[Extremely Belated] Live-Blog: Introducing Heriot-Watt Engage

Back in May I participated in the Heriot-Watt Engage Launch event (see this news item). These are my very belated notes from this day on communicating and engaging the public with research…

Introduction from Quentin Cooper

This is the official launch of Heriot Watt Engage. The Oxford English Dictionary has 19 discreet uses of engage, so what do we mean by that here? I would argue that it’s about being entangled, being engaged with the public. And engage like engaging, being scintillating. And perhaps also like Jean Luc Picard in Star Trek: the Next Generation, when he says “engage”. It’s about getting things started, taking action.

We’ll hear more formal ideas of how to engage later on, then some experiences of engaging, and some parallel sessions on different ways to engage. But we kick off with some more on Heriot-Watt, on Heriot-Watt Engage.

Professor Alan Millar – Why Engage?

I know we have lots of people passionate about public engagement in the audience today. But why Heriot-Watt Engage? Well engagement is a priority of our overall knowledge exchange/knowledge transfer agenda. I’m involved in the REF at the moment and “impact” is part of that agenda, and Knowledge Exchange, Knowledge Transfer and Public Engagement can all be part of that impact. That means there are financial reasons to engage but there are many other reasons. Firstly this university gets many millions of pounds from public sources and it’s important to explain what we do with that. Many academics really enjoy public engagement, get a lot out of doing more than just publishing articles. And public engagement helps us raise the profile of the organisation, getting word out to Edinburgh, to Scotland, and beyond to international audiences. It is good for student recruitment, for the profile of the organisation, etc. and I feel we have a moral obligation to inspire the next generation, that’s also an important reason to engage.

So we want to increase the amount and perhaps the quality of our public engagement. Heriot-Watt Engage is very much inspired by the work of Edinburgh Beltane, an Edinburgh network for public engagement. We now have the principals prize for public engagement. And we are part of the committee that selects the North Sea public engagement prize (more on prizes later). And we have two people who have taken on the public engagement mantle here so I shall hand over to them now.

Introducing Heriot-Watt Engage – Dr Laura Wicks and Katarzyna Przybycien

Katarzyna began by saying that she and Laura are sharing the public engagement coordinators role, and are based in Academic Enhancement. When we started in January we came with experience of public engagement. We had an idea that there was other work taking place across the university – we kept bumping into people – so we began an exploration of what is taking place. From Science Festival events, Saturday events for kids, the Deadinburgh zombie event, comedy shows, publishing for the public, social media. Heriot-Watt is so big so there is so much going on, a very inspiring picture.

But there were isolated pockets of activity so we wanted to make connections between those involved in public engagement and the activities they do, share the huge amount of knowledge being built up from those in students to professor to technical roles. We hope to match people, we will be building up a mailing list. And we have an advisory group with staff from each school and they help to steers our activities and we hope this will help us steer our activities. And we want to share opportunities, deadlines, prizes etc. We have the slogan of “Stimulate. Support. Promote.” but we also want to ensure we work at a policy level both locally and nationally, working with Beltane, seeing what is happening nationally. And that connects to the impact agenda. My personal background is in measuring imact so I will be delighted to support you with any activities in that area.

Over to Laura:

We already know there is lots of public engagement taking place. Even colleagues in the same department don’t know sometimes. We have staff in the physics department running a science club in his village – we can support that if we know about it. For the REF you need to write an impact statement, how you get your work out there, how you are ensuring your work has the most impact. We can help you, put you in touch with experts, and we are working with Beltane, with Edinburgh International Science Festival, and the Abu Dhabi Science Festival – we have a Dubai campus so that makes sense for us to be there – and the principal is keen to see us running events at the Malaysian centre.

It’s important to promote what to do, to put our work out there. Social media is a great way to engage with the public and there are some fantastic blogs, twitter users, etc. within the university. We have a website coming very soon for Heriot-Watt Engage – with funding opportunities, public engagement opportunities, and we hope the public will use it to find out more about the research going on. We will also be promoting this via Twitter.

Public engagement is important to universities, we see a future where public engagement is a key part of academic life. And we are going to end with a video with academics from Heriot-Watt talking about the public engagement they do and why they do that public engagement.

Cue videos:

iFit Quest/Visual virus – Judy Robinson

Click here to view the embedded video.

