Building informal city centre science spaces to reach the hard-to-reach

There are many reasons why academics, funders and universities want to find better ways to  involve the public in research. Underpinning most are common concepts; social equity, inclusivity and responsible use of tax payer’s money. ‘Science for all’ has been a policy driver for decades, and yet students from poorer families are still less likely to study science post 16, and less likely to do well when they do. As such, many of us working on public engagement with research do so with an eye to targeting ‘hard to reach’ audiences. These are generally those publics from cultural and socio economic demographics with traditionally low level of participation in science and, more broadly, in higher education. Despite inclusivity-facing public engagement, however, hard to reach audiences remain just that. Many of us will have participated in science festivals, workshops and outreach events where it is all too clear we are ‘preaching to the converted’; targeting the same already-engaged audiences again and again.

In 2016 a group of academics from Swansea University created Oriel Science to try and break through the ‘hard to reach’ barrier and create a genuine ‘science for all’ space in our city. We opened our science centre pop-up as a place for the university to ‘showcase science in the community’ and where conversations about science, knowledge and research could take place outside the culturally-loaded boundaries of the university. The Oriel Science venue was open at weekends and in school holidays, and ran for nine months. There was no entry fee and the centre was staffed by volunteer academic time and paid student ambassadors. Whilst foregrounding gender neutrality, we kept a high female scientist presence in the space all the time.

Oriel Science exhibits were ‘hands on’ and connected to research carried out at the university. We opened in a disused shop in Swansea city centre. Our first exhibition was called ‘The Story of Time’ and covered globally relevant research such as the Large Hadron Collider (designed and built by Welshman Dr Lyn Evans). Showcase pieces included a ‘Back to the Future’ DeLorean which connected popular cultural references to time travel with current cosmological research. An animated 30m ‘Time Wall’ depicted the Universe’s history and our ‘Future Wall’ asked visitors their thoughts about the science of their future; this piece of citizen art now forms the exhibition’s legacy (@FutureSwansea). Environmental themes on time were covered using time lapse footage of a calving glacier, artist Julia Davis’ haunting time lapse footage of the Southern Night Sky and an exploration of tree ring science using wood disk and core samples from all over the world.

Alongside the exhibition, researchers led workshops and citizen science events, benefitting from the supportive environment of a science centre space. Our ‘Build a Bioblock’ workshop gave Oriel Science visitors a chance to discuss Swansea’s ambitious and controversial renewable energy plans, whilst constructing artificial reef ‘bioblocks’, a citizen art project which went on to win Swansea University’s Research as Art competition in 2017. Over the nine months Oriel Science was open, we hosted workshops, talks and demonstrations from 18 research groups within the university.

Oriel Science is an attempt to adapt a science-centre model to Swansea University’s STEM public engagement with research agenda, specifically with the aim of targeting low participation demographics. Over nine months we had conversations about research with 16,000 visitors, around 40% of whom had no previous interaction with the university. We aimed to provide a place where researchers and the community could converse in a ‘third space’ in which a wide range of publics felt comfortable. In the time we were open, the socio economic demographic of our visitors matched that of the city, and were more diverse than the visitor profile of local museums. A feature, we feel, of our location in the leisure and shopping heart of the city.

In terms of the academics we worked with, a critical component of our success was in providing the logistical support researchers need to facilitate their engagement activities. We provided a ready-made space, audiences, logistical support and marketing and student ambassadors to enable those with an idea for a public engagement event to deliver it easily.

Connecting with the community

By opening a space designed for city centre users, made accessible via hands-on exhibits and ambassadors, we were able to reach out to the ‘hard-to-reach’ and to connect a campus university with its city. Through Oriel Science, Swansea University successfully engaged with the community in the widest context and provided a vehicle for enhancing the delivery of direct public engagement with research.

We hope the Oriel Science model might potentially provide a blueprint for other institutions who are hoping to break down the hard-to-reach barrier.

Mary Gagen

Mary Gagen is an Associate Professor of Geography at Swansea University and Deputy Director of Oriel Science. Mary is a climate scientist by training and a passionate and committed STEM outreach enthusiast. Since 2012 she has run various inclusivity- facing outreach programmes and works closely with partner schools throughout South Wales. Mary’s research takes her to ancient forests around the world and she is currently working to take Oriel Science’s ‘Telling Time with Trees’ exhibit (image above) to its next home in Borneo’s Rainforest Discovery Centre. Mary publishes widely on paleoclimatology and gives public talks and workshops which seek to ‘myth bust’ climate change. @maryhgagen

mary Gagen

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