Article - Issue 46, March 2011

Engineering Public Engagement

Dr Lesley Paterson

Download the article (1155 KB)

For some years, The Royal Academy of Engineering has been developing its public engagement activity. Dr Lesley Paterson, Head of Communications and Engagement, helped establish the Academy’s public engagement grants scheme, Ingenious, in 2006. She writes for Ingenia about some of the projects that have been raising awareness of engineering.

Breathing Country produced by the Y Touring Theatre Company explores
the issues raised by the collection and use of electronic patient records.
In this scene, Lizzie has pulled all information off her Facebook profile when
her mother committed suicide, meets up with technophile Simon who
shares everything on the internet © Y Touring Theatre Company

Breathing Country produced by the Y Touring Theatre Company explores the issues raised by the collection and use of electronic patient records. In this scene, Lizzie has pulled all information off her Facebook profile when her mother committed suicide, meets up with technophile Simon who shares everything on the internet © Y Touring Theatre Company

Public engagement in science and engineering has been encouraged and supported for many years, driven by the efforts of passionate individuals, specialist consultancies and large institutions. It is an important way of inspiring young people and helps the wider public to better understand scientific and technological issues that affect their lives.

One of the many ways that engineering engagement is happening is through The Royal Academy of Engineering’s Ingenious programme. Set up in 2006, it is funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). From encouraging engineers to take to the stage at festivals and county shows, to giving hands-on demonstrations and guidance in the classroom, hosting debates or even making films and helping produce dramas, Ingenious engineers have the chance to inspire a wide range of people.

Ingenious grants are awarded to projects that put engineers at the heart of public engagement, giving engineers the training, encouragement and opportunity to develop their creative and presentation skills and share their expertise with young people, families and adult audiences.

Around 15 projects are funded through the Ingenious programme each year and to date 60 projects have received funding and a total of 1,000 engineers have been involved.

Engineering Engagement

Public engagement is a valuable tool for making young people aware of engineering and encouraging them to consider it as a viable career choice. However, it is also important to help the public, both young people and adults, to better recognise engineering and its place in society.

Engagement can enrich people’s lives by giving them the latest news on novel technologies and provide inspirational tales of engineering challenges overcome. In addition, it offers engineers and the public an opportunity to communicate with each other. It facilitates an exchange of views and enables engineers to explain why they are approaching a challenge in a particular way and what the alternatives might be.

There are also plenty of benefits for the engineers as well as for the public. Public engagement is an excellent way for engineers to improve both their professional and personal development by helping to build communication skills. Furthermore, many engineers report that it gives them a chance to give ‘something back’ and get inspired by the enthusiasm shown by the public for their field of work.

The following case studies present a few of the projects that have been funded by the Academy over the last five years.

Engaging through theatre

An Ingenious grant helps the Y Touring Theatre Company show young people how engineering impacts on their lives.

Engineering and drama are not often brought together but helping people to think about things differently is something that the Y Touring Theatre Company, an operation of Central YMCA, has been doing since it was founded 21 years ago. The group works with experts, playwrights and young people to develop plays, films or audio dramas that spark interest and provoke discussion in schools around the UK.

Nigel Townsend, Executive Director of the Y-Touring Theatre Company, feels that drama is an effective way of engaging people. As drama connects with people emotionally the experience becomes deeply memorable to the individual.

Over the last 15 years, Y Touring have developed and toured many live theatre productions around schools in the UK, many of which have been focused on biomedical science dilemmas including mental health, neuroscience, clinical trials and animal testing.

Y Touring’s first engineering-based drama was funded by the inaugural round of Ingenious in 2006. The grant enabled the development and production of a radio play, entitled The Projectionist, that explores internet privacy issues. It raises young people’s awareness of the ethical impact of IT and engineering on their lives. The play explores the interactions of three young people growing up in the UK, and the potentially detrimental nature of surveillance technology.

Created as a podcast, the play continues to be available as a permanent online resource for all UK schools, along with a suite of accompanying educational resources that engage directly with science and humanities GCSE and A-Level curriculum. Feedback about this resource through an online survey, completed by both teachers and young people, has been extremely positive.

Following the completion of The Projectionist, and realising that engineering and drama were indeed good partners, Y Touring and the Academy worked together to secure £250,000 from the Wellcome Trust and the Research Councils to develop and deliver a live theatre production based on another engineering issue. The play, entitled Breathing Country, was developed to help young people engage with the subject of large IT databases which collect personal information, specifically electronic patient records. The drama explores how these might affect their lives both now and in the future.

