Guide: Public Engagement in STEM
- Discipline area
STEM is the collective term for work in and across Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. There are a number of unique considerations to make when conducting any Public Engagement (PE) activity within the field of STEM and a vast infrastructure drawn on. Whatever you are thinking of doing, someone else has probably been there before you and you can learn a lot from being aware of what they’ve done.
Guidelines and approach
Before you begin
Of the many different academic disciplines, STEM subjects probably have the widest existing PE infrastructure. There is a long history of public engagement with STEM subjects, and there are professional engagers, networks, schemes, resources and previous activity to learn from.
The PE in STEM community
There are a number of different players that make up the PE in STEM community. So, rather than re-inventing the wheel, why not seek advice from others? You may be able to develop partnerships or, at the very least, get some friendly guidance. Places to look include:
- Your institution: Perhaps you are a part of a Beacon for Public Engagement, or have engagement, outreach or widening participation teams. They will be able to advise you on existing schemes and networks.
- Mailing Lists. Dedicated to the exchange of ideas, reports and opportunities in STEM engagement these lists are free to join, and can really help get you started e.g. Psci-com and Big-Chat.
- Specialist Organisations: including The British Science Association, The Royal Society, STEMNET, Association for Science Education, The Royal Academy of Engineering, The Institute of Physics, The Institute of Engineering and Technology, The Institute of Biology, The Royal Society of Chemistry, The Academy of Medical Sciences, National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, various research councils (i.e. EPSRC, STFC, MRC) and many more.
- Research Funders: Funders of STEM research often have resources and funding to help get ideas off the ground. Make sure you check out their websites to find out about potential support or opportunities that they can give you.
- STEM Schemes and programmes: dedicated to helping people in STEM subjects engage with schools or the public e.g. STEM Ambassadors.
- Festivals: There are an increasing number of festivals focussed on STEM – and many universities have already established relationships with them e.g. Manchester Science Festival, British Science Festival, Cheltenham Festival of Science etc.
- Events: bringing members of the PE in STEM community together. Attendance might provide you with advice and guidance and will give you the opportunity to network with potential partners. Such events include: The Science Communication Conference, the BIG Event, the Little Event, the ASE (Association for Science Education) national and regional conferences.
- The Professionals: There are a host of professional science communicators, who practice public engagement in STEM full-time (from individual consultants through to consultancy organisations).
- Museums and Science Centres: Staff in science and discovery centres, as well as STEM specific museums and other cultural venues, who practice public engagement with STEM on a daily basis.
- STEM E&E (enrichment and enhancement) providers who deliver STEM talks, demonstrations, competitions and other activities in schools. (See the STEM Directories for a list of contacts.
- Other researchers in your institution who have already taken part in public engagement activities and may be able to advise you.
What you need to know about STEM
There are a number of things you need to be aware of if you are considering engagement with STEM:
- There has been a lot of previous work into how to engage people so take advice from others.
- Just as your research has its own jargon, so does PE in STEM. Make sure you know what some words and phrases, such as dialogue, ethical issues and ‘publics’ v ‘the general public’, mean to members of this community.
- Some schools or schemes might like you to develop talks or presentations that take account of STEM as a whole. Try to think about ways in which you have used other STEM subjects in your work e.g. if your research is primarily based in chemistry, do you also use statistics or biology? Do you ever work with researchers from other disciplinary backgrounds? You might want to consider developing a project with researchers from other disciplines.
What are the advantages and opportunities of PE in STEM?
If your research falls under the STEM umbrella, you are in a fortunate position. STEM subjects provide a number of unique opportunities for you to take advantage of:
- Innovation: new discoveries in STEM are often of high importance to society and relevant to individuals. Not only can you wow your audience, you can also demonstrate how your research might impact them. If people can see that it is has some relevance to their own lives, they are likely to engage more fully.
- Impact: The impact of STEM research on society often makes the subject matter very newsworthy. There are STEM sections in general news media as well as STEM specific publications. This may help to make your engagement activity more attractive to the media – which can help in recruiting participants.
- Opportunities: STEM subjects offer a host of opportunities for practical demonstrations and natural phenomena which are an attraction in their own right. This makes it all the more easy for you to make the activity visual and engaging.
- Curricula: STEM subjects are part of the core curricula for school students, and teachers are often looking for inspiring people to engage with their students – so finding opportunities to work with schools can be easy.
