I just attended the Engage 2016 Conference, in Bristol, run by the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement. I had no idea what to expect as conferences I usually attend are in areas where I have worked for over 15 years, such as primatology, animal behaviour, human behaviour and evolution. I found a large and friendly group of delegates who are variously academics involved in specific projects that engage the public in their research, individuals who promote engagement in their Universities, or individuals representing intermediaries for engagement, such as museums or science centres.
The purpose of attending the conference was to give a presentation about our interactive research pod and hopefully drum up interest in other academics and science centres/museums using it. So, I was essentially ‘on the sell’, but unusually for me, I was not presenting research findings but a product. The point is not to make money from our interactive research pod, but to encourage others to take up the design to enable more fruitful interactions between academics and museums or science centres. My selling points regarding the interactive research pod, in enabling live research on the gallery floor, had two general themes:
1. Collection of useful research data:
- We’ve already done all of the hard work piloting and testing ethical consent systems that work without a researcher being present as well as digital (video) data collection that is tied to that consent.
- You get to collect data from a diverse range of people in a natural context, who are acting naturally, as there is no experimenter present from whom they may feel pressure to perform in a certain way. This is known as ecological or external validity, the opposite of the picture !!
- You can collect loads of lovely data very cheaply and easily as a researcher does not need to be present. In fact in 8 months of intermittent data collection we collected data from over 5,000 visitors, 80% of whom consented to their data being used in our study. This means that the experimental control (or internal validity) we sacrifice for ecological validity is compensated for by our sample size. In other words, the sheer number of individuals interacting with the exhibit helps us to account effectively for the large variability in ages, ethnicities, prior experience, motivations etc. of the participants.
- A live research exhibit on the gallery floor is a cost, and time, effective way of collecting data as i) a researcher does not need to be present, ii) participants do not have to be recruited but come to you and iii) they do not require payment/reward.
2. Public Engagement:
- Both children and adults, alike, were enthused by interacting with an exhibit that enabled them to take part in real research. A bonus for engagement of the public in science; a key agenda for science centres/museums and academics alike. Indeed, many visitors spontaneously told us about factors they thought may influence our findings, such as their child having an autism spectrum disorder, or they had previously studied psychology, or that they had drunk a glass of wine at lunch time!
- The style of exhibit may go some way to alter perceptions regarding what ‘science’ is, as it can highlight research that is not only about mixing chemicals or using specialist equipment. Again, a plus for the agenda of science centres/museums.
- Visitors take away some understanding of the research that is taking place in the interactive research pod (or exhibit). This represents a feather in the academic’s hat regarding engagement with the public, as opposed to sitting in an ivory tower conducting research that is never explained, or is meaningless, to the general public.
I made several useful contacts regarding my mission for the day, but also discovered all sorts of exciting engagement projects featured by other presenters. The NCCPE gives an annual prize for the best engagement projects, and among them were two projects that stood out to me due to similarities in approach to our project. One, a pop up ‘Heart and Lung Convenience Store’, created a mini science centre in an empty shop for two weeks, to engage passers by in heart and lung health discoveries. Another project, involved the public in real research in order to engage young people in Cape Verde in turtle conservation. This project made me think about our future plans to include some citizen science in our project, whereby visitors not only act as participants in our research but also get to undertake some of the research themselves. For example, they may be able to rate the creativity of participants’ buildings. This would be very useful as judging creativity is very subjective and we need lots of people’s ratings in order to make our measures of creativity more consistent.
Now it is back to work and time to continue evaluating our interactive research pod. Hopefully, we can use this information to highlight how the pod can provide a win-win situation for academics and science centres alike, enabling public engagement and high quality rigorous disciplinary research.