Breathing Country focuses on four main characters: Lizzie, a teenager who is suffering from panic attacks following her mother’s death; her father, a communications director at the Department of Health struggling to create a compelling story about the need for electronic patient records; Simon, Lizzie’s on-off computer genius boyfriend; and Janet, a clinical scientist conducting a study on mental health in young people.

Breathing Country toured schools around the UK for 13 weeks, and each performance was followed by a 30-45 minute debate, during which the actors stayed in character and took part in discussions with the audience about the issues raised. Electronic polling was used before and after the play to assess audience attitudes and how they change.

Dr Martyn Thomas, a software engineer and Fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering, worked with Y Touring on this project. He says that putting over the many strands of the debate that electronic patient records represented was an almost impossible task but Y Touring did a “spectacularly good job”.

Townsend explained that Y Touring try to embed their projects into other areas of the curriculum beyond science and engineering. For example, the topics explore ethics and so fit within the religious studies curriculum, in Personal Social Health and Economic education (PSHE) and drama lessons.

Y Touring has further plans to bring engineers and theatre together in 2011 and 2012. One of these is to extend the Breathing Country project by taking the play into medical schools around London to engage future doctors on the many issues that surround the gathering and use of electronic patient records.

Townsend is also in discussion with a group of engineers from Cranfield University about a ‘trans-generational’ project looking at the ageing population and their attitudes to health devices and products, compared with the attitudes of young people to technology.

Having been turned off science and technology at school, Townsend is glad his role in Y Touring has enabled him to re-engage. He says: “Engineering to me was just something to do with steam trains so I was blown away by all the options and the impact that engineering has on our lives.”

For further information go to: www.theatreofdebate.com

The Science Museum have an Ingenious grant to hold a series of engineering ‘Talkaoke’ sessions. These are live chat shows with the host sitting in the middle of a doughnut shaped desk to facilitate discussion. This image shows a talkaoke event at the Dana Centre

The Science Museum have an Ingenious grant to hold a series of engineering ‘Talkaoke’ sessions. These are live chat shows with the host sitting in the middle of a doughnut shaped desk to facilitate discussion. This image shows a talkaoke event at the Dana Centre

Encouraging a response

The Science Museum has used Ingenious grants to put on public engagement events for adults and to discuss new technology and its social implications with a wider audience.

The Science Museum in London attracts around 2.8 million people each year, and one of the attractions is the Antenna Science News gallery, which re-opened in June 2010. The gallery puts contemporary science and engineering within its social context. It is primarily aimed at adults and young people over the age of 12.

Kat Nilsson, Contemporary Science Manager at the Science Museum, feels that it is of utmost importance to engage the public with current science and engineering topics, and to encourage debate about the potential societal implications of new technology, both positive and negative.

Much of what the new gallery does builds on the work of the Dana Centre, the museum’s adults-only venue, to explore science and engineering through dialogue, interaction and performance. The centre has also hosted a number of Ingenious-funded events.

The museum’s first Ingenious grant, awarded five years ago, funded a project called the ‘Five Senses’, delivered at the Dana Centre. The events explored sound through acoustic engineering and the arts, delved into sight by discussing new technologies that will help the blind and visually-impaired, considered taste in a nanotechnology and food event and interacted with haptic technology that is the technology that interfaces with the user through touch. The events were planned with accessibility in mind and attracted several audience members who were vision-impaired, blind or deaf.

The engineers involved in the events found them enjoyable and sometimes challenging. They learned and gained new ideas for their work from engaging with the public and other engineers. The public participants were also enthusiastic, intrigued by the technology they experienced and all felt that they had learned something new about engineering.

Kat Nilsson says that embedding discussion into events was an extremely important aspect. So was the drive to reach out to adults who would not normally go to a science or engineering event by advertising through popular events listing magazines such as Time Out.

The museum’s second Ingenious grant funded another series of events, this time focusing on the topic of music technology and engineering. The ‘Fine Tuning’ series ran in a similar way to the ‘Five Senses’ but the museum also spent time working with, and training, the engineers involved beforehand. Nilsson noted that events improved after the training as engineers were able to encourage more discussion among the public. She explains: “We decided we wanted to work more closely with the researchers so that they knew more about how to take part in events and what we wanted to get out of them. We wanted them to listen to the audience too, not just talk to them. That way there is genuine dialogue with the public”.

