Outreach is often seen as just an extra commitment on top of an already busy research schedule, sometimes without any clearly discernible benefit. However, it is now becoming easier and more common for researchers to take part in outreach activities. As well as this, more and more funding bodies are now looking for proof of research dissemination in a more public way, on top of the more standard ways such as publication. With some forward planning, outreach activities can offer an easy and rewarding opportunity to discuss your research, increase public interest in your work and give a great opportunity to practice lay discussion of your research. And, most importantly, outreach is fun! Whatever the audience, getting out and talking about your research to people who know nothing about the work can be extremely rewarding.
To maximise the benefits of the outreach you take part in, there are some steps which you can take to help target your work: plan the type of activities and increase awareness.
Finding outreach opportunities
- E-mails within the University: Many departments will send out calls for outreach activities relevant to certain research areas. As well as this, the university has a public engagement listserve (PUBLIC-ENGAGEMENT@LISTSERV.MANCHESTER.AC.UK), which can provide opportunities
- Online resources – A quick google search can bring up multiple organisations involved in organising outreach activities, so it’s always worth having a search online, even just for ideas of events. For example, opportunities can be found with local branches of the British science Association: see here for the Manchester branch.
- Direct contact with schools/museums – Another way to find opportunities is to make them yourself. If you have a specific activity in mind it’s always worth getting in touch with some relevant people and see what happens
Deciding your audience
Adults can generally understand more complex ideas than children but, children are much easier to excite and get involved in a hands on way
Children are very enthusiastic, however it is extremely important to consider what material is appropriate based on their age and academic stage. It’s difficult to try to explain certain concepts to students, while at the same time they can easily become bored if the material is too simple
With adults, it can be harder to get them involved, so generally you will need to prepare quite a lot of background information to discuss with them.
Choosing outreach activities
This will depend entirely on the type of research you do, is it more theoretical or practical? While theoretical work may seem harder to convey to the public, by using appropriate props, diagrams and even videos, the work can become very accessible.
It may be possible to bring equipment or samples to look at, such as slides to view under a microscope, images or videos of the work – this can make it much easier for an audience to understand what you do, as they may never have seen the items we discuss so readily in the lab. However, it is often best to assume they will break so don’t take anything too important!
Think in advance about technical jargon and try to have simple translations in advance, particularly when working with children
If possible, have an outreach box in your lab with all the bits and pieces that work for outreach, so when opportunities arise the planning aspects are much easier
The event itself may have some discretionary funding, ask to see if they can reimburse for expenses
Grant bodies that fund your research may make money available to researchers to help disseminate the research, given appropriate reference
There are numerous grants available specifically for outreach from a number of bodies, such as the Biochemical Society, the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust to name just a few
Many research activities can be done for free or very low cost, particularly after an initial investment in equipment, and the use of an outreach package in the lab can help to ensure reuse of items
By planning the work in advance, it shouldn’t take too much work to become a regular outreach participant in the future. Remember to advertise your work afterwards too, make use of resources such as twitter, newsletters and news sections on funding body websites to provide images and a short written piece on your outreach to help maximise the exposure of the work.
Post by: Sinead Savage