Why take part in outreach and public engagement? – hear from our Members

Alister McNeish, University of Reading

Alister, a Full Member of The Society was awarded an Outreach Grant in 2014 and 15 to support The Reading Science Slam, a series of theatrical performances by early career and postgraduate researchers.

What have you gained from taking part in schools outreach or public engagement activities?

A lot. A sense of achievement in seeing people hear something for the first time or find they understand what they may have previously thought as complex "science stuff".  

During the science slam it was great to see the performers developing new communication skills, confidence and really entertaining the audience in a way I have not often seen in science communication.

In terms of career, this got me really engaged in outreach and engagement at my university and I am now my schools outreach coordinator - I am also now responsible for public engagement at another learned society the British Pharmacological society.

What value do you think public engagement adds to research?

The public generally funds your research and they like to see where their money has gone. The public also ask deep probing and pertinent questions which make you think about your research in a new way. It can give you an insight into what is important to "end users" of your research and perhaps what parts people struggle with. It also has shown me that people are genuinely interested my research and science in general and have an appetite to hear more

What are you top tips for researchers thinking about taking part in schools outreach or public engagement?

Keep it really simple, avoid jargon you may be talking to some people who have very little concept of what you are doing so sometimes you may be scared  of being patronising but what you might think of being patronising is often important and entirely new information. If you must use graphs figures you need to take plenty of time to explain them. I also think it’s best to minimise PowerPoint - use props, gestures and even humour and theatre to illustrate your points!


 

John Mackrill, University College Cork 

John is a Full Member of The Society and previous Society Rep. For the last two years, John has organised Physiology Friday events at his university. 

What have you gained from taking part in schools outreach or public engagement activities?

From both of these [Physiology Friday] events, I have learned that there is an encouraging, broad general enthusiasm for physiology in the wider public, which might arise from all humans being 'physiological beings'. In addition to broadening my experiences of outreach organising events, I also gained from applying and observing new ways of communicating scientific concepts to broader audiences.  I have incorporated some of these into both my subsequent efforts at outreach and in my teaching activities.

What value do you think public engagement adds to research?

The majority of academic research in Ireland, like that in the UK, is funded by government bodies.  As a consequence, scientists employed to perform research universities should be accountable to the general public, who indirectly fund their work. Public engagement is one way of promoting the value and worth of academic research.  In addition, communicating the meaning of research to the wider public also represents a way of encouraging future support for, enthusiasm for and even participation in, scientific research.

What are you top tips for researchers thinking about taking part in schools outreach or public engagement?

Planning is everything.  For 'Physiology Friday'-type events, there is a danger of trying to do too many different types of activities.  It’s also a good idea to promote such events in the local media (print, radio, and social media).  For schools outreach events, it is important to tailor your event to the specific year group that you will be presenting to, e.g. content, duration, relationship to the curriculum, etc.

Laura Corns, Affiliate Member at The University of Sheffield 

Laura was awarded an Outreach Grant by The Physiological Society to help fund The Discovery Zone, a science fair for schools pupils run at the University of Leeds, whilst she was completing her PhD. 

What have you gained from taking part in schools outreach or public engagement activities?

Lots! First and foremost, these events are just so much fun which is a reason in itself to take part. On a more practical level, organising this event gave me project management experience, including budget handling, producing risk assessments and communicating with lots of different people at the University. The event itself gave me plenty of practice at communicating difficult scientific concepts to school children as young as 7 to 14 years of age, which I think has improved my general presentation skills. It was also the first funding that I ever received, so the outreach grant writing experience itself was useful for me.    

What value do you think public engagement adds to research?

School children can ask surprisingly useful questions that you as a researcher have forgotten to ask because you are so focussed on your research. Participating in events like this really helps to remind you about the bigger picture, how your work fits into this and whether you are trying to answer the most useful questions. On a longer term level, public engagement is crucial to create scientists of the future. Some of the school children we meet have barely any chance to see ‘real’ science and perform experiments so they find these events genuinely inspiring.       

What are you top tips for researchers thinking about taking part in schools outreach or public engagement?

Get involved! There are plenty of opportunities to try out public engagement activities. If you haven’t been involved before you don’t have to start by organising your own event, just ask to help someone else out to get an idea about how it works. Becoming a STEM ambassador is a really easy way to get involved as they provide training and a variety of events that you can help out at. 

Emma Hodson-Tole, Manchester Metropolitan University 

Emma is a Full Member of The Society and was awarded a Public Engagement Grant in 2016 to create and tour a new dance work in which performers delve inside a motor neuron to explain how scientist think they work.  

What have you gained from taking part in schools outreach or public engagement activities?

I have gained an extended network of collaborators for my research. Both in terms of patient involvement and also in terms of academic contributors who have heard of my work through my activities. I have also gained new insight into the power of dance (our specific approach to public engagement) in drawing in new audiences and also gained new friends from very different fields, who have helped me, learn new ways of thinking about translating my work to wider audiences.

What value do you think public engagement adds to research?

All of the above (i.e. what I have gained) has certainly added to my work. In addition, public engagement enables us to have valuable conversations with members of the public with exchange and stimulation of new ideas. The chance to hear others views on your work and also hear of patient/carer experiences to help inform fuller understanding of the disease our work is aimed to support diagnosis/monitoring of.

Charlotte Haigh, University of Leeds

Charlotte, is a Full Member, and sits on Education and Outreach Committee. She has also recently been appointed as a Trustee at The Society. In 2014 Charlotte was awarded an Outreach grant to run an interactive exhibition getting undergraduate students to interact with the public in the LIGHT shopping in Leeds on Physiology Friday. 

What value do you think public engagement adds to research?

LOTS! Being able to explain your research and the importance of it to anyone, is a great skill and one I think that all researchers should be able to do. It can achieve many things from inspiring the next generation of scientists to allowing you to listen to what the public thinks about your research and often can give you a different perspective. There is a lot to be gained.

What are you top tips for researchers thinking about taking part in schools outreach or public engagement?

Do it, but do it well with some thought. What is your purpose for engaging with the public? What can you and your research benefits from the opportunity as well as what the public can benefit. Think of it as an activity for mutual benefit. That way, it is part and parcel of your research and a necessary part of your work.

Stefan Trapp, University College London

Stefan is a Trustee of The Society and previously held the position of Society Representative at UCL. Stefan lent his support to undergraduate students organising the English Brain Bee in 2015. 

What have you gained from taking part in schools outreach or public engagement activities?

The primary gain from this activity for me is simply the joy of having the opportunity to explain my research (or general scientific concepts) to the general public, particularly young people, and see them assimilate this information and coming up with further questions. The understanding and appreciation of the work we are doing by the school students or members of the public is the greatest reward, and will hopefully lead to these young people considering more seriously the appeal of science. 

What value do you think public engagement adds to research?

For me it acts as an important point of reflection. Public engagement forces you to think about the very basic reasons of why we are doing the work we are doing. With public engagement the point of why we are doing something is always at the absolute centre of any conversation and there is little opportunity to hide behind a 'smokescreen of scientific terms', as that would just mean you are losing your listeners for good. In the end having to explain and justify our work in simple terms really helps the clarity of future grant proposals. Similarly, when discussing animal research with the general public I find that it helps to be absolutely open about it and clearly explain the why as well as the how. In my experience, explaining about both opportunities as well as limitations of the animal research, and talking about all the welfare measures we take, leaves the listeners better informed and most of them appreciate the necessity for such work. 

What are you top tips for researchers thinking about taking part in schools outreach or public engagement?

The smaller the group and the more interactive it is, the more rewarding it tends to be, both for the scientist and for the pupils or members of the public.