Working with science centres

Across the UK there are over 50 science and discovery centres and science museums that collectively intrigue, inspire and involve over 20 million children and adults every year.

Established within their communities, these centres already work with researchers from local universities and industry and have a ready-made audience, a great venue and a wealth of expertise in how to engage the general public. 

Process

Science centres run a huge variety of different types of activities, each one targeted at a different audience. Which you choose will depend on the guidance of the science centre you work with, which format you feel most comfortable with and the type and age of participants you want to work with.  

Meet the expert events 

These events give you the opportunity to talk directly with visitors to the centre. It is a chance to showcase your work, usually using table-top activities suitable for engaging with school or family groups.  

Large-scale experiments 

Science centres attract thousands of visitors a week. If your research involves collecting large amounts of data, consider whether this audience could do it for you! Visitors are keen to get involved, and getting them to participate in real-life research is a hugely valuable experience.

Schools programmes and outreach 

Science centres engage millions of school students and their teachers with curriculum-based workshops, shows and events. While the programmes are often run by centres, they may value the input of a researcher who could help develop activities. 

Careers events 

Science centres are increasingly partnering with universities and industry to offer events that focus on STEM-related careers. Being involved means school students have the chance to hear about your role and background first hand, as well as connecting personally with you and seeing that researchers are just like them! 

Developing exhibits  

It takes a huge amount of resources and funding to redevelop exhibits, so science centres tend to have other methods of regularly updating the content of their activities. You could get involved in developing individual hands-on demonstrations, creating films, planetarium shows or web resources. 

When science centres do undergo the process of updating or creating an exhibit, they will need input from researchers in various ways. You could act as a scientific advisor, or as a partner in a funding bid.  

Advantages

Together, the UK science and discovery centres make up the largest publically accessible network dedicated to both hands-on science learning and family science learning. Their venues are purpose-built, inspiring environments, making your task to engage visitors with your research all the easier!

They also employ an army of over 5,000 professional science engagement specialists with backgrounds as wide-ranging as performance artists, researchers, teachers, designers and film-makers. These skills mean they can help bring science alive for people from all parts of society, and you can draw on that knowledge to create and deliver fun and engaging activities.  

Challenges 

Before making your approach it is useful to be aware of the funding challenges science centres face. In general they are charitable organisations and despite the fact many of these centres charge entry fees, currently no UK science centre covers the cost of their education activities from ticket revenue.  

With the exception of the National Museums, science centres don’t receive government subsidies, and instead have to apply for funding to support specific projects.  This means that while staff in centres might absolutely love to embark on projects with you, they must operate within these funding constraints. This means they will often try to tie in your event within an existing funded project, and might not have as much time as they’d like to help you deliver your activity.  

Top tips

  • Timing for your activities. Science and discovery centres are full of families and peer groups during the weekends, holidays and half terms, and full of school students every weekday. Choose your time depending on the audience you want to work with. 

  • Get public engagement training. We would encourage all researchers to go on a specific public engagement training course as this will help you (and the public!) enjoy your event.  

  • Talk to your university press and outreach departments. It is likely that people at your university will have worked with the science centre before, and these groups can advise. 

  • Consider if your event should be part of a celebration, festival or special week. For example, breast cancer awareness month, Brain Awareness Week (March), National Science and Engineering Week (March). 

  • Think about financial support. When proposing your involvement to the centre, consider if there is a small amount of funding you might apply for to pay for your expenses and the staff time at the centre. 

  • Be guided by the expertise and needs of the science centre. They will always be thinking about what is in the best interests of the visitor, and will try and make sure that your activity creates meaningful interactions.