Science Signs – Sign language – Gary Quinn

Click here to view the embedded video.

Engineering and Schools – Bill Macpherson

Click here to view the embedded video.


Back to Quentin:

Heriot-Watt was set up in October 1821 as a school of arts, the first specialist school on mechanics.

So, in this session we have showcases of public engagement at Heriot-Watt.

Firstly William Macpherson, Lecturer in the School of Physics:

Bill Macpherson, School of Physics – Outreach for All

I wanted to look at “outreach for all”, really an excuse to use lots of pictures, but to hang this on something I wanted to think about – What? How? Where? Why?

A lot of what I do is very visual, very physical. Using liquid nitrogen in schools captures kids imagination, they may not remember the science but they can be inspired with them.

Keep it simple. You can do science with exotic tools like potatoes and straws. Perhaps the kids don’t remember the forces science but it may inspire them to find out more later on. But you can do more exotic things and as long as you explain them properly it remains accessible to all.

Keep it interactive really helps. Again – cue practical experiment – you can appear to break the law of physics using a balloon and a skewer – there is material science there but you want to make people excited and keep things memorable. Keeps things colourful too!

Where to do it? Well going upside your comfort zone helps. We do science events literally out on princes street where almost anyone can stop by. We’ve done events like the highland games – specifically not a science event – and that’s great for engaging kids but also for engaging parents too.

Who? Well young groups are inherently interested in doing stuff. It’s really fun. It has to be short and snappy but they can be a great audience. Teenagers are tougher but there are ways to break down barriers whether in schools or somewhere more natural to them, their environments, like the aviemore ski centre. Once you break the is-science-cool-or-not barrier there is lots of potential. Of course the under twos are probably too young but 2 to 102 is probably a good age range. It takes a whole range of people to make this stuff work but why do it? Lots of reasons but it’s fun!

Bernadette O’Rourke – Linguistics, Management of Linguistic and Cultural Diversity.

My interest is in language diversity, increased cultural diversity. In Scotland 100 languages are spoken, almost 300 in the EU. I work in social linguistics and anthropological linguistics. Less interested in word construction and more about listening in on buses, differences between genders, kids code-switching in conversation, etc.

As a discipline we have long been engaged with people, we need them to understand their use of language, and this has meant me looking at situations as diverse as painting with kids, up to meeting with MEPS talking about policies for languages in Europe. I also work with the public sector in areas around communicating cross culturally, for those with English as a second language or no knowledge of English at all.

Of course public engagement takes a lot of time. School engagement can be exhausting but it’s fun and I’d like to repeat it. Public engagement activities can be rather addictive, it’s helped me with my academic work, my publications and conferences etc. and those activities help me see that my research has real application and impact in the real world and that’s very rewarding. I just went through a European funding process and I realise that the public engagement work really set me up well for that – those applications don’t stay with your research question but with what benefits there will be to people on the European union. And you become part of a two way process: individuals come back to you, journalists come to you for comment or trickles, and having that dialogue broadens your perspective and gives you new questions to asked.

Janice Blanc – School of the Built Environment

I will take a slightly different slant, as someone who had the chance to get involved in other peoples public engagement. In my PhD I had the opportunity to be part of a project of urban flooding. We had a model that let us make it ran, see flood pathways, could change surfaces. Kids could interact with it. We took it to science festivals and schools so the audiences ranged from rat reticule school groups to much broader swathes of the public. We took it to the Cheltenham Science Festival and saw about 3500 people with hugely varying interests from vague interest in the fun aspect of the model through to councillors with specific questions. So one of the challenges was about making sure you talked to the specific audience that you had in front of you. That experience early in my PhD was brilliant for developing my communication of my research and it’s application in a wider content. I would really encourage phd students to get involved but also supervisors to ensure PhDs students have the time to do that. Without that experience I may not have thought to use public engagement in my own research.

That model we built is a big beastie, it takes lots of organisation, resourcing, people to lug that about and to engage effectively, I did some work with schools two months after an event at Grangemouth to see what they recalled. They remembered what they had done, many remembered the science behind that, and many had started to think about science as a career.

My own research has been lab-based. I don’t get out and see people much, but I wanted to get more involved in public engagement. So I took part in the British Science Association‘s “Strictly Engineering” event and that gave me an opportunity to get out and speak to the public about my work, it gave me ideas to think about, and I’ve had a chance to speak to local councillors and Scottish ministers about the importance of public engagement, which I never would have done without that experience of public engagement.

