Engagement with multiple age groups brings benefits
We found that working with multiple age groups is a major challenge, but has unexpected benefits. Specifically, it appeared to hone and focus the communication skills of the presenters. Everyone agreed that the presence of children pushed researchers to simplify their message, but the presence of adults ensured that important messages were still conveyed. - Dr Irene Miguel-Aliaga, University of Cambridge
There is a huge amount to be gained from undertaking some pretty robust evaluation of your engagement activities, according to BBSRC-funded researcher Dr Irene Miguel-Aliaga of the Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge.
Last year, Dr Miguel-Aliaga and other members of the Developmental Biology labs in the department ran an event as part of the Cambridge Science Festival. Participants were asked to complete a feedback questionnaire and the results were published in a 10-page paper published in Advances in Physiology Education (December 2011) (http://advan.physiology.org/content/35/4/384.full.pdf+html). The main goal of the questionnaire was to find out whether we were getting our messages across and what ways of engaging with the public were most effective, Dr Miguel-Aliaga explains.
“A key aim of our event was to show people how useful it is to study fruit flies,” she points out. “Research on invertebrates such as insects has proved very useful for over 100 years with discoveries rapidly becoming the basis for research in other types of animals and even biomedical research on humans. Despite this, members of the general public often fail to see the usefulness of studying an animal that looks different from them and are often highly sceptical that research on something like a fruit fly could be of any benefit.”
To explain the value of fruit flies at a grassroots level, Dr Miguel-Aliaga and her colleagues designed a set of seven simple, inexpensive, hands-on teaching modules to highlight state of the art research in fruit fly genetics, physiology, and behaviour. Each exercise was designed to make a small focused set of ‘take-home points’ to be suitable for both adults and children, and last no more than 5-10 minutes. More than 50 people, aged from 6 to over 46 years old, attended the Cambridge Science Festival event. After listening to a five minute introductory talk, they were free to visit the seven teaching stations. At each station, a demonstrator explained the purpose of the model and, either conducted or helped participants with experiments.
After their visit, participants were asked to fill in a questionnaire designed to evaluate the technical and conceptual aspects of the exercise and 86 percent did so. Results provided Dr Miguel-Aliaga and her team with very clear feedback on the effectiveness of the event.
“We set out to accomplish the tricky balancing act of creating exercises that met the needs of adults and children at the same time – so each exercise was designed to be detailed enough to hold the attention of adults while being fun and interactive enough to hold the attention of children,” Dr Miguel-Aliaga explains. “Our response data suggest that we accomplished both these goals with an overwhelming number of children and adults stating that the level of complexity in our presentations was ‘just right’. All adults and all but one child agreed that the exercises were fun and 100 percent of participants felt that the modules helped them understand why researchers study fruit flies.”
Dr Miguel-Aliaga believes their success in communicating effectively with multiple age groups was due to several specific factors. First, presenters made conscious efforts to spend equal amounts of time speaking to young children and adults during each module. Second, the number of people participating in any one module was small (four to 12 people). Third, presenters had to give the same presentation multiple times to new people. This gave them chances to experiment with different ways of communicating with young and old and find out what worked and what did not. Finally, presenters made an effort to engage with participants of all ages as equal partners in scientific discovery. “We made an effort to treat everyone as co-workers as opposed to pupils,” Miguel- Aliaga stresses.
“We found that working with multiple age groups is a major challenge, but has unexpected benefits,” Dr Miguel-Aliaga argues. “Specifically, it appeared to hone and focus the communication skills of the presenters. Everyone agreed that the presence of children pushed researchers to simplify their message, but the presence of adults ensured that important messages were still conveyed.”
Based on her detailed evaluation, Dr Miguel-Aliaga is now confident that these fruit fly exercises teach the principles of animal biology, help lay people better understand why researchers study fruit flies and are effective across a wide range of age groups. Based on feedback, a larger interactive component was added and a similar, but ‘tweaked’, event took place in April 2012.
Dr Miguel-Aliaga concludes: “In our field, we come across many researchers who are unenthusiastic about engaging with the public. We also come across many lay people who have little or no understanding of the value of basic research on fruit flies and other invertebrates. In these exercises, we have created a set of simple teaching modules that we now know can help bridge that gap.”
Institution:University of Cambridge