Outreach activities in STEM: my experience & key points for success!

During my PhD I was made aware of the option to participate, facilitate or even organize and lead public engagement or outreach activities. Not many researchers chose to take the option due to workload, academic commitments or a fear of public exposure, but for me, after I started I could not stop! Public engagement and outreach activities include taking research (and ourselves) out of the lab and academic environment, and showcasing it to a public audience. There are many events supporting such initiatives, either with a specific audience in mind, or open to anyone. For example some events target primary school students, secondary school students, families or only adults, depending on the complexity of the activities demonstrated. Also, there might be categorisation of events based on subject being demonstrated. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) areas are usually quite popular for public engagement and outreach activities, as they can provide hands-on demonstration and experience in various concepts. Of the most popular events in the UK is British Science Week, as well as Bluedot Festival. Furthermore, universities usually hold annual events celebrating research conducted in-house. Besides big, national festivals, there are outreach and public engagement opportunities in a more “local” level, such as initiatives where researchers showcase their research in a pub (e.g. PubhD, Pint of Science), the audience being mostly adults.

I was lucky enough to do my PhD in a research group which embraced outreach activities, so my initial involvement was easy I would say. From there, I took it a step further and got involved in events/initiatives organised by the Outreach & Widening Participation department of my university. If someone wants to get involved outside of a university, there is also the option of volunteering for one of the “big” aforementioned events, or register as a regional STEM ambassador.

The perks of outreach (during cotton candy making) – Image taken by myself

Depending on the event and the occasion, there is a choice on whether research showcase will be based on a presentation, a demonstration, or a hands-on experience for the audience. The first is the easiest to do, the last is the most engaging and appreciated by the audience. All 3 options entail a good amount of preparation, given the difficulty of the topic, the availability of demonstrating activities, the means required for demonstration, the targeted audience, the time allocated for a specific activity, necessary communications with stakeholders, and the list goes on. Based on my experience, the more often one engages in organising and running such activities, the easier it becomes. However, there are always factors beyond control, so good organisation is key. Another key factor is a deep understanding of what is being demonstrated. How can we break down a complex concept into bite-size knowledge if we do not understand the mechanisms, ideas, issues and philosophy around it? Furthermore, in order to engage a public audience, complex research needs to be simplified and put into perspective using relatable, everyday concepts. For example, the concept of bioinspired materials can be explained through showing “bio” examples that inspired us to develop materials that follow certain principles, e.g. start from the “waterproof” effect of the lotus leaf and escalate to wall paint with specific nanoparticles that offer water resistance.

Examples of simplified bioinspiration concepts – Image taken by myself (credit: SynBIM project)

What is in it for the demonstrators? This is simultaneously a simple and complicated answer. Everyone has their own reasons, but in general people who enjoy participating in public engagement and outreach activities, enjoy the contact with a public audience and the transfer of knowledge. Personally, I enjoy seeing the audience being able to connect the dots on their own after my efforts to explain a difficult concept using simple terms. I also like seeing people attending these events starting relevant discussions, find connections between areas of research, understand a bit more and feel they have gained something. Also, when the activities are targeted to children, I always find it very refreshing trying to explain scientific terms (such as “decolorisation”) using very simple wording (such as “removing the colour”). Being a researcher entitles the danger of technical terms becoming our second language and us being unable to talk about what we do in simple words. Besides the ability to simplify complex research and communicate science, engaging in outreach activities offers development of many other transferable skills, such as organisation and time management. An effective activity should be carried out from start to finish within the given time frame, otherwise the audience will not have a chance to fully understand the concept. If someone wants to take a step further and organise an outreach activities event from start to finish, they will gain valuable experience about how to manage events and people (assuming there will be a group of demonstrators involved). This experience is also amazing in terms of communication skills, as it gives insight on how professionals in different sectors communicate (e.g. an academic with a school headmaster, or a filming crew who wants to take some shots of the demonstrations). In addition, engaging the public in demonstrations is entitled to some form of customer service, where the audience –customers– are coming to the demonstrator for the service of understanding science. This implies that demonstrators need to have (or develop) some basic understanding of customer service and support, receive the audience, guide them through the activity, extract feedback and let them go wiser and happy with the experience.

Definitely the highlight of this year in terms of outreach activities was my involvement in organising a full day of activities for about 120 Year 6 students at a local primary school.

Eleni behind demo booth, waiting for pupils – Image taken by a colleague

The activities were based on my research group’s interests but also engaged principles of general chemical engineering. Based on the time allocated and the number of students, I came up with a rotation plan of students’ cohorts, so that all students would have a chance to participate and engage with each activity. I was responsible for securing volunteers, train them for the specific activities, fill them in for the specifics of the day and make sure we kept the schedule as planned. I had to ensure the needed material for the demonstrations was in place, equipment was working, safety checks were on board and that precautions were taken (such as carry waste water bottles, paper towel, extra supplies just in case, safety documentation). Also, I had to make sure that we (demonstrators and equipment) arrived on time for the event and also left without leaving a mess behind. Last but not least, I was in touch with the school, making sure that our admin/mechanical needs were covered (access to building, projector, plug access, extension cables, and specifications of students’ cohorts).

Overall I am very grateful that I was given (or occasionally created) the chance to participate in outreach activities showcasing my area of research, my experience of higher education or causes that are near and dear to me. I feel I have gained so many new skills through public engagement, applicable in various areas. In addition, I was able to see the bigger picture of my research interests and acquire a fresh point of view by chatting to people who would ask me potentially irrelevant questions which however sparked a train of thought on areas I am working on. I strongly encourage researchers to participate in schemes that promote understanding and wider participation, who knows, you might find a solution to a problem or a potential career pathway!