Lisa Macintyre – School of Textiles

I fell into public engagement by accident. I picked a silly topic post-PhD, a project called “does my bum look big in this” looking at different trouser designs on different ladies bodies. I had five honours students looking at this. This got to the attention of the school newsletter and from there somehow to a silly Christmas press story. On boxing day morning the phone was ringing and the sun newspaper wanted to run the story, then the daily express, then the Sunday time. A tip: dont menton bottoms if you dont want to be involvedinoublic engagement! There were suddenly all these national papers covering this. Oprah, CBS and NBC all called up. The reporter from NBC who covered Tiananmen Square had to come to Galashiels to cover it!

The story grew arms and legs… What I learned from it was… If you have something that might be big you need to make sure you have results first, the media wanted results but we were only oarr way through the project. The press did lead to an invite to the costume society – I was able to speak abut this and my real research on medical compression. And to events with schools on functional design of bike helmets and nappies and such.

The public matters, they pay for our research. We have to get out there, raise enthusiasm and understand why it matters so they know why money for research is prioritised. And you do get amazing questions from different audiences. And it is hugely enjoyable. Know your audience. Short is good.


Q) Is there one thing you wish you’d been told at the start?

A – WM) Prepare for the unexpected, that’s especially the case with kids who will ask all kinds of questions. Be transparent – say if you don’t know the answer – and be flexible and pitch it right to your audience. Sometimes those fundamental questions “what is light” can be a real challenge… But if you get it right it’s a real buzz!

A – BOR) Don’t centre the activity on yourself but on your audience. I took a lecturing type approach but you need the discussion to come from them. You have to give it a structure but it should come from them

a – JB) You have to have a hook, something visual and very quick to grab attention. Having something that grabs attention, that calls people over, is really important. Once you have attention you can explain. And once you can explain to an 8 year old your skills will be up to explaining your work to any audience

A – LM) Props are great, they can be a trigger for activity. I take a selections of weird things and that works great. Being really prepared and quite structured just wasn’t as effective, particularly if you don’t know exactly the age and interests of the kids coming along. You need to know your stuff and be prepared… If you have a super absorbent fibre you need water and towels say… But flexibility is important

Q) There are three women here to one man, audience is fairly fifty-fifty. Is public engagement more of a female thing?

A – WM) It’s great to see lots of women here coming From the male dominated field of engineering

Q) Especially for Lisa: had you done media training before that call on boxing day from the press?

A – LM) No, not really. I just got on with it. It never occurred to me to call colleagues.

Q from Kat) Any disasters after that?

A – LM)  Not really, we had friends for dinner and Cape Town Talk Radio rang up. I had trouble saying no. And did an interview which was fine. But then they opened up the lines… I had to give styling tips to middle aged South African ladies! I wouldn’t ever want to repeat the experience of incessantly talking about something without substance. I do work thoroughly and rigorously so did not enjoy being thrown into a circumstances where I had to wing it.

Quentin) This professor of acoustics at Salford came up with a formula for media interest. He said he’d do a talk on concert hall acoustics but threw in a reference to the echo of a ducks quack. That led to 150 interview requests from the media but he was able to start with silly stuff then go into the serious concert hall acoustics stuff, which worked for him.

Q) On linguistics: have you considered the idea of speaking to an audience in their own language – translating material into, say Arabic, so it is interpreted into the meanings of that language – like Dr Quinn’s work on sign language?

A – BOR) There has been a lot of work here about multilingual Implicatons. We have tried to do lots of public engagement events at Heriot-Watt and to run truly multiple lingual events, speakers in their native language but also translated in real time, to raise awareness of multilingual issues.

A – Kat) Language actually matters to all of your work – different audiences require different language in a way, so there are some words 8 year olds simply don’t understand…

Q) You (Lisa) said not to publicise research unless completed?

A – LM) In that case the outcome wasn’t really substantial. There was nothing much to report which was disappointing for the media.

Comment) You wanted to do something fun and you achieved that?

A – LM) it was a really interesting experience, but I would have preferred to have some research to share.

Comment from Alan) What’s been emphasised here is the idea of something simple to get across. So you have, say, the Raspberry Pi, which has taken off widely… Where do you pitch these things in terms of sophistication?

