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Rising Stars: Cambridge University

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Who: Cambridge undergraduates, post-graduates, post-docs and early-career academics

What: Rising Stars is a shining example of how to embed public engagement into the culture for those near the start of their careers

Why: Many senior academics are great communicators and ambassadors for their subjects. We wanted to help those who are just starting out in their careers to develop these essential skills

Where: Cambridge University

When: Ongoing  

Project description

Rising Stars is a Higher Education Funding Council for England (HFCE) funded programme that gives outstanding Cambridge undergraduates, post-graduates, post-docs and early-career academics the chance to develop the communication skills required to become ambassadors for their subjects.

Set up in early 2007, more than 100 people have now taken part in the programme, which is the first of its kind in the country. It has three groundbreaking aspects:

1. The scheme is wide ranging, covering working with 'hard-to-reach' communities, methods of engagement, identifying and creating opportunities to communicate, publicity, evaluation, clear communication of technical subjects and print and broadcast media

2. The course is truly multi-disciplinary, integrating the sciences with the arts, humanities and social sciences

3. The participants put their new skills into practice by organising a real-life public activity. Activities have included a radio show on ground breaking science and a schools masterclass on the science of love.


The Rising Stars public engagement course

The course, which is free of charge for participants, is run by the Community Affairs team, with an external facilitator taking the sessions.


Dan Friess one of the rising stars

Participants attend five half day sessions and are responsible for planning, organising and delivering a real outreach activity to the public (in addition to the five sessions). Completion of the Rising Stars course counts as transferrable skills training.

Staff and students already involved in outreach at the University form a panel during the course, with which participants can discuss their public engagement plans.

The Community Affairs team actively helps participants with planning and implementing their chosen outreach activity with, for example, school pupils, older people's groups, youth clubs and the general public (but not other academics).

Activities include talks, discussions, websites, press articles or hands-on demonstrations, which can be stand-alone or integrated with the University's huge range of existing outreach events, festivals, museums and school events, and media opportunities.

Results and outcomes

What worked well

  • Mixing people from different academic disciplines

  • Covering a wide range of public engagement, eg. different audiences, different ways of communicating

  • Requiring course participants to organise a 'live' public engagement activity as part of the course

"It's been an extremely successful programme and has increased the profile and quality of public engagement at the University. It's always oversubscribed and for the last one we ran, we had 97 applications for just 12 places. So much of the course is about creating a community of people who can support each other to build public engagement into their careers. We stay in contact with participants and the majority go on to be star public communicators." Penny Wilson, Head of Community Affairs

What didn't work well

We get many more applications than we have places. It's good that the course is competitive but we also need to offer an open access series of short workshop introductions to public engagement. 

 Resources required

Top tips

1. Always select a good mix of participants for each course - it creates a buzz which you don't get from a room full of people from the same discipline. It also helps to address the lack of support for public engagement for the arts and humanities, compared to the sciences

2. It's not enough to teach people communications skills; they also need practical information about, for example, insurance, child protection, event management, and community contacts

3. In order to maintain momentum after the course, publicise opportunities for engagement to former participants. Rising Stars have an email list for all current and former 'Rising Stars' and send out a couple of public engagement opportunities each week



Name: Nicola Buckley

Name of organisation: Cambridge University

Email: Nicola Buckley

Telephone: 01223 764069

Website: Cambridge Community Affairs