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Bright Club: public engagement variety night

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Overview

Who: The event has a number of target audiences:

  • Event audience: 20-40 year olds who are not already engaging with UCL
  • Participants: UCL staff and students who participate as performers, especially those inexperienced in public engagement
  • Online audiences
  • Secondary audience: Professionals and researchers to be influenced

What: Public event based in a comedy club, and podcast.

Why: To provide an enjoyable first-step into public engagement for students and staff. To engage the general public, particularly members of the public aged between 20-40, not currently engaging with a higher-education institution.

Where: London

When: Started in May 2009 and is ongoing on a monthly basis.

Introduction: It's so much fun, is this work?

Shelia Khani performing at Bright Club

Bright Club provides an enjoyable first-step into public engagement for students and staff. It is run by the UCL Public Engagement Unit in collaboration with One Green Firework, a comedy promotions company. Bright Club brings together a cross-disciplinary group of researchers, trains them and gives them a space to share their research with each other and the public.

Bright Club is a new, exciting and innovative model for public engagement focused around popular entertainment. It happens every month in a comedy club in Clerkenwell, London. A professional comedian comperes the evening, and staff and students perform short sets about aspects of their research or teaching, all with a single unifying theme. The themes that have been explored to date have included: Lust, Time, Space, Light, Food, Books and Power.

Staff and students are trained in performance skills, to communicate their work in an engaging, entertaining way putting the audience at the centre of the experience. Bright Club podcasts come out weekly, and feature some of the staff and students who have performed at live events, alongside comedians and anchor Steve Cross (Head of Public Engagement, UCL). 

Events are promoted through listings, such as Timeout, Evening Standard, chortle.co.uk, Tweeting, Podcasting and Facebook. The Bright Club Facebook page has over 600 members. It’s intended as an email list, but also has acts as a central repository of contact details – if you have seen a speaker you are interested in you can find them here. Bright Club events are designed to pay for themselves, with the money collected on the door on behalf of the professional performers and technical staff.

Feedback shows Bright Club has been a resounding success. It has been called the ‘most fun an academic can have at work’ (by a past speaker), and ‘the best new comedy idea in London’ (by a comedy promoter). There are usually between 80 to 85 attendees, and about half the audience at any event have been to Bright Club before. Performing at Bright Club has been a very positive first activity for many academics and researchers, leading them on to further engagement projects. Another key indicator of the success of Bright Club is that the model is spreading at both comedy festivals (e.g. Brighton Comedy Festival) and within other cities (e.g. Manchester). 

Purpose

Bright Club is a novel model of public engagement for UCL. It breaks new ground in terms of combining research, entertainment, comedy and music, and also through the diversity of themes, academic disciplines and variety of career levels of staff and students covered. It is not simply an ‘event’ but a distinct model of encouraging public engagement and raising awareness of research.

Bright Club reaches out to members of the public aged between 20-40, who are not currently engaging with higher-education institutions, but who take part in cultural events. This is an audience historically underserved by UCL’s public projects.

 Bright Club’s stated aims are to:

  • Raise (audience) awareness of science, research and the role of higher education institutions (HEIs)
  • Influence the attitudes and values (of audience members) towards science, research and the role of HEIs;
  • Develop (researchers) skills, enhance knowledge and increase understanding of public engagement;
  • Exchange information, share learning and inform culture change across the sector.

The UCL led Beacon for Public Engagement identified a key challenge: many university staff members and students struggle to take the first step into public engagement. Bright Club is designed to be a “continuous start up”, a fun place for people to have a first positive experience, from which to build their public engagement practice.

Results and outcomes

What works well

Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems were put in place at the start of the project, by the UCL Evaluation Officer (Public Engagement), in order to understand how and to what extent the project aims have been met. The M&E process generated data about the project through semi-structured interviews, observations, focus group transcripts and questionnaires. Monitoring has shown Bright Club has successfully reached its target audience: more than 60% of the audience usually have no relationship with a university, and the majority of those that do, do not work or study at UCL. The other key findings, documented in the UCL led Beacon for Public Engagement Six Month Review report, are:

1. Providing opportunities for creativity. The speakers (predominately UCL staff and students) are trained to communicate their work in an engaging, entertaining way. Both speakers and audience members commented on the model of public engagement offered by Bright Club:

“Well, you come to a comedy night and you expect to be entertained and amused, but you don’t expect to learn anything! I really liked the mix of science and comedy ... It is a fantastic concept.” Audience member.

“Bright Club is something completely new ... I’ve done a lot of public talks before, but nothing like that, nothing in a pub environment ... I think it is like pub theatre.” Speaker

2. Raising awareness and changing attitudes. An intended outcome of the project was to raise awareness and influence audience attitudes of science and research. The M&E findings confirmed that this outcome has been achieved:

“It opens your eyes up to the types of subjects and the types of people involved in research. There is the subject, but there also is the person. I think Bright Club is as much about the subject as it is about the people.” Audience member

“At each one I have been to I’ve learnt something new … It is real science … which is fantastic.” Audience member

The Bright Club podcasts, which feature some of the researchers that performed at the evening events, extend this learning to a wider audience both in terms of numbers and location, as anyone anywhere can listen to Bright Club.

