I got involved with the first phase of Operation Earth, an engagement programme run by the Association for Science & Discovery Centres (ASDC), and NERC, as part of the Soil Security Programme (SSP).
The SSP consisted of three projects based at different institutes across the UK. Operation Earth was a natural fit for us, enabling researchers to go to a Science and Discovery Centre local to them (in our case the Natural History Museum, Thinktank Birmingham, Oxford University Museum of Natural History). Acting under the Operation Earth banner allowed us to build a programme of engagement, rather than a series of one off events. This approach had several advantages but required some extra thought and planning in the early stages. For example, the centres had a range of locations and requirements, so we developed a flexible suite of activities based around the A, B C (Architecture, Biology, Chemistry) of soil. Sharing architecture could be a simple as taking a jam jar with water and soil in to bringing our purpose built, free standing display. This meant our exhibit could be used in a variety of settings in different venues.
Attending multiple events enabled the training of early career researchers from the SSP and PhD students from the allied Soils Training and Research Studentships doctoral training programme. This gave early career researchers an opportunity to participate and develop their skills in public engagement that they otherwise may not have had. Working with the same group of researchers throughout also allowed for a broader conversation about how best to communicate research. Being involved with Operation Earth was also an opportunity to build links with the centres involved. Several researchers from the SSP attended follow up events and the launch of the 3o Minute Worms participatory research project was given extra exposure by being included in this programme.
Taking part in Operation Earth helped us reach new audiences and showcasing the role of research at universities. Going to the centres in school holidays meant we were often able to share research, and environmental science more generally, with people who typically aren’t engaged with science. This was a benefit to the SSP as it allowed us to spread the message that we need to take care of our soil more widely, something that is critical with an issue in which we can all play a part in the solution.
At one event I was to be told by a visitor that she didn’t know that women could be scientists showing that there is still work to be done here. This was a learning point for us, that the selection of those communicating the research is just as important as the communication itself.
There is an actual cost as well as people’s time in public engagement, so it makes sense to make the most of this for everyone involved. Extending the face to face activities shouldn’t be an add on or after thought and this can be done in a variety of ways. Using digital media or having a do at home activity are two ways to keep the conversation about science going after the event. On the SSP, we combined these by giving visitors a soil pH testing kit to take away with them, test the soil in their local area and post the results on our Soil Security website (though this could just as easily be done on social media, if you don’t have a dedicated website).
Jeremy LeLean is a Senior Research Communication Officer at the University of Reading. He is creative communication specialist, with a background in biochemical research and a particular understanding of digital communication techniques. He has worked on a range of high-profile projects internal and external to the University, such as the unveiling of the statue of Lady Astor. As well as leading engagement activities on the NERC Soil Security Programme which included mentoring and training early researchers in communication. Prior to working in the HE sector he was in the e-commerce sector where he dealt in collectible and antiquarian books, a passion that has stayed with him.