Outreach, and reaching out further

It’s summer, and summer seems to be peak time for outreach events. This follows on from my previous post about communicating science to the willing and the unwilling, but I think outreach is more than just communicating science. I’d like to think it’s also about communicating passion, inviting people to feel part of science and nature and, hopefully, planting the seeds of interest in science, nature, biodiversity, whatever, in the minds of people outside the field – especially children.

I’ve participated in a few events so far this year. One was a Bioblitz type event, which are normally structured around the idea of trying to get as many biodiversity records for a site in a 24 hour period as possible, but this one also had a big public engagement element, with walks, talks, stands and family activities. In actuality, we were so busy manning the stall, giving talks and taking families for a guided walk around the site that we didn’t have much chance to hunt down anything too unusual, but that was fine. Taking a bunch of kids (and their parents) for a walk that really just looks at common species can be rewarding in its own right – species that have become so typical they’re almost mundane to me can be magical and captivating to someone who’s not encountered them before, whether it’s describing to a 10 year old in gruesome detail how a parasitoid wasp life cycle works (sorry, parents!) or giggling at the “bodybuilder” legs of Oedomera nobilis. We came away with a respectable number of species by the end of the day – nothing terribly unusual, but all interesting in their own way.

Another outreach event, taking somewhat of a different format, was the Fascination of Plants Day. This is an international scheme, with universities and research centres signing up and putting on activities for the general public to try and sell the appeal of plant science and plant research. It was the University of Greenwich’s first attempt at this day, so we went in not knowing whether we’d get 4 people or 400. In the end, we got about 130, and I think everyone had a really nice day – I got to have some great conversations with adults and children about cocoa, chocolate and cocoa pollination, which was great. There were games with plant-insect interactions, vegetable-derived baked goods, coffee and chocolate tasting, DNA extractions, trichomes, photosynthesis, aquaculture, raffles…

The question I do sometimes find myself pondering at the end of such events, however, is whether some of these activities are the same groups of people coming together over and over. You meet some wonderful people and lovely families at these events, but a lot of them seem to be the families who already have opportunities and the types of parents who encourage academic knowledge, such as homeschooling parents and parents who are in research and teaching themselves. This can make for some really stimulating conversations (I learn loads!), but I wonder how we can connect with the harder to reach families, the ones who wouldn’t normally think to come to a science- or nature-related event?

Certainly, research on engagement schemes such as citizen science programmes show that while they’re a good link between science and the public, an excellent way to generate data, and a good way to make the already-interested more interested, they tend not to turn the disinterested into the enthusiastic. On the other hand, having citizen science in a community can confer benefits such as engagement in local issues and development and increased policymaking influences of the community

Some organisations are having some success with connecting nature with harder-to-reach groups. One of the key aims of OPAL (Open Air Laboratories Network), the national citizen science scheme, is to reach more than just the “usual” people and engage with a diversity of people from a diversity of backgrounds. They’ve done this by linking up with other organisations like TCV, who have a lot of experience with working with “invisible” groups such as rural communities and inner city teenagers. As a result, many people did nature surveys through OPAL for the first time – I don’t know how many of those people went on to do more than one, but breaking down that first barrier must be important. They’re now expanding out from England and Wales to Scotland and Northern Ireland, so that’s great.

The National Parks have been exploring a strategy to encourage BME (black and minority ethnic) people to make use of and enjoy national parks. While around 10% of the UK population are considered BME, BME people make up only about 1% of National Park users. It seems one of their key findings is that building personal relationships is important – leaflets and cold-calling may not work well, but sending someone along in person to visit regularly and create trust can succeed. Sadly, heading out into the local community and getting to know people is one thing university academics often don’t have a lot of time to do (even though we’d love to do it more), but perhaps we need to think about ways we can do it.

On a less immediately scientific but equally valuable level, there is a growth in schemes that get people from marginalised backgrounds gardening, submerged with nature, interacting with plants and so on. When I was finishing my PhD in London, Grounded Ecotherapy was just getting off the ground and I thought it was ace – a bunch of people, some who are or have been homeless, some with substance issues, some with mental health issues, transforming bits of London cityscape into living, breathing, growing places. They’ve re-invigorated nature gardens, started rooftop gardens with a mixture of wildflowers and vegetable growing, enlivened forgotten spaces – all with an ethos of promoting biodiversity as well as urban food. The folks running it have a really great appreciation for nature. I guess it’s a lovely example of management for ecosystems services right from the provisioning (food), through pollination and biodiversity to the cultural – helping people “get back on their feet” in their words. It would be great, I think, to quantify both the natural and the social benefits of these sorts of schemes. What species benefit, and to what extent? (I expect that the effects on urban bee diversity are measurable.) How do people benefit, both within the schemes and by interacting with them?

So what should I/we do? It seems it’s easy to reach out to our academic colleagues’ children, and usually very rewarding. But we probably have to think outside the box more, link up with local charities or community groups if we want to extend our enthusiasm to less traditionally nature-friendly groups of people in the community.

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2 thoughts on “Outreach, and reaching out further

  1. One possibility that springs to mind is working with schools that have intakes from BME groups. Some years ago I used to give talks to secondary school children (about science but not about insects) and after a while the coverage included quite a range of backgrounds.

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    • You’re right – I guess approaching younger people proactively via schools and colleges rather than seeing what people come to you is a good idea. And then it’s just a matter of making the material relevant and engaging to a variety of different school pupils. I should do more school stuff!

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