Reading Group: Discussing ‘Social justice and out-of-school science learning’

PEN_pen paper coffeeAmy Seakins, Engagement Coordinator for Evaluation and Impact at Imperial College London summarises discussions from the latest London PEN reading group.

This time we selected a paper by Dr Emily Dawson from UCL as we were keen to read something around equity and engaging with diverse audiences. Dipping into the social sciences gave us a really interesting perspective on what we do, and particularly what we could do better to support engagement with more diverse groups. We were lucky that Emily was available to join us, and we had a great conversation about equity and inclusion in engagement (as well as discussing quite a few themes that she will be exploring in her upcoming book – watch this space!).

From both the reading and our subsequent discussions, it was clear that if we want to be more equitable in terms of the diverse audiences we engage with (or support others to engage with) then what we are doing now is not enough and we need to change our approach. The danger is that without considering issues of access and (non)participation, we risk the engagement that we support and encourage being something that actually perpetuates social inequalities and structural disadvantages rather than alleviating them (something Emily has written more about here).

This might not sound like the most optimistic opener to this blog post. We have struggled hard enough already getting people to actually do meaningful engagement. To encourage people to see engagement as a legitimate and valuable part of the work of research and higher education institutions. The NCCPE will be celebrating its ten year anniversary at the Engage Conference this year, and many institutions are celebrating ten years since the formation of their public engagement teams. But yet we still can’t afford to take the pressure off. 

Far from being discouraged, we had a brilliant in-depth discussion about the ideas within the paper and how we take this forward. The article describes some of the patterns of participation (and non-participation) in science engagement contexts, using science TV, clubs and makerspaces as examples. Emily introduces the ideas of redistributive and relational social justice:

  • Redistributive relates to sharing resources equally – everyone gets the same amounts of the same resources.
  • Relational relates to sharing resources equitably – appreciating that different individuals may need different amounts of different resources.

Both of these models are required to tackle issues of access and participation in a meaningful way. To illustrate this, Emily uses three lenses to understand access and inclusion in informal science learning contexts: infrastructure access, literacies and community acceptance.

One particular example of great practice stood out to the group: The Knowledge Rooms, run by the Austrian Science Centre Network. The Knowledge Rooms are science clubs which are co-constructed with local communities and held in disused shops or public spaces. The clubs aim to reach young people from under-represented minority ethnic backgrounds, and the locations of the shops are selected within disadvantaged areas. This project stood out to us over others in the same vein because young people are involved in deciding on the rules of the space as well as the content and activities.

Discussion then turned back to our own practice. If we want to ensure that engagement is more equitable and break down some of the barriers that groups face in engaging with research then how do we incorporate these quite meaty social science ideas into our everyday practice, particularly within the limited time we have to speak with our researchers? Emily argued that for her, issues of equity and inclusion should be considered as part of standard, good practice in engagement. Just as evaluation has come to be seen as a fundamental component of good practice, so too should questions about exclusion and inclusion.

We spoke briefly about bridging the gap between research and practice, and the power of twitter in this (something Emily is very active in). Then in how we might incorporate some of these ideas within the training we run, to encourage people to consider these questions from an early stage in the development of their engagement activity. For example, we could facilitate groups to reflect on what values we bring to our practice, to highlight the differences between (and among) us and their audiences. We could ask probing questions to encourage our staff and students to consider the issues of:

  • Infrastructure access – are your target audiences able to physically access your activities or spaces; do they have a say in how to shape or adapt those spaces or what your activities might look like?
  • Literacies – what languages will be spoken; will all of your participants know how to communicate or interact within your activity (the ‘rules of the game’); what kinds of behaviours will be recognised or valued?
  • Community acceptance – who already participates in these kinds of activities; what are their experiences; are the activities relevant and appealing to those who are not yet participating?

What should we be aiming for and how much can we expect to change? We discussed that our role is about encouraging better practice. It’s about encouraging people to consider one or more of these issues that they hadn’t yet thought about, nudging them forward to be more equitable and moving their practice onwards.

We asked whether this kind of work was easier within smaller organisations. They often have to be responsive and flexible in their approaches and therefore are likely to be more closely tied to the needs and interests of the community. Many of our institutions are a lot larger, and therefore slower to react and move. Emily suggested that there is an opportunity with the work many of us are undertaking at our campus sites outside of the centre of London, and our local community engagement there. Examples include Birkbeck’s Stratford Campus, UCL East, Imperial White City and more. Here we can be more focused, more integrated and more responsive with targeted local groups. We shared opportunities and challenges involved in these projects.

One idea has clarified for me in the weeks since the discussion – our role is as brokers in more than one sense. We often think of ourselves as brokers between our internal and external communities – researchers, staff and students with community groups, collaborators, partners, and funders. But we also have a role in brokering great ideas from research like this with the practice within our institutions. Discussing these ideas keeps us pushing at our own practice and therefore that of the people we support. Looking forward to more from future reading groups.


Paper reference: Dawson E. (2017) Social justice and out‐of‐school science learning: Exploring equity in science television, science clubs and maker spaces. Science Education, 101:539–547.

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