Case study
quality practice

What if...?

updated on 29 Sep 2023
6 minutes

What if…? demonstrates that trusting and supporting young people to realise their own curiosity and creativity can result in unique and inspirational methods of engagement.

Durham University, Greenfield Community College and Unfolding Theatre

What if…? demonstrates that trusting and supporting young people to realise their own curiosity and creativity can result in unique and inspirational methods of engagement. The project culminated in the development of a live interactive performance piece, produced through collaboration between 20 young people from Greenfield Community College (Newton Aycliffe, County Durham), teachers, theatre makers (Unfolding Theatre) and scientific researchers (Durham University). At its core, was the aim of encouraging young people to explore their own curiosity and provide opportunities to determine their own personal learning journeys. Specifically they were challenged to develop and direct the production of an interactive performance piece aiming to engage and inspire their peers. The resultant content was developed through collaborative work with scientific researchers and creative practitioners. The final performance piece reached over 1000 people in school and community groups.

The project began as a discussion about the fundamental essence of curiosity within science and the arts. We wanted to enable young people to research and investigate their interests and challenged them to ‘report’ their findings creatively, using performance-based techniques to communicate, engage and inspire their peers. We selected year 9 students to work with because the participants needed a level of maturity to manage the responsibility and commitment involved, and year 9 students did not have the same pressures of exams as year’s 10 and 11.

The evaluation highlighted the importance of access to real scientists for young people, particularly in being able to chat informally about careers and interests. It also showed that young people took great pride in their achievements and valued being trusted to direct their own projects. The project also affected all the researchers personally, influencing how they see their research and stimulating reflection. One researcher noted that it is “the most rewarding thing I have ever done,” and several remarked on how refreshing it was to be involved in a project that did not just “plug info into students” but explored their interests. Audiences were also positive about the shows with most becoming more curious and feeling that engaging people in science this way was informative, interesting and effective.

What if...? won the Engaging with Young People award in the NCCPE's Engage Competition 2014.

Project aims

  • Support Year 9 school students in developing their curiosity in science, encouraging investigation, discovery and experimentation
  • Support transferrable skill development including communication and creativity
  • Widening participation in research, enabling participants to experience real-life science
  • Produce and deliver performances in at least three secondary schools 

Target audience

The project was developed for year 9 students at Greenfield Community College (Newton Aycliffe, County Durham). This cohort was selected because they had the right level of maturity to manage the commitment involved. It was felt that years 10 and 11 would have too many commitments preparing for and completing examinations. The end performance was targeted at school children and adults within local communities. 

Project overview

What if…? began with a conversation about the similiarities between the arts and sciences. Following the conversation, the project team Dr. Lorraine Coghill (Durham University Science Outreach) and Katy Milne(Director of Greenfield Arts) decided to try and develop a project which really enabled children to explore their own curiosity in science. The aim was to provide opportunities for them to explore, learn and experiment at the same time, using arts and theatre techniques. As part of the introduction of the project to the young people, the team ran an activity where each person was given a tin. The children could do anything they wanted with the tin apart from opening it. This introduced them to the concept of curiosity and scientific enquiry. Several sessions were delivered in which they worked with a facilitator with experience in theatrical techniques to encourage them to think of one question they would like answered. They came up with a range of questions such as: ‘Could we throw a ball into space?’, ‘Is there life after death?’, ‘Why do we have different colour hair and eyes?’ and ‘Why is football so good?’. The team then matched the questions with scientists who could potentially answer the questions, and were willing to work with the young people and facilitators in sustained way to produce a final performance piece. 

Letting the children lead the project

The project was structured to let young people take the lead. This calculated risk was managed by bringing together a team of experts in different fields who could support, provoke and encourage each young person’s journey of curiosity. Unfolding Theatre’s experience of working effectively with this age group to develop performance pieces was key, whilst, following the project’s ethos, researchers were only approached once the young people had identified their own questions. All involved adults were briefed about the project’s experimental nature and the necessity not to lead but to support the young people. 


Due to the project’s experimental nature, it was crucial to evaluate throughout and to be flexible enough to adapt accordingly. During the formative development phase, an iterative evaluation strategy was employed. The project team, including young people, verbally reviewed each session whilst the young people kept ongoing diaries of thoughts and questions. This informed the project development and future sessions were adjusted appropriately. For example, the need to include a variety and balance of approaches during sessions was identified, integrating active, dynamic activities with focussed discussion. In addition, we ensured that every session included informal chat between the young people and the researchers.

During delivery, attendances at performances were recorded, teachers were interviewed and the development team input their thoughts. A Year 10 student from another school evaluated audience reactions by interview and observation. The project team provided guidence for her on how to ask questions and how to approach different stakeholders: teachers, groups of children, audiences etc. Future performances were adapted based on the responses with elements being removed or adjusted accordingly. Summatively, the impact on the partners (young people, scientists, teachers) was assessed through questions and interviews. This has enabled us to reflect on the project as a whole and look towards future development and approaches to other projects. The project’s quality was reflected in the evaluation results as well as additional interest by other schools, and in being invited to be part of a regional theatre festival.

Key to making it work

Invest time in building relationships and trust with everyone invovled in the project – adults and young people alike. Take time to build the adults’ confidence in the young people in order to support them enabling the young people to lead. Key to this is ensuring that everyone is on the same page and knows exactly what you are doing and aiming to achieve. If adults do try to control direction, use facilitation techniques to pass the ownership of the project back to the young people. For example, should an adult try to control the creative direction of the project, it is important to step in diplomatically, perhaps saying: 'Oh, that’s a really interesting way of looking at it' then turn open questions back to the young people: 'What do you think? How could you make that work? How would you find out more about that question?'.

Work closely with the researchers to clarify and reiterate their role on the project, help them to realise that it is not just a question of them being the ‘experts’, but that they are forming a supportive, partnership relationship with the young people. Equally, it is impotant to build the young people’s confidence in communicating their opinions, questions and ideas, and demonstrating that you value and will actively use their input. Finally, remove as many barriers to participation as you can, such as making it easier for the schools to be involved by ensuring that you look after as much of the administrative burden of the project as possible.