Friday, 11 December 2015

Myth-busting the barriers to public engagament

Right now I should really be focusing on writing my thesis, but when I heard about an opportunity to spend a day discussing public engagement at the University of Birmingham I just couldn't resist... Especially when I saw that Professor Alice Roberts would be presenting - after finishing my placement with the radio show, a number of people have asked me if I want to be "the next Alice Roberts" so I thought I'd go along to find out the answer! 

The event was hosted in the mid-renovation Lapworth museum: a light and airy space that had a much more open atmosphere than the dark confines of a seminar room or lecture theatre. This meant that throughout the day I felt much more open to asking questions of the speakers. 

We heard from researchers at the university - each tackling a common barrier to public engagement. It was interesting to hear all the different examples, and their (sometimes conflicting) experiences of the support from the university media team. 

A very informative workshop from Paul Manners followed, looking at the case studies submitted to the research excellence framework (or REF - it's what university research departments are judged on). The national coordinating centre for public engagement had looked at all the case studies and analysed which had contained public engagement. It was an interesting review, and showed what kind of content a case study on a public engagement activity would need to have to qualify as "4 star". 

After some more myth-busting examples, we were joined by the pro-vice chancellor Tim Softley, who spoke about the cultural change that was needed, and happening, within the university to develop its engagement activities. 

We then heard the bureaucratic side of the story, from Jenni Chambers of the RCUK before she joined Tim, Paul and Alice Roberts for a panel discussion. This was really interesting, and covered a number of points, including how engagement could (or should) be measured, and whether schools and the local communities also required cultural change for enagement to be successful. 

The final session of the day was Alice Roberts, who engaged us all, even after technical problems meant she had to do without her powerpoint slides. She tackled the problem of image: that of the "mad scientist", and what we can do to reach out and change that perception. She spoke of the importance of removing labels: whether it be labeling a GCSE student as a "scientist" or "non-scientist", or a recent trend of the use of the word "geek". 

I found the event really engaging (ha!) and definitely a worthwhile escape from my life of thesis writing. I aim to help the public engagement group at Birmingham by writing up some of my activities for them to post on their blog, so I can act as a point of contact for other researchers looking to do the same. Watch this space! 

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