Public engagement is becoming ever more popular in universities – partly driven by requirements from research funding councils to demonstrate ‘impact’. PE is now widely acknowledged to be a worthwhile activity for researchers as well as a way to ‘give back’ to the wider community. It’s great to see outreach activities being valued by the powers that be, and I would highly encourage anyone who is interested in PE to give it a go. However, I appreciate that it’s not always easy to find ways in and it can be a bit daunting if you’ve never tried it before.
So, I thought it might be useful to highlight some opportunities/ways of getting involved in PE that might be of interest. These (and many others) were discussed at a staff development workshop held at the University of St Andrews on 15th June 2016. This list is a work in progress and currently focuses on opportunities in the sciences; I hope to be able to expand this in due course.
- Find out what’s already going on in your department/school – there might be a mention on the school webpage, but it’s more likely that you’ll need to ask around. Some departments have a public engagement coordinator who should be your first point of call. Secretaries generally know most things (!) that go on in a department, so it’s often worth asking them if anyone else is already doing PE.
- Buddy up – if you’re new to PE, try to find a more experienced person who’d be happy to show you the ropes. Most people engaged in PE would love to have someone else helping them out, even if only occasionally.
- Ask your university’s public engagement officer to hook you up with an existing project in your area.
- Take part in existing university events, such as open days or school visits. St Andrews holds a Science Discovery Day each year in early March, and they’re always looking for volunteers. Explorathon is coming to St Andrews this September, so get involved!
- Pay attention to your email – many cries for help come from event organisers who need extra bodies. If you’re interested in helping out, but are nervous or unsure, just say so – that way you’re less likely to be thrown in at the deep end.
National competitions and events
Competitions and events are a great way to hone your communication skills and make links with other people doing PE in your area (both geographical and academic).
- Three Minute Thesis – an 80,000 word thesis would take 9 hours to present. Your time limit: three minutes!
- Bright Club – bringing current research to the stand up comedy scene
- FameLab – science, technology, engineering and mathematics concepts presented in three minutes
- I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here! – school students interact with scientists and ask questions. The students judge the scientists on their responses and vote for their favourite!
- Soapbox science – female scientists do science busking, explaining their research to anyone who’ll listen. They also need volunteers (male and female) to help out on the day, and this can be a great way of picking up tips on communicating with the public.
- The STEM ambassador scheme is a great way for anyone who is involved in science, technology, engineering or mathematics to do some public engagement. It’s open to anyone involved in these subject areas, not just academics, and it’s a nationally run scheme delivered by STEMnet. It provides ambassadors with an induction, PVG/CRB check and relevant training. Once you’re registered as an ambassador, you will be sent requests from schools in your local area who would like a visit from a STEM ambassador.
- Institutions such as Royal Society of Chemistry, Institute of Physics and similar may hold PE events that you can take part in.
- Science fairs, arts festivals and similar are a great way to hone your PE skills. You can submit an event for the festival, join in with someone else’s event, or volunteer with the festival organisers. Local to St Andrews, there’s Dundee Science Festival and Fife Science Festival, both organised by Dundee Science Centre.
- Anniversary events and international celebrations, such as the exhibition of the life and work of David Brewster, or the International Year of Light (2015). These are typically multi-disciplinary, and as such offer an opportunity for those in arts, humanities and sciences to talk about their work.
- Other opportunities may be advertised on Twitter, on Facebook groups, or via mailing lists – a quick internet search will bring up the most active groups in your area/field.
This isn’t anything near to a comprehensive list, but hopefully it gives a starting point. If there’s any opportunities I’ve omitted, please let me know and I’ll add them.