So, you want to reach out? Lessons from a ‘science for all’ programme

Public engagement in STEM strengthens research relevance and trust in science, but how can universities do it well? Here, the team behind S4 give three considerations based on a decade of effective outreach to disadvantaged schools



Swansea University
19 Oct 2022
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As research increases its accessibility, public engagement is gaining in strategic importance. This is driven, according to the UK’s National Co-Ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, by a need to strengthen research relevance, responsiveness and accountability, and to build public trust. Most academics will, at some point, either want or be asked to participate in an outreach event. In recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercises, nearly half the submitted impact case studies referred to public engagement.

As part of a team that has worked in outreach for a decade, via Swansea University Science for Schools Scheme (S4), we know that what colleagues ask us most is: what steps are essential for delivering good public engagement?

With the caveat that these tips are aimed at colleagues considering outreach for the first time (not public engagement professionals), here are our top three considerations, along with resources and signposts to additional background materials.

1. Why do you want to reach out?

A good starting point for any outreach effort is to ask: what is my motivation? Who is my audience? What is their interest? And what is the problem I want to address?

In thinking about the first question, recognise that the reasons we might decide to deliver outreach are many. Sometimes our motivation is to gain skills that might advance our career. Our organisations might be keen for us to participate, or we could be driven by the requirements of a grant. Sometimes we are seeking to address a broader engagement challenge.

The questions around your audience are critical. However, you are well placed to take advantage of the large, complex business you already work in. Health professionals, business folk, accountants, chefs, nurses, gardeners, religious leaders and fitness instructors all work in higher education organisations. In consulting our colleagues beforehand, we have avoided many audience assumptions that could have derailed an outreach programme.

Being honest about why is important because those insights will guide how, what and who decisions. We have found it helpful to consider motivation in three areas: our own, our organisation’s and broader strategic motivations. These could include a desire to improve the quality and impact of our project and challenge assumptions about our research; improve the organisation’s relationship with a local community or gain prestige; or build public trust in a topic.

Our recommended tool at this point in planning is to develop a brief theory of change for your outreach plans. Who are you talking to? What change do you hope to provoke by reaching out?

2. A little bit of public engagement theory goes a long way

Once we have answered why, we can define which method will best serve our goals. There are different ways to define engagement, but a simple classification is:

  • a deficit approach, in which research or information is transmitted outwards
  • a collaborative approach, where researcher and public share experiences and knowledge to co-create or generate learning
  • an incoming model, whereby research receives public knowledge to inform its development.

This is known as the public engagement triangle and comes from the 2010 Science For All report.

Matching method to aim is a good way to avoid a common outreach pitfall: delivering without achieving measurable impact. For example, there is a wealth of evidence that adopting a deficit approach to engagement around emotive topics, such as vaccines or climate change, is unlikely to deliver a change in attitude.

Once you have picked your why, exploring the best how is a useful step, but it is also a good idea to keep an eye out for moments when we can change outreach gear. While delivering a simple deficit marine biology workshop to school students, the S4 team were asked: “Miss, could these crabs learn to use a maze to find their food?” This was unknown to science at the time; a master’s student experimented to find out (yes, crabs can learn to use a maze) and our accidentally co-produced research is now used by scientists restoring coastal seagrass meadows to understand how to better protect seedlings from crab predation.

At this point in your planning, a useful exercise is to read up on your chosen method and pick some best-practice tips.

3. Apply the same standards to outreach work as to research and teaching

This may seem obvious, but in a busy schedule it can be easy to think: “Oh, it’s just a schools programme”, but while there’s no need for an entire project management plan for a stand at a science festival, an hour spent sketching out a theory of change goes a long way.

The second task is appropriate due diligence, particularly if reaching out to the young or vulnerable. Using our organisation’s safeguarding policies, ethics panel and General Data Protection Regulation officer (GDPR) ensures that we are covering due diligence and raises useful questions at planning stage. This is also a good moment to ask if any additional training is needed before your event – you wouldn’t operate a Class 4 laser without speaking to your laser safety officer first, and schoolchildren are a lot more unpredictable than lab kit.

Our last top tip is that it is never too early to think about impact. When S4 started, we were simply planning a one-week summer school; 10 years on, we have delivered over 40,000 hours of outreach to more than 25,000 participants. Working to a simple evaluation plan, and collecting quantitative and qualitative data to track and evidence impact, from day one, has allowed us to remain agile in our delivery and make sure we are positively impacting our audience, and can evidence that impact.

Three steps to outreach success

If we’re heading into our outreach event with three steps achieved, in our experience, we’re well on the way to delivering a good experience for the audiences who have been generous enough to give us their time.

  1. Understanding why we’re reaching out, what we hope to achieve, how we intend to achieve our aims, and how we will measure success, underpinned by a theory of change.
  2. Knowing our audience, what is important to them, why they will be engaged and what they will get out of the experience, underpinned by consultation or background research.
  3. Completing due diligence around what we are intending do to, via safeguarding, risk assessments, GDPR and ethics.

Mary Gagen is a professor of geography and Will Bryan is an associate professor of physics; they co-run Swansea’s science outreach programme S4 (Swansea University Science for Schools Scheme), funded by the Welsh government and the European Social Fund. Rachel Bryan is a doctoral researcher in linguistics and health science and outreach analyst for S4. All are at Swansea University.

The s4 programme has been shortlisted for Widening Participation or Outreach Initiative of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards 2022. A full list of shortlisted candidates can be found here.

If you found this interesting and want advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the THE Campus newsletter.

You can find Swansea University Science for Schools Scheme online, on YouTube and on Twitter (@swansci4). S4 is part of the Trio Sci Cymru programme.

For a primer on science capital theory, click here.

National Geographic’s storytelling course “Storytelling for Impact” uses the resources of the National Geographic Society to teach photography, video and audio skills.


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