Speakers mentioned that Bright Club has assisted them to raise awareness of their research, the process of research and/or department amongst the audiences involved.

“People engaging with science and research is really good, not just in terms of people knowing facts, but the point of view in understanding how research works.” Speaker

An unintended outcome was the perceived effect Bright Club has on the institution (UCL) in terms of raising awareness of public engagement, as noted by a member of the project team.

"It has changed the way people think about engagement and the Public Engagement Unit at UCL. It helps us to put into very visible practice the principles of good engagement, and it helps us to communicate what public engagement can be." Member of the project team

3. Personal and professional development. One of the project’s main impacts is on the speakers. The speakers develop skills and new knowledge. The learning outcomes included developing subject specific knowledge, learning about public engagement (e.g. methods to engage) and/or the development of skills (e.g. communication, time management). As illustrated with this quote from a speaker involved in Bright Club and the podcasts:

“Eight or nine months ago I hadn’t really done that, like I hadn’t really presented or tried to explain my work to the public. Now I have, and it has been a lot of fun. Now, I’ve started to learn those skills of how to make my work interesting and accessible.” Speaker

4. Acting as a catalyst. Many of the speakers have been involved in other public engagement projects or activities since performing at Bright Club. Bright Club gave speakers a starting point for a whole range of public engagement activities, events and funding applications, aimed at different audiences and addressing slightly different topics. For example, three Bright Club speakers were asked to created UCL TV mini-lectures for Youtube about their research, which are now downloadable from the UCL website. These mini-lectures have been viewed 4,346 times, as of 10th August 2010. Similarly, a Post-doctoral researcher, who was involved in a Bright Club podcast, has been contacted to do a talk about ageing on BBC Radio 5 Live as a direct result of the podcast.

5. Stimulating conversations and developing relationships. The output from Bright Club is a group of researchers (UCL staff and students) who have increased skills in discussing their work with non-specialists in a friendly and approachable manner, and able to relate their research to that of individuals in other disciplines. As intended, a ‘Bright Club community’ has emerged from this project – made up of a variety of researchers, speakers and audience members. Networks have been established within and across institutions, departments groups and individuals. One example is Bright Club: Revolution, an evening event held in September 2010. This was a change in the normal format of the event; the six speakers were all external to UCL. The six speakers were regular Bright Club audience members, who were invited to give an engaging eight minute talk about aspects of their work. This network has allowed people to share good practice and to celebrate the achievements of Bright Club. Through the Bright Club Facebook group, audience members and speakers are able to continue to talk, question and share new ideas with each other and a wider audience, whom they would otherwise never have been able to reach. 

Lessons learned

Preparing and practice for the speakers: Following the initial work, the project team decided to use a largely self-directed training programme. This three stage preparation process that has worked really well. 

  • Stage 1 The expert led session: Speakers are briefed on what Bright Club is, and what makes a “good” Bright Club talk. 
  • Stage 2 The self led session: Speakers go away and think about what to say in their performance. 
  • Stage 3 The peer led session: Speakers take part in a full rehearsal, where each speaker performs and comments on each others’ performance.

With this model of preparation, the speakers learn on their own, working out how to present their subject, rather than a model or approach being forced on them.

Generate media (e.g. photographs, flyers, podcasts, case study reports, audio recordings, and websites). These physical, tangible outputs captured from the project have made a lot easier to communicate to people what Bright Club is and what has happened. This has helped UCL's Public Engagement Unit to promote the project, and to share Bright Club with a wider audience.

Make it fun. The big incentive for the participants has been the enjoyment associated with performing at the events. One of the unexpected difficulties the Unit had in the beginning was convincing to people that Bight Club counted as work. The reaction of some people was ‘It's so fun, is this work?’

Go beyond your usual recruitment channels; make full use of new partners and their networks. Bright Club events are purposely not advertised within UCL, to ensure a truly public audience dominates.

UCL stress that you shouldn’t assume that you need a huge budget for this kind of undertaking. The experience of Bright Club shows that with the right partnership events can be largely self sustaining. Key things you will need:

  • a relationship with someone who can book decent comedians (to act as comperes),
  • knowledge of how a venue like a comedy club works,
  • ideas around marketing on a zero budget (UCL uses social networking a lot),

You would need to take into account staff time for preparation and coordination. For each event it takes around 10 to 15 hours for recruitment, coordination and training of the performers. On the night you would need to account for 5 hours for the coordinator and a stage manager, and 3 hours for the photographer. 

Next steps

UCL is encouraging other HEIs to set up Bright Clubs, and can provide advice, experience and (small) financial support for starting up. There is now a Bright Club Manchester, and there are other cities that are talking about running similar events. 

Key partners

Bright Club was developed by UCL with One Green Firework, a comedy promotions company.

Funding was received by the Science and Technology Facilities Council to sponsor some of the early events. Bright Club now has built a community which makes it financially self sustaining. When new features are being developed one off funding is applied for; for example a bid was made to the Wellcome Trust for some money to get the podcasts rolling.

Contact

Name: Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement

Name of organisation: UCL Public Engagement Unit

Email: steve.cross@ucl.ac.uk or publicengagement@ucl.ac.uk

Telephone: 020 7679 3530 or 020 7679 2489

Website: UCL Public Engaement Unit