The museum is now taking this training concept forward as the core component of its latest Ingenious funded project. The aim is to build a year-long relationship with 10 selected engineers and the museum, to help them develop skills in writing, conducting presentations and facilitating discussions about engineering issues.

These enhanced communication skills will be used in various ways; engineers will be given opportunities to engage with the public by contributing to the Antenna News gallery’s daily blog and facilitate discussions in the ‘talkaoke’ sessions.

Nilsson is excited about the potential of training and working with more engineers within the museum and hopes they will not just take part in explaining the exhibits, but will start to act as an expert resource for contributing ideas and creating content for the gallery.

For more on the Antenna Science News Gallery visit www.antenna.sciencemuseum.org.uk

 

The 12 engineers who undertook Cheltenham Science Festival’s public engagement training last year concluded their week-long course with a family event called ‘The Engineering of Ice Cream’. The event involved the engineers making ice cream using liquid nitrogen and used the commercial process to illustrate some of the different skills of the engineers © Conor Cahill

The 12 engineers who undertook Cheltenham Science Festival’s public engagement training last year concluded their week-long course with a family event called ‘The Engineering of Ice Cream’. The event involved the engineers making ice cream using liquid nitrogen and used the commercial process to illustrate some of the different skills of the engineers © Conor Cahill

Engineering is the missing link

Working with The Royal Academy of Engineering has helped to increase the engineering content in the Cheltenham Science Festival and Ingenious grants are helping train engineers to engage with festival visitors.

In June 2011 the Cheltenham Science Festival will celebrate its 10th anniversary and the Academy will celebrate its 35th anniversary. To mark this, the festival will feature a series of debates to raise public awareness and debate about how engineering affects people and their environment. A number of Academy Fellows will be speaking in the debates alongside other well-known commentators from different disciplines such as philosophy and the arts. Debate themes include ‘Disposable Britain’ which will explore our throw-away society and possible solutions. ‘X-Men and Bionic Women’ will delve into human enhancement, both physical and cognitive, and what this might mean for the future.

Sharon Bishop, Executive Director of The Times Cheltenham Science Festival trained as a materials engineer and worked in the power industry before joining the festival team. She believes that engagement with engineers is important not only for society but also for government policy.

“Engineering is going to help us tackle some of the biggest problems, such as climate change and poverty” says Bishop. “The public needs to have a say about engineering, and the opportunity to understand its impact on their lives. There is a perception that it is just about overalls and building bridges, so we need to raise awareness about the full breadth of engineering.

”Last year the festival received an Ingenious grant to run a week long training programme during festival week for 12 early-career academic or private sector engineers from a variety of disciplines – civil, nuclear, aerospace and medical.

The programme combined structured training elements and observation of how other scientists and engineers at the festival engage with the public and the techniques they use. As part of the programme the trainees also delivered rocket-making workshops to school groups and families and took part in several ‘Meet the Engineer’ events, where they talked about their work with adults in one of the festival’s cafes. The finale of the training programme was the development and delivery of a big family event, titled ‘The Engineering of Ice Cream’ developed and delivered by the trainee engineers from scratch.

Many of the engineers have since been involved in other engineering engagement activities such as helping at science centres, participating in local schools activities and presenting their work to non-engineers in the companies they work for.

The Festival, which attracts around 40,000 visitors each year, will take place this year between 7-12 June in the Town Hall, Cheltenham. The festival features plenty of interaction, discussion and workshops and is designed to cater for all ages.

Sharon Bishop notes that even though it is labelled a ‘science’ festival, she feels strongly that the engineering content sits perfectly within the festivals programming, and is glad to say that it is increasing year on year. After all, as she pointed out, “engineering is the link between science and the public.”

For more information on www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/science

 

Looking forward

Engaging with wider public audiences can be a daunting task for all but the most confident engineers. Ingenious projects provide a supportive environment for engineers to take part in any number of different activities, from exhibitions to theatre to radio shows, with the capacity to cover any engineering discipline, topic or issue.

Furthermore, the Ingenious programme goes beyond simply handing out grants. The projects provide a platform on which the engineering community can build their own networks, contacts and partnerships with those organisations and individuals whose main aim is to the engage the public. This helps to encourage the embedding of engineering content within their programmes and engagement activities, that will continue long into the future.

It is just as important for engineers to show people how important engineering is as it is to tell them.

Ingenia would like to thank Dr Siân Harris for her help in gathering material for this article.

[Top of the page]