- Schemes: There are a number of STEM specific schemes, such as the STEM Ambassadors programme, who will provide training, support and will facilitate contact with schools.
- Funding: There are funding streams aimed at engaging the public with STEM subjects – so you may be able to source funding for your activity
- Students: There is an established need to attract students to the field of STEM and so there is great potential for you to contribute to careers-focused and widening participation activities (and to really make a difference by inspiring the next generation).
- You, yourself are interesting: People have preconceptions about people who are labelled ‘scientist’ or ‘engineer’ – you can use this to your advantage by giving them an insight into what it’s really like to do your job, and some of the work you do day to day can be fascinating.
Dangers to be aware of
- What you find easy may be difficult for others and it can be challenging to step back from your own body of knowledge. Try out your activity on people outside of your field – can they help you make it more accessible?
- Many people have preconceptions about STEM subjects, believing that they are too complex, and hold no relevance to their lives. Try to make links to people’s lives, use of anecdotes, describe the implications of your research to everyday life and be careful of the language you use.
- STEM is jargon laden. Whilst you should avoid ambiguous or complicated terms try not to be patronising. There is heavy coverage of STEM in the media and lots of other sources of information – so your audience may know more than you think. There is sometimes misrepresentation of STEM in the media and people may have pre-formed opinions that you don’t agree with. You may alienate your audience if you are dismissive of long-held views, particularly those which their families have held. So explain your own understanding of the subject, and the reasons behind your conclusions, but be careful not to challenge people head on.
- STEM subjects carry baggage about investment and innovation. Some audience members will be ready to challenge you about why you do what you do, how your research is new or innovative, and how your results directly affect them. Keep these questions in mind when developing your engagement activity, and try not to be defensive.
- There are a number of stereotypes about scientists and engineers. By being yourself you may be able to challenge some of these stereotypes. And remember, you don't have to be an expert in every subject. It’s fine to answer questions outside the remit of your research, but be honest – you may need to preface your answer with a disclaimer e.g. ‘this is outside my area of expertise but my understanding is...’
- Be confident about what you think but be respectful of other people’s opinions.
- Remember that the implications of STEM research can have very personal impacts on members of your audience and may be more affected by your subject than you anticipate. Be mindful of the context of your research and the lives it impacts on.
Alice Bell, lecturer in Science Communication, Imperial College, London:
- There is no such thing as "engagement".
- There is certainly no such thing as "the public".
- Terms like "the public", even "the scientific community", are just simplifications we've made up to make the big wide complicated world easier to understand. They are useful simplifications, ways of thinking about the world, don't dismiss these categories entirely, but do take them with a pinch of salt. Most importantly, they are open to a bit of playful reinterpretation.
- The word "engagement" in particular has been stretched by so many different interpretations one could argue it has ceased to have any meaning whatsoever. I would still argue that it is more than just rhetoric though. It is worth understanding its history: the term grew largely out of a response to what people felt was a rather patronising stance of traditional science communication. Instead of science telling these "the public" people what/ how to think (aka "the deficit model"), an "engagement" approach thinks about how the two groups should interact.
- There is, I believe, a lot to be said for this shift in science communication. If nothing else, it's simply bad PR to go around telling people they are stupid. Instead, try to understand where they are coming from. Talk about how you see thing differently from other people rather than outright disagree with them. Sometimes a bit of confrontation can be useful, but I'd say that's rare.
- Instead of being constrained by the broad buzzwords of PEST, focus on the specifics of your project. Work out precisely what your objectives are, what groups you want to connect with? What types of expertise are involved? (you and them) What belief systems are at play? (again, from everyone) How might such cultures of expertise and belief systems clash? What will each group get out of this connection? How? How might I tell if I've managed this? At all times, think and act local.
- Keep in mind the limitations of your project, from financial to the weather.
- There is nothing wrong with a bit of ambitious, but be realistic. You are unlikely to change the world. You may not even change any minds, but that doesn't mean it's not worthwhile, you may well have helped move towards a bit of world/ mind changing. These things take time.
- Have fun. Really, I can't emphasise that point enough.
Other resources to help you
Understanding Audiences (guide)
Science and Discovery Centres (guide)
Communicating Maths (case study)
This guide was produced by Graphic Science in collaboration with the NCCPE