A – WM) I have a Raspberry Pi, they are good fun. Something like that needs a more specific targeted audience, you need to be interested and have some skills there. But you can have them set up already – as we did at the Barr Science Festival we had a series of Raspberry Pis hooked up to bananas…

Quention) There is a danger of suggesting there is a formula but there are a myriad of different ways to do these things.

Q) Back to Lisa’s comment about publicising research before results. I think for adult and media audiences there is scope to educate them that research does not always have expected or conclusive or positive results. Is there a positive aspect in terms of wider engagement with the wider research agenda and the process of research?

A – LM) You can take that angle on it, you can have those conversations. But the media don’t necessarily want a deeper understanding of research recesses. Or want to run that story.

Quentin) In your case the media seem to have projected onto your story.

A – JB) there may be a role in changing public expectations, to better understand the time it takes to get to an answer. There may be a role for it but I’m not sure how ready the public are or the media are.

Parallel Sessions

The next session consisted of attendees picking from a choice of three short parallel sessions. These ran twice to allow participants to explore several topics. The Parallel Sessions included my joint session with Sophie Good, Heriot Watt. My part of the presentation can be seen in this Prezi and the associated resource sheet can be found here.

How to engage – Chaired by Quentin Cooper

This was Quentins micro summary of the various parallel sessions:

  • Stalking, lurking – Social
  • Supporting reassuring – Schools
  • Collaboration, cocreation – Beltane

Professor Alan Miller, Royal Society Public Engagement Prizes

Several prizes, very prestigious awards. Started by the Beltane. Now that Beltane is not funded nationally the prizes have been funded and embedded in the RSE awards. Prize winners in the past include Aubrey Manning, Tom Devine, Caroline Wilkinson (University of Dundee working in forensics). Those are senior prize winners. The Innovators Prize has gone in the last few years has included those just finishing PhDs, postdocs, etc. Joanna Brooks from UoE and winner of I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here; Nicholas Stanley was doing innovative stuff at Dundee Science Festival, and most recently Dr Chris Speed who has done work on bringing social history and communities together digital. They are very much about real innovation in public engagement, really different projects from what others have done before. Done by nomination by fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and we have about 20 of those within Heriot-Watt.

That’s the prizes but I also wanted to mention TED lectures. They now have TEDx events in Edinburgh. We are doing a TEDx in heriot watt next month, we will do demos of research we do here. Danielli Factule is leading that.

Dr Laura Wicks, Principals Public Engagement Prize and Funding

It’s in its third years. One of our former prize winners spoke earlier – Bill Macpherson. This year’s prize has a Deadline of 14th June 2013. This year there are four categories: individual, early career, team, PhD student. The overall prize is £1500 for a public engagement event, plus £500 for each category. The information and forms are on the engage website. And there are some more videos from previous finalists and winners there. If short listed you too could appear there.

But there are more prizes out there… For example:

The Society for General Microbiology Outreach Prize; the British Psychological Society Public Engagement Award; the Biochemical Society Science Communication Prize; Famelab; IOP Kelvin Award (previous winners include Brian Cox). Lots of opportunities. Many of the academics who have sat on Public Engagement panels indicate that there isn’t always as much competition as expected for some funding schemes so it really is worth applying.

How to fund engagement:

  • Impact Acceleration Account – EPSRC @ HWU – worth considering even if your worth isn’t usually in this funding bodies territory
  • RCUK Pathways to Impact – include Public Engagement in research grants. There’s good funding here and there is opportunity to ask for extra PE cash here.
  • Talking Science Grants – a Scottish scheme for deprived or rural communities. They do only allow one application per university though so they are looking for joint applications
  • Society funding can range from £500-£100,000 depending on the project.

There are loads of sources of funding here, collaboration between departments and disciplines are particularly encouraged so come to us and we can help.

Katarzyna Przybycien, Specific Opportunities

I just wanted to highlight the range of science festivals and public events – we can advise you on developing PE activities for these.

  • Summer Science festival (1-7 July 2013)
  • British Science festival (7-12th sept 2013)
  • Bang Goes the Borders Science Festival – really open to innovation and very supportive and engaging. (21st sept 2013)
  • Midlothian Science Festival (5-20th oct 2013)
  • National Science and Engineering Week (spring 2014)
  • Dunbar Scifest (spring 2014)
  • Edinburgh International Science Festival (5-20th April 2014)

The challenge here can be tracking deadlines. Both Summer Science and the Edinburgh International Science Festival close to applications this summer (late july or early august) for their spring/summer 2014 iterations.

