A researcher at my institution has written a blog for the Wellcome Trust about the public engagement event we ran from February-May 2014: Magnificent Microbes.
Hints on best practice include:
- Ask questions! Children can get distracted quite easily so the best way to keep their attention is to ask them what they know. This will also prevent you from telling them things that they know already.
- Make your activities as hands-on as possible – really enable your audience to get involved.
- Think about your target audience; can you present the exhibit to both young children and adults? How will you tailor what you say to suit them?
- Make your exhibit relevant. There is no better way to engage your audience, particularly children, than to make them realise how your research affects them personally. For instance, we use the formation of plaque on your teeth as an example of how biofilms are medically important. This allows us to engage with children by asking them how often they brush their teeth and why they think it’s necessary.
- Calculate the quantities of consumables you will need. It doesn’t do any harm to overestimate slightly, but be prepared to be flexible with what you have. In our case we ended up having to ask families to share particular props, as we ran short towards the end of the event.
- Don’t over simplify the exhibit to accommodate children. I was really pleasantly surprised at just how much the kids took away from what we told them.
Instead of merely telling your audience information, think about turning it into a two-way street. It allows your audience to become more involved in the process of learning new information and automatically makes it interactive. There are many different types of questions that you could use depending on what type of information you wish to get back from them.
The two most commonly used ‘types’ of questions are open and closed. I’ll talk a bit more about them now.
Closed questions require a short, simple answer in response, such as yes/no, true/false, or an uncontroversial fact such as “what is your name?” They are good for gauging knowledge levels and confirming understanding – “do you know what a cell is?” “Do all cells have a nucleus?”
Open questions can give longer answers and can involve the answerer’s knowledge, feelings or opinions. They can help you find out more information about the audience’s understanding of a topic, e.g. “what sorts of things do you know about cells?” Open questions often start with ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘how’.
It is, of course, crucially important to listen to the answers to the questions you ask; just because you assume an answer is obvious or easy does not ensure your audience will know it.
If you get a wrong answer do not be discouraging – you can always reward their effort even if the information is incorrect. You could say “that’s a good guess”, “I can see why you might think that”, or “not quite, but you’re on the right track” before following up with another question to help guide them to the right answer.