By Megan Maunder
I’m a passionate believer in making science engaging and accessible, thus outreach and public engagement have made up a large part of my ‘extra-curricular’ activities since starting my PhD. As well as a personal passion, getting involved in outreach and public engagement is a huge motivator for me; I am reminded of why I chose to pursue my PhD, and I enjoy the challenge of answering questions and finding new ways to explain concepts to curious minds.
Lockdown has presented unique new challenges in how to best deliver sessions and keep participants engaged, especially as we are spending more time at our desks, staring at screens, and many of us are now suffering with ‘Zoom Fatigue’. Whilst I’ve really missed the face-to-face interactions with students, teachers, and adults alike, I have found new ways to get involved and engage others. Below I’ve compiled some ideas and my own experiences about how to get involved, how to decide what content to develop or projects to take on.
I’ve listed a few ways I’ve explored lockdown-outreach over the past few months, accompanied by my own experience with it.
Before university, I worked for skincare brand which regularly required me to produce content and I became used to filming and preparing videos so I thought this would be fairly simple. However, when it came to preparing and filming my own content solely by myself, I was at a loss. Talking straight down a camera, without a cameraman or audience was a little too surreal for me. I was a complete novice when it came to editing and the technology side of producing this type of content, which meant that it took a lot longer than anticipated. Broadly it went well, I’ve had some great feedback and it was a nice way to include content in a wider session but it was a lot of work and I really missed the interaction I normally get in similar face-to-face sessions. I’m not sure I would do it again, but I do have a new found respect for You-Tubers!
Interactive Online Sessions
My experience with preparing and delivering interactive sessions it that it needs to have both variety and a clear structure, to ensure it’s engaging and accessible. It is important to check any access needs and set out etiquette: microphones off unless speaking and no requirement or expectation for cameras to be turned on in main sessions, only in smaller interactive groups/breakout rooms. Depending on the purpose of the session I’ve used a combination of pre-prepared tasks/worksheets, Q&A sessions, and some lecture-style content, either pre-recorded or live. I much prefer interactive sessions as I enjoy it a lot more and find it much more rewarding. Running my own sessions, can initially take up a fair chunk of time, but once they are set up, they are easily be adapted and reused. If you’re keen to run these I’d recommend finding out who currently organises and runs sessions at your institution or within the local community. I developed many of these in partnership with my department’s Widening Participation Team; they organise a range of events from single days to residential courses and are always looking for new sessions and leaders, we are also paid at the standard teaching assistant rate for preparation and delivery. If you’re looking to get involved in an external, existing project I can recommend ‘I’m a Scientist, Stay at Home!’, an online chat based activity. I found that it was a really low time-commitment and being asked questions about my research is a great motivator.
This is perhaps the one thing that I feel hasn’t vastly changed or needed a re-think or re-structure moving to online sessions. I really love being asked to do panel events, not only sharing my experiences but learning from others. Almost every panel I’ve been on (both related to my PhD and outreach work, and in other aspects of my life) has provided a space for meaningful discussion and exposure to new ideas. As an invited speaker, I’ve found it’s low time-commitment, as it doesn’t require a huge amount of preparation however, I imagine this isn’t the case if you want to run your own panel event. If you’re keen to get involved in this, my advice is get in touch with local groups that organise these type of events explaining what you feel you can contribute. Every year my university runs a ‘Women in STEM’ event for local schools and are always looking for a variety of both PhD students and staff to be on the panel.
Lockdown has driven a need for many people and groups to curate more online written content. I’ve since written on a variety of topics from own research and outreach experiences, to maintaining health and wellbeing as a PhD student. I love writing, particularly when I’m not stressing about how my plots looks, or if I’ve triple checked my results. I find it an easy medium in which to curate my own voice, fact check, and spread content that the reader can consume in their own time. MIST Student’s Corner is great for this if you want to try your hand at blogging without maintaining your own page!
This is a growing medium has has attracted a lot more people during lockdown, especially as its something you can consume whilst doing the dishes, driving, or going for a walk. I’ve not yet been involved in this but I’m hoping to have a few things lined up going forward. For me, this is definitely something I plan to use someone else’s platform for, as I don’t have the passion or time to set up and maintain my own whilst looking for new content and guests!