Scientific Conference + Public Engagement = Wonder
A: You get people playing Pong with their brainwaves, children decorating cardboard neurons, people giggling as they try (and fail) to touch their own noses, primal art, knitted neurons and live “brain surgery”. These were just some of the intriguing and amazingly popular activities on offer at Wonder Street Fair that resulted in lots of excited children (and adults) talking about brains.
It was back in December that we first introduced Wonder Season, a collaboration of the British Neuroscience Association (BNA), the Wellcome Trust, and the Barbican Centre. The BNA had approached us with the idea of doing some public outreach around their scientific conference and we jumped at the idea of finding creative ways to bring scientists, artists and the public together.
Wonder Season was an experiment to see if we could combine a scientific conference with a series of public events all taking place at the Barbican, one of Europe’s largest arts venues. The season attracted over 15,000 people to the various events including music, theatre, film talks and drop-in activities.
We’ve had some really wonderful feedback from neuroscientists and visitors and are conducting some more in depth evaluation and research over the next few months.
In the meantime, Wonder Season organiser Amy Sanders has this advice on how to plan and deliver a public engagement event alongside a conference:
Get your venue involved. Don’t be afraid to use their skills and expertise.
Wonder Season was a success because the Barbican programmers know their audiences and were able to help us gauge what was likely to appeal to the different types of people who come through their doors and how to market the events to them. They were also up for taking a few calculated risks and trying creative new things.
Tailor your activities. There is a huge public appetite for engaging activities that meld science and art – activities like this appeal to people who want to learn, create, question and enjoy themselves. Activities do need to be tailored to a non-expert audience – you can’t just open a poster session to the public and expect to get an audience, but that doesn’t mean that activities have to be superficial or ‘dumbed down’.
Don’t underestimate scientist’s willingness to get involved. There is huge appetite from researchers to open up their work to the public but they have different amounts of time and energy to give to public engagement. Offer opportunities for different levels of commitment – some researchers spent weeks making costumes and props and refining their street fair activities, others were able to take part in short informal discussions like Packed Lunch without needing to prepare too much.
Have the researchers present the activities. Having the actual practising scientists and researchers running the activities has enormous benefits – it gives visitors a chance to find out what research, and researchers, are really like, to ask tricky questions and have them answered by the people who really know (or don’t as is sometimes the case), and gets researchers in contact with the people who will be at the receiving end of the products of their research – lots of surprises on both sides
Hands-on activities are not just for children. Creative and ‘hands-on’ activities don’t need to be just for children, adults like to get involved too. Providing things that people of any age can do gets people of different ages interacting, and gives grown-ups the license to behave like inquisitive kids again
Variety is important. In the Street Fair we found that it really worked to have a variety of activities. We had a mix of some that were quick and easy to do (testing your reactions) and some that took a bit longer (knitting a neuron). There were some that were really active (the brain treasure hunt) and others that were more passive (watching a short film). We mixed up social activities (competing in a game of EEG Pong) with more personal contemplative ones (Sonic Tour of the Brain). Think about activities you can place in chill out areas where you can escape the noise and buzz as well as roaming activities that can go to where people are. Visually engaging activities were very popular.
Recruit interested volunteers. Volunteer explainers/guides can be vital element of a successful event – they meet and greet the visitors, help them find activities that match their interests, and generally help to make things run smoothly. It’s a massive bonus if the volunteers are also knowledgeable about the subject as a conversation that’s starts off with ‘what’s going on here?’ can develop into ‘so how can I get involved in your research?’
Hopefully these tips will give you a good starting point to think about your own events. The Wellcome Trust is keen to support researchers interested in public engagement and there is funding available through our public engagement grants.
For Wellcome coverage of Wonder Season and the BNA Festival of Neuroscience conference visit ThInk, our blog about art, neuroscience and the brain or see the Barbican site for more on the Consciousness event with Marcus Du Sautoy and James Holden.
Amy Sanders is Programme Manager in Engaging Science at the Wellcome Trust.