And locally… Cafe Scientifique is a monthly Monday informal opportunity at the Filmhouse to discuss science with broad adult audience.

And we also encourage you to engage with schools. But schools tends to have relationships with academics or projects. It’s not that easy to approach schools directly. Lots of processes to follow. But STEMNET will do much of this for you, keep you informed of opportunities etc. and we encourage those who do engage to sign to the STEMNET Ambassadors Programme, we encourage more people to sign up!

Also from Quentin: Pint of Science type events in pubs….

Dr Sarah Anderson, Beltane Network Opportunities

See the handout on function of Beltane and what you can expect from us. It’s not the thing on Calton Hill, we are a network set up in 2008, aiming to help you make your research available to more people. We are funded by the University of Edinburgh; Heriot-Watt; Queen Margaret’s University; Napier University. We can connect you to non-academic audiences and organisations, to other researchers. We run networking sessions – the next one here at Heriot-Watt is on 21st May on environmental policy, with talks, questions, and networking. The other big upcoming event is on 11th June at Summerhall, our Annual Gathering for networking. We also have a fellowship scheme – that buys out some of your time for public engagement work (you have to be a member of academic staff to apply), and we run various training activities. We like to tie training to big events, for example for TEDxUniversityofEdinburgh we coached the speakers.


Q) What’s the name of the doggie on the home screen of the presentation of

A) Angus

Q) Is there any thought on teaching science communication as a degree subject at heriot watt?

A – Alan miller) Not yet, but an idea. Cardiff has a degree…

A – Quentin) Imperial, Plymouth. Scotland has a great tradition of science. A great tradition of journalism. But a rubbish history of science journalism so that’s good news…

A) And the open university does a science communication msc.

A – SA) And there is a new Science Communications and Public Engagement MSc at Edinburgh University.

Q – Quentin) Sarah in your session you said the senior folk get it, the frontline folk get it but the middle folk don’t always get it… Is that just the nature of where the buck stops? Any solutions?

A – SA) It’s about recognising that work, raising the profile of engagement can help. External drivers may be a clincher – things like the REF.

A – Alan) The REF driver isn’t that strong. There are a few public engagement examples but significance and reach can be hard. It’s a bit of a dilemma. When we come out of REF process and analysis we’ll have a better idea about the realities.

Q – Quentin) We’ve talked about public engagement but are some forms of public engagement more equal than others? If you do something costing 1 million for one person. If you do something that costs 1p and reaches a million and everyone loves it and signs up for courses that’s great. But what about inbetween that.

A – Kat) often expensive stuff pays off over time. This area is still developing. Innovation is a good thing. Individuals and their audiences really make the engagement, make the success. Lots of discussion of ways to measure impact of public engagement… But tricky

A – Sarah) You have to build evaluation of public engagement in from the outset to be effective but that can be very different from metrics. And metrics should not just be about numbers – they are often not about that at all but about comments, opinions, anecdotal evidence.

A – Alan) Publicise what you are doing, get it on the Principal’s agenda, a message to get out that PE is important. There are ways to reward PE. There was a beltane panel looking a at rewards and recognition. We did identify how PE was recognised, e.g. is it recognised in promotions systems? (generally not). I resisted putting PE in to promotions criteria as I think it’s just a part of Knowledge Exchange. But rewards matters.

Comment – Rob) How important is PE for career development… They can use these examples in CVs, in applications, in interviews etc. stories that can be told. Do candidates stand out from the pack that way?

A – Alan) No one gets recruited for public engagement I would say, but it is another part of the pack of skills. For Scottish Crucible that is something we look for though. More and more in academia we look for people who think beyond being in the lab or library or beyond those only publishing articles.

Quentin) These activities potentially spin out in unexpected ways…

Laura) I did my PhD in New Zealand and PE was more built in there. But things like prizes are great for your CV and your career, they show your skills.

Summary and closing – Professor Alan Miller

Thank you to Quentin.

Today’s concept and brainwave to launch Heriot-Watt Engage in this way was Kat and Laura’s. They’ve been busy over the last four months already and we should thank them for that.


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