Ventsislav Valev, University Research Fellow, tells us how his team of a robot, postdocs and PhD students have successfully started ‘Look into my eyes!’, a series of primary school workshops which explore ambitious scientific topics like the properties of light and metamaterials. This is part of a series of posts to share public engagement experience and advice from our Research Fellows.
What do you do?
Together with a humanoid robot and a team of postdocs and PhD students, I run a series of science workshops in primary schools in and around Bath. The children are given the opportunity to construct a laser setup, to build and play a ‘light piano’, to assemble a large crystal structure, to design new materials and to examine light under the microscope. The activities are organized along stages of our research, starting from the motivation and going through sample design and preparation, all the way to measurements. We present science in ways that are different to those usually employed in schools. Our approach energises children who are interested in science and changes perceptions among those who are not.
How did you get involved?
The impetus for my outreach activity came mainly from the Royal Society. During my University Research Fellow induction, I learned that the Royal Society would strongly support outreach and I discovered the existence of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Small Grants. Subsequently, I followed a public engagement training course at Chicheley Hall, which allowed me to come up with a rough draft for my project. I was further motivated by a visit to Buckingham Palace, where Prince Andrew incited the Research Fellows to work with schools and to serve as role models for the next generation of scientists.
The University of Bath was also very helpful, providing me with local outreach training and sending my team on training held by the science centre in Bristol, At-Bristol. Within our department of physics, I was inspired by the outreach activities of Prof William Wadsworth, whose support and guidance were instrumental.
What do the students think of the project?
The children enjoy the workshops tremendously. On several occasions, they didn’t want to go on break time; something that had never happened before, according to the teachers. Teachers were also quite surprised to see that some of the children they had expected to disconnect very soon were, in fact, some of the most engaged in the workshop.
Interestingly, other teachers commented that our activities are very stimulating for their most advanced children. Additionally, it was also rather unexpected to see school staff, from teaching assistant to head teachers, join in our activities.
An important reason for the broad appeal of our science workshop is the variety of the activities. We have emphasised the use of skills that are not often associated with science at schools, such as kinaesthetic or musical ability. We also bring in dazzling props and technology that schools often do not have access to. During the activities we use a humanoid robot, a laser, spectacular crystals, a meteorite, professional grade lab components and a serious microscope.
Our workshop constitutes very effective outreach that really gets the science across. Before and after each visit, children fill in a questionnaire that covers the science content of the workshop. On average, the score before the workshop is 25% and after this increases to 58%. Our workshops are also changing children’s perception of science. We found that on average, before each visit, nearly 30% of the children say that they could never be scientists while afterwards, 53% of those say that they could become scientists if they wanted to.
How has your engagement work helped your research?
Although it was not intended as such, going to schools has turned out to be an excellent team building exercise. Because all of the outreach activities within a workshop are based on ongoing research, the children’s enthusiasm for the activities energizes the PhD students and motivates their work.
Furthermore, the project has greatly improved our communication skills. Developing outreach activities that are closely related to our research has forced us to construct a broadly accessible narrative. Consequently, now, when we have non-specialist visitors to the labs, we explain our research following the same logic that guides the science workshops. Also, thanks to the financial support for the outreach, we now have some fantastic props to show to visitors.
What advice would you give to other scientists?
Outreach is an important part of scientific life but doing it well requires a significant initial time investment for setting up the project. As University Research Fellows, we are given that time and I found the investment to be really worthwhile because it reflects back on research communication. At this stage, I feel confident that my team can go out and perform effective outreach merely at the time cost of a morning’s or afternoon’s visit to a school.
In designing a public engagement activity, my advice would be to try and take in all the help you can get, while keeping the focus on what you really want to do. The thing is, trying to please everybody is hard and it can be discouraging. In my case, the training provided by the Royal Society was key. But just as well, local support by the University of Bath, colleagues from the department, the science centre and the STFC were crucial. However, they all have different objectives and priorities, to which the needs of the children, teachers, PhD students and Principal Investigator also add up. At one point, I experienced an overload of expectations and almost gave up. It helped to decide what I was not going to do and to focus on my own priorities. With time and experience, it all ends up making perfect sense.
If you are planning on going to schools, my advice would be to avoid talking to the receptionists. In general, they showed no enthusiasm for our visit whatsoever. By contrast, I found that science teachers (and sometimes head teachers) are usually very interested in our visits, especially, given that they are for free.