Our first academic journal paper from the Creative Science at Life research and development project has been published in Educational Action Research, in August 2017. Published by Routledge, the journal is concerned with exploring the dialogue between research and practice in educational settings. The focus of the paper is on the use of participatory action research (PAR) to enable university researchers and Science Centre professionals to co-design Informal Science Learning exhibits that enhance creativity and innovation in young people. We discuss how PAR enabled effective engagement with and creation of enriched knowledge and innovation, in both the academy and science-learning professionals. The added value of PAR and co-production to our project aligns with current calls in academia for a redefining of how societal impact of academic research is considered.
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.
The team have been busy again this month, developing pathways from the project for impact. Claire and Hannah were invited to share learnings and speak at the Evolution of Methodologies conference on 29th June, held at The National Glass Centre in Sunderland.
80 participants gathered to consider how artists and designers are evolving practice based research at the conference funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and organised by the Northumbria- Sunderland Centre for Doctoral Training in Art and Design.
Together, we critically interrogated practice-led research methodologies across creative disciplines. We discussed the Participatory Action Research methodology and design thinking practices which have informed the work to date. The slides of our presentation can be viewed here:
And the whole session can be watched on demand here (we start at 1:06:35):
The presentation generated a lot of discussion in the Q&A session, and the team has since been invited to contribute a chapter to a new book to be published by Routledge: ‘Transcending Disciplinarity; Reconnecting Philosophies of Research Design and Methodology in Art and Science’.
Team members Andy Lloyd and Bethan Ross shared the learnings and aspirations of the live research experiment ongoing through the interactive research pod at Centre for Life with the participants of the European conference for science centres and museums this month. The 27th Ecsite Annual Conference took place in June in Graz, Austria. It gathered 1,081 participants from 53 different countries, making it the second largest Ecsite Annual Conference ever.
As well as Beth and Andy presenting at the conference, Andy was interviewed for the European network of science centres and museums Magazine – Spokes#20 – June 2016. In it, Andy reports:
“I received a lot of interest in the live research exhibit in the Brain Zone. The experiment was devised by Anthropology researchers from Durham University. They are interested in social learning and “cumulative culture”, the way ideas are shared and passed on. Previous research with non-human primates suggest that copying is very common, but humans are especially good at innovating and being creative. Our exhibit explores how the environmental conditions influence the creativity people demonstrate. We can change whether people are able to see and interact with each other as they play with building blocks, and record what they make. Interest was very high from other science centre people, so we have created a free pdf to show what we did and how we did it, that anyone can access here. The researchers want to track how the research ideas spread, so if you do make use of any of this we would love to hear how it goes”.
We’ve added a new Resources page to this website so that anyone can download our free guide in pdf format: How To… create an Interactive Research Pod.