and other public engagement tricks…
Talking to strangers isn’t my strong point – public speaking usually coincides with a quite a bit of stress and nervous sweating. Unfortunately, doing a PhD involves quite a bit of it. So when the opportunity to volunteer and be trained in public engagement with the British Ecological Society (BES) came up, I hoped it would chuck me right in the deep end, and I’d get over it. What really happened is that I spent a thoroughly enjoyable weekend in a lovely sunny field, asking festival-goers whether they’d like to learn about animal poo. If that doesn’t help you get over a fear of public speaking, nothing will.
The BES has recently taken steps to improve their engagement with the public, and to promote the organisation’s work and ecological research to a wider audience. One strand of this has included hosting stalls at various festivals, and creating games, posters and other activities to get adults and young-uns to think about British ecology, wildlife and current conservation topics.
Volunteering for this scheme firstly involved attending two days of training on ‘science busking’; the art of presenting and demonstrating science and scientific principles in an engaging way to a range of possible audiences. To teach this skill, the BES set us a number of tasks, from practicing public speaking (eek) by talking about a unknown object you’ve just pulled out of a bag, to making science relatable using the world’s second biggest whoopee cushion (really).
After these invaluable training days, we were all given the chance to propose ideas for new games and engagement ideas, suitable for a 5x3m tent in a potentially very muddy field. One of these activities was chosen to add to the repertoire of BES games; “A Game of Love” (sexual selection as demonstrated by snakes and ladders… it really works!). Other ideas included ‘Pollinator Picnic’ and ‘Pin the Parasite’, all of which side-lined dry posters and lectures and instead aimed to engage people in a science topic using relatable ideas and enjoyable games. Together, we took our five ecological games to Wychwood Festival in Cheltenham.
We set up the stall (called Sex & Bugs & Rock N Roll, naturally) and all the games, and nervously awaited the onslaught of thousands of children with parents desperate to have them entertained.
The ‘hook’ to get people into the BES tent is the much-loved “Poo Game”; there are six (fake) animal poos in a box with six pictures. You simply match the poo to the animal, whilst learning about herbivores and omnivores and what scientists use poo for when it comes to research. And don’t forget the bonus used-to