[Adapted from an email to a university researcher interested in getting more involved in public engagement/science communication. All links are UK-specific; if you have questions about other areas/countries please don’t hesitate to ask in comments and I’ll do my best to help!]
I’m glad to hear that you’re interested in getting more involved in public engagement, as I feel it’s a very valuable and worthwhile use of scientists’ time. In terms of how to get involved it’s a wide and varied arena – there’s plenty of different avenues depending on your interests. While there are actual Science Communication programmes/degrees out there it’s by no means necessary to devote years of your life to another programme when you could just work on it in conjunction with what you’re already doing. Though some people come to science communication through an education background, that’s by no means the only way. Plenty of successful science communicators started off as researchers and relayed their knowledge and enthusiasm into public engagement (for example, all of my current colleagues here at Dundee Science Centre have a scientific background, not education).
If you’re interested in working with young people you will have the chance to get involved in lots of science communication activities through the STEM Ambassador programme – everything from school visits to festival volunteering, and each one will give you a bit more insight into what science communication is and how you can contribute to it. Sign up online to receive an invitation to a local induction near you!
If you’re interested in developing your public engagement skills I’d definitely suggest checking out British Interactive Group (BIG). They will be having a one-day conference about science communication in January that might be a great place to start off your involvement, but there’s plenty of other resources on the website as well. They have a mailing group that daily has interesting discussions on a variety of topics, as does PSI-COM; I’m subscribed to both and find them immensely entertaining and useful.
Checking out the various science festivals around the country will give you an idea of what people are doing, and maybe help you start thinking of how you can communicate what you’re passionate about to general audiences. Festivals have the benefit of having events aimed at a wide range of audiences, so you can experience a variety of engagement strategies in one place.
There are tons of great science centres across the UK, and again, it’s a good place to start if you want to see what the public are interested in and ways science communicators are delivering that information. I always make it a priority to visit the science centre when I’m in a new city; it’s always a good day out.
The British Science Association are a great resource, and you can get involved with your local branch to find out more about what they’re doing in your area.
It’s also worth checking if your university has a Public Engagement office (or similar) dedicated to supporting staff and students and engaging with the local community. Often times they work quite closely with all the folk listed above so they’re a good place to start if you’re just beginning.
These are of course just a few starting points and by no means an exhaustive list. There’s no ‘right’ way to go about getting involved in public engagement, and if you’ve ever explained your research at a party or helped someone with their schoolwork then guess what? You’re already well on your way!