How to get researchers involved in public engagement
The two-day event ‘Magnificent Microbes’ was open to school children and the general public. It aimed to convey the importance of microbes in shaping our health, the economy and the food we eat. The event was organised by the staff and students of the Molecular Microbiology division at the University of Dundee, but how easy was it to persuade research scientists to get involved in public outreach? Amy Gerc, a PhD student involved with the event, shares her experiences with us…
“The school children have arrived! They’ll be through in 5 minutes!”
As much as we had done to prepare for the event, many of us were outside of our comfort zone. The prospect of interacting with hundreds of school children and members of the public was quite daunting.
We knew that it would be, so what had we done to prepare for the masses?
One of the most important aspects of preparing for our event was running a “trial day” with a single class of school children. This allowed us to test drive our exhibits without feeling overwhelmed. The opportunity to run through what we wanted to say, and do, really helped to boost our confidence. The trial day also helped to give us a taste of what to expect on the actual day, where we would be interacting with many more people.
For our event, we put together hands-on exhibits which we felt best represented the kind of research that took place in our division. For example, the lab I work in is interested in biofilm formation by bacteria, and so we put together a stand called “Blast a biofilm”. This involved children building a biofilm from plastic bacteria and hair gel (to represent the biofilm matrix), then using water spray bottles labelled as “antibiotics” the children had to clear the bacteria from the biofilm. Through this exhibit, we were able to demonstrate how bacteria that live in a biofilm can survive tough conditions.
Magnificent microbes involved more than 30 scientists from our division and I think a big part of persuading researchers to get involved was being able to offer them training in public engagement before the event. For those of us who were eager to take part, but had never done public engagement before, this kind of training helped to put us more at ease. We were taught how best to interact with children, for example by kneeling down to talk to them on their level. It might sound simple, but these tips were really useful.
You set out with a hope that your event educates the visitors you interact with, but we found it inspired all of us too. Sometimes we can get too caught up in our research and outreach is a great way of reminding you why you do what you do!
We learnt a lot about how best to engage with the public through training and by participating in the event and you might find these tips useful too!
- Ask questions! Children can get distracted quite easily so the best way to keep their attention is to ask them what they know. This will also prevent you from telling them things that they know already.
- Make your activities as hands-on as possible – really enable your audience to get involved.
- Think about your target audience; can you present the exhibit to both young children and adults? How will you tailor what you say to suit them?
- Make your exhibit relevant. There is no better way to engage your audience, particularly children, than to make them realise how your research affects them personally. For instance, we use the formation of plaque on your teeth as an example of how biofilms are medically important. This allows us to engage with children by asking them how often they brush their teeth and why they think it’s necessary.
- Calculate the quantities of consumables you will need. It doesn’t do any harm to overestimate slightly, but be prepared to be flexible with what you have. In our case we ended up having to ask families to share particular props, as we ran short towards the end of the event.
- Don’t over simplify the exhibit to accommodate children. I was really pleasantly surprised at just how much the kids took away from what we told them.
Of course there’s no escaping the fact you will only really know how specific aspects of your exhibit can be improved after trialling it with an audience, but these tips are useful in the planning stages. The most important thing is to make sure that you, and your visitors, have fun! Here’s how we did it:
Magnificent Microbes was supported by the Wellcome Trust and other funders. The Wellcome Trust believes that public engagement with science is important and have special funding schemes to enable researchers to carry out engagement events without eating in to their budget for research. To find out more about the provision for public engagement, and other funding schemes, see the Wellcome Trust website at Wellcome.ac.uk