Tooling up for public engagement: You will need a box for that!

Catarina Vicente, Public Engagement and Communications Officer at the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, talks us through her public engagement toolkit.

When I first joined the world of public engagement (PE), I was introduced to the idea of a PE toolkit. This almost-mythical toolbox was an aspirational mix of transferable skills and experience, from the ability to turn a complex scientific idea into a simple, accessible message, to the personal skills to lead others when you are not their line manager!

As I started organising my first PE events, I realised that in addition to this skills toolbox I also needed, well, a real box. A box of physical objects that comes very handy in those classic, McGyver-style moments that are typical for public engagement professionals.

What is inside my box comes mostly from mistakes-learnt (those times when I was missing a crucial object). But my box is also biased for the kind of events that I do in my role helping biomedical researchers engage with the public, e.g. at science festivals, school visits, and our annual ‘science in the supermarket’ road show. I thought I would share here what I always take with me, in the hope that you may be able to share your experience in the comments (and tell me what I am missing!).

Water bottles

It may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but at events such as science festivals you can spend hours standing, and is easy to forget to take breaks (or over-heat). I find that having water bottles (and an encouragement to take a break) helps me take good care of my volunteers.


‘Evaluation, evaluation, evaluation’- one of the things I picked up on as soon as I started in PE! So stickers made it into my PE box very early on. Counting people using stickers is not the most imaginative form of PE evaluation, but it does work, and both kids and grown-ups seem to love them! My stickers used to be event-specific, but I now stick (!) to designs that can work across events (e.g. DNA sticker) as they are more cost-effective. Which reminds me of…

Things that stick

Unless you are very lucky, your stand will be nice-looking, but not super fancy. You will be working with what you have when it comes to putting up posters, banners, or even cuddly cell garlands. Having found myself lacking a few times, my box now includes all manner of things that stick, staple or otherwise attach.


Public engagement is only half of my job (I also do communications). This might be why a good camera has made it to my PE box. I recently started acquiring good quality photos of our events and now find myself with a treasure throve of evidence to showcase on our social media and website, to others in our institute, to funders, etc. Which brings me swiftly on to…

Consent forms

Not one of the most exciting items in my box, but essential due to new GDPR laws. To make things easier, as a rule I don’t photographs members of the public, but it is great to have nice photos of engaged researchers. I do try to collect consent forms before the big day, but sometimes the best way to do it is when you have a captive audience (e.g. when stuck in a cab on your way to an event). That failing, get your lead researcher to exchange consent forms (or acknowledgment that they would prefer not to be photographed) in exchange for stand tshirts. Which reminds me of risk assessment forms, which are normally filled in advance, but are easy to forget. I always include a spare in my PE box.

Giant cuddly toys

You may struggle to put these inside your box, but they can be so useful. They look cute and colourful, are less likely to ‘disappear’, and may be the one thing that keeps a young toddler entertained as you talk with older siblings or parents.

As for the box itself… I must admit that I don’t actually have one! One thing I have learnt is that every public engagement event is its own - sometimes you need a box, sometimes only your researcher, occasionally a van full of materials…  Or maybe that is just the way my specific role works.

How about you? What things are in your  PE box? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!

You can contact Catarina via

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