17 December 2009
Talking to members of the public about science
The first phase of the project provided a snapshot of science engagement activity in the participating universities. It involved talking to 118 scientists and researchers, senior managers and 27 pro vice-chancellors with responsibility for public engagement. The second, and longer, phase of the project, November 2007 to February 2009, comprised small action-research projects exploring key themes in engagement: working with diverse groups; developing two-way engagement; developing supportive cultures for engagement work; and impact assessment and evaluation.
Using the action research approach has been personally transformative. Staff involved are using the new skills that they’ve developed through involvement with SEARCH.
Sheila Dargan, a researcher from the MRC Centre for Synaptic Plasticity (Dept of Physiology and Pharmacology), was involved in both phases of the project.
“I’ve always been interested in public engagement” she said. “Before I got involved in SEARCH, I did quite a lot of outreach work in schools and I am involved in Bristol Neuroscience,” – a virtual research centre based at the University which does a lot of public engagement work.
Sheila’s SEARCH project involved evaluating Bristol Neuroscience’s activities at Science Alive! 2008 – the University’s biennial celebration of scientific research. She started talking to members of the public to evaluate the impact of their exhibit and found that people didn’t realise that the dynamic, red T-shirt-clad people running the stalls were actually scientists. In response to this evaluation, Dr Anne Cooke (who leads the public engagement activities of Bristol Neuroscience) arranged for scientists to wear T-shirts and hoodies at her next event which said “Pick my brains, I’m a neuroscientist”. This innovative way to clarify that these participants are actually practising scientists promoted additional discussions with the public about careers in science, and increased the impact of the event.
“By engaging with the public, we can overturn stereotypes of scientists by being ourselves and talking to them about science at a level everyone can understand,” she said. “I wouldn’t have found out about this if I hadn’t been evaluating our input to Science Alive! That’s a direct result of my involvement in SEARCH,” she added.
Through the action research, a number of informal networks arose linking staff from different projects and universities within each theme. These provided a safe and supportive environment in which to share challenges, issues and successes. Reporting back progress to peers each time opened up new ways of looking at issues.
“It was nice to be able to share my experiences with others,” Sheila concluded. “My involvement in this project has benefited my personal approach, as now I think a lot more about the type of engagement I’m involved in.” Sheila has recently moved from scientific research to take up a permanent teaching post at Cardiff University, where she intends to continue to engage the public with science. The skills and insight Sheila gained from her involvement with SEARCH will undoubtedly enhance the quality and impact of her future activities.
The SEARCH project has now finished, but the findings have been shared through papers, the project website and presentations at conferences.
“People have got a lot out of the project” says Gillian. “Using the action research approach has been personally transformative. Staff involved, like Sheila, are using the new skills that they’ve developed through involvement with SEARCH, or have developed an interest in teaching and are moving into areas where they can apply new skills.”
The seeds for culture change across the higher education sector have been sewn. The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE), in partnership with the University of the West of England (UWE) is currently involved in a systemic action research project in public engagement across the higher education sector, looking at processes locally in UWE and nationally. Let the seedlings grow.
Gillian Squirrel can be contacted at email@example.com Sheila Dargan is now a Professional Tutor in Human Physiology in the Department of Biosciences at Cardiff University. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. See the CPE blog regarding Sheila’s involvement in SEARCH. Heather Squires, email: email@example.com, and Danny Burns; email: firstname.lastname@example.org, are coordinating the action research project for UWE and the NCCPE.