24 February, 2020
With Schools’ Day 2020 finished and a change of role approaching in March, I thought it would be a good time to look back on my involvement with the Institute’s Public Engagement (PE) programme. I’m very grateful to the many supportive and friendly people who I’ve worked with.
Engagement as a Scientist
My first experience of Public Engagement came in 1991 when I represented the Institute, then part of the Agricultural and Food Research Council (AFRC) at the Royal Agricultural Show in Stoneleigh near Coventry. We presented our research on the role of olfactory memory and maternal behaviour in sheep, featuring a video filmed on what was then state-of-the-art technology - a shoulder-mounted VHS video camera!
The public interest in our work continued for several years and related to animal welfare. We joined forces with other BBSRC-funded institutes at events including the Royal Agricultural Show, the British Science Association Festival and the Cheltenham Science Festival. We also hosted local, national and international film crews, and a computer game we created featured in an exhibition in the London Science Museum.
I was involved in the first Institute Schools’ Day in the mid-90’s and I remember the first year well because students from my old secondary school (Sawston Village College) were assigned to our project. In 2004 I was seconded into the team which coordinated web, press and schools activities and had my first experience of coordinating Schools’ Day – it was quite a change to deal with over 100 students and teachers instead of just a handful!
2004 also saw the start of ‘Real Life, Real Science’ a programme for primary schools. I teamed up with one of the Institute’s senior scientists to share our research with local schools. We learnt a lot over the first few visits and developed a series of resources consisting of a Q&A style presentation (to promote student participation) followed by a hands-on activity. One of the most memorable was ‘Blood & Circulation’ which featured a heart dissection. It was always great to see the amazement on a student’s face when viewing a whole ox heart (sourced from the local butcher) or watching dry ice sublime in a cloud of water vapour.
Supporting and coordinating engagement
Although I returned to the lab for a while at the end of my secondment I carried on working with schools and over the next 10 years visited more than 60 different schools and spoke to over 40,000 students. By 2006 I was out of the lab permanently, working in the Institute’s graphics facility. I developed my web, AV and design skills while helping with events such as events for teachers, sixth-form conferences, Nuffield student placements and open evenings.
The Institute’s involvement with the Cambridge Science Festival started around this time, with exhibits featuring calcium signalling and epigenetics which received a lot of interest from the public. One year, we were located on the 5th floor of a building in the Department of Zoology and the queue of people waiting to get in snaked all the way down the stairs!
We also started running workshops on the ethics of the use of animals in research – a subject which had featured in an early Schools’ Day project and which always prompted discussion and debate. The format of the workshop changed over the years, as we worked with a range of researchers and especially our animal unit managers who were keen to also showcase careers in animal care. We’ve now run workshops for several schools, including a sixth-form college from Brittany who visit us every couple of years.
The international nature of our outreach continued with a collaboration with Sophianum School in the south-east of the Netherlands. We worked with their teachers and our animal unit managers on a series of challenge projects as part of the Dutch national Technasium scheme. On our visits to the school over the next few years we ran ethics and poster workshops for their secondary and sixth-form students and helped them construct LEGO models of our cage-washing robot, develop designs for an open animal unit and create activities to demonstrate the principles of epigenetics. Our collaboration received a lot of interest from the coordinators of the Technasium scheme and won a national Openness Award. I’m really pleased that colleagues from AstraZeneca are continuing the project.
My horizons in public engagement were expanded by attending the Engagement Academy and other events run by the National Coordinating Council for Public Engagement (NCCPE). With training and conferences involving fellow PE professionals in universities and research institutions from across the country and around the world I gained fresh perspectives on current practice, shared ideas for effective outreach and made some great friends.
Having spent so much time creating workshops and presentations for use in schools I really enjoyed working with intern Samir Morsli on a project in 2018 to standardise our most popular resources and create online versions for teachers to download. After a lot of planning, consultation and editing we ended up by publishing 20 resources. While there’s no substitute for getting a scientist into a classroom in person, this project has allowed far more schools to benefit and with nearly 20,000 file downloads in the first year the impact of the project has been clear.
While there have been many fun projects over the last 30 years one of the most recent has been one of the most enjoyable. The ‘Save Your Cells’ Escape Room, which focuses on signalling research started as a ‘what if?’ conversation in the office, and then took on more shape in discussion with colleagues and PhD students, attracted grant funding from the Biochemical Society and was piloted at the Cambridge Science Festival. The idea was to have a portable, off-grid exhibit which could be taken to the science area of a music festival and the final result was a weekend at the Latitude Festival in Suffolk. My enjoyment of the weekend was due in part to the enthusiastic reception from festival-goers and especially because of the team spirit shown by everybody from the Institute who took part, before, during and after the event.
Throughout the inevitable changes in colleagues, collaborations, audiences and research topics over the last 30 years there have been some things that have remained constant. The passion of Babraham Institute researchers to share their knowledge and love of science is ever-present in all our projects – whether in our labs, classrooms or at public events such as the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. That passion is always matched by the enthusiasm, excitement and engagement of our audiences, irrespective of age and nationality.
I’ve been very lucky to have worked with so many researchers who are committed to public engagement, so many teachers who are passionate about science in education and so many colleagues both at the Institute and across the country who have taught me so much about communicating science. I’m grateful to you all.
24 February 2020
By Michael Hinton