The Public Engagement Team at Birkbeck was awarded SEE-PER funding to develop researcher engagement during the 2018-19 academic year. Increasing our training provision was part of the project and we knew a ‘one size fits all’ model was not going to work!
We started, as we often do in public engagement, by considering who we plan to work with. We identified three broad groups of researchers: researchers planning public engagement, researchers doing public engagement, researchers interested in engagement.
Each group needs different support or training but we were mindful that some researchers would fit in all three groups at different stages of their research. We also acknowledge a fourth group of researchers; those with little interest in public engagement. At this early stage of Birkbeck’s public engagement journey (‘developing’ in line with the NCCPE’s EDGE tool) and with limited time/resource, we are currently prioritising support for keen researchers.
Researchers planning public engagement
Those writing a funding proposal or developing an engagement idea often have quite specific questions relating to particular funders or audiences. As mentioned in some of the literature (The State of Play: Public Engagement with research in UK Universities, 2016), researchers don’t always seek training opportunities as the content isn’t always timely. For these researchers, we’ve found mentoring and 1:1 meetings can be a more valuable use of time for both parties.
Researchers doing public engagement
Researchers who are well-established in public engagement are a valuable resource for the whole college. In these cases we our role as facilitators in sharing their challenges and successes, as well as enabling peer-peer support for those leading complex, long term projects. This year we ran our first Public Engagement Awards to reward and recognise this embedded work. Feedback indicated people really valued the opportunity to find out what colleagues were doing in different departments. So, to enable more of this networking and sharing, we’ll be running a one day Engaged Practice Symposium in September 2018 for more experienced researchers.
Researchers interested in engagement
PhD students, post-docs and early career researchers are more familiar with seeking out opportunities to develop skills and allocating time for training. For this group (and any interested staff), we wanted to run more traditional training courses. Our reading indicated that training should facilitate peer-peer support and lead towards gaining experience, as these were both cited as helping researchers to feel well-equipped. The training should also be practical and tailored for specific events (when possible). We envisaged the sessions to act as ‘stepping stones’ to give attendees an understanding of a type of audience/activity and signpost opportunities to gain experience. To try and attract the right people and manage expectations we called these Planning Workshops, to convey the discussion based nature of the session and the opportunity to think about plans beyond the training.
The Piloted Offer
For our researchers interested in public engagement but wanting to learn more, we ran four planning workshops. These 2 hour workshops focused on particular skills and advice for a type of activity (working with schools, festivals, online etc). Whilst these activities may not always be a two-way dialogue and may sometimes be very dissemination focused, they provide an opportunity to gain experience working with non-academic groups. Our intention was to help people develop skills and confidence to hopefully lead to more embedded, two-way engagement at a later stage.
All workshops were open to all disciplines. Through conversations with other HEIs I found that for some universities, especially those with staff based in faculties rather than centrally, departmental training works better to enable targeted content. For us, facilitating more cross-disciplinary sharing and increasing attendee numbers was the priority (we are a small university!).
We exploited the experience within the team to deliver/facilitate a lot of the content. In areas where we lacked expertise, we invited internal or external specialists to speak. This is something QMUL did for their podcast training. We also invited relevant Birkbeck researchers to talk about their experiences at every workshop. The majority of attendees said this was the most useful part as hearing from peers makes engagement more tangible and relatable.
Despite each workshop having a different focus, we started all of them with a discussion of why engagement was important to everyone in the room. Attendees will likely have different engagement experience from working in different diciplines, at different institutions or with different funders. We wanted to bring everyone together to explore this at the start of each session.
More information about the four workshops can be seen below and if you would like to see one in action, drop me a line to find out about the 2018/19 dates (yes, the pilot was deemed a success!).
And watch this space for a reflection of the symposium next month…