting the interest of others early on in their educational journey could represent a personal mission. Educational inequalities remain a constant in society, so I see our engagement in outreach work as “the minimum researchers can do” towards fighting social injustice. As researchers, we can actually make a difference (whether our experiments/ projects are going well or not) through outreach. For me, outreach is simply about:

  • Being generous in sharing enthusiasm about a particular topic
  • Dispelling myths about the academic/ research world
  • Getting young people to aspire to become the innovators of tomorrow
  • Enabling citizens of the future to become more analytical and confident to engage in debates about science/ research

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Our institution has had a long commitment towards outreach and widening participation. Much work has been done by the Widening Participation Research Evaluation Unit towards understanding what may make a difference.

As an early career researcher starting to explore your own approach to doing outreach, you will need to identify how you want to engage and how you feel at your best when you run an outreach activity. There are many different approaches to go about it, you just need to find what you like best and what works for you.

The outreach projects I have undertaken have had 2 critical ingredients: emotional engagement and playfulness. Emotions matter to engage us in learning. I have found that working collaboratively with creative professionals (e.g. dancers, writers, musicians, puppeteers) in outreach projects has allowed me to find interesting approaches to engage young people explore complex scientific concepts.

 

Slide10In outreach projects where the scientific/ research input is one strand of the outreach activity, while creative play and exploration provides a parallel strand, enables young people to make use of research ideas/new knowledge/ new concepts. In my experience, the connectivity between these two stands facilitates an emotional response to the exposure to new ideas; additionally, the playfulness and exploration element allows young people to own their encounter with new ideas.

As researchers doing outreach, we need to be reminded that we are not teachers and our purpose is not to deliver a specific curriculum. Doing outreach is not about disseminating research outcome from your particular research project, but opening the doors of knowledge to others about the broad research field you are in.

Feeing ourselves from this worry about what we may need to teach about our research topic and simply consider:

  • What is the “waou” factor in my research?
  • What is really intriguing, weird or surprising in my research area?
  • What are the artefacts/ objects I can use to illustrate my research/ the concepts I want to present?
  • How could the ideas I am presenting be explored through creative medium?

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Next week, through the Think Further pages, I will provide some specific examples of approaches you may want to experiment with in your own outreach projects.

Note: the images included in the blog are from outreach events run several years ago by PhD students from the department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology as part of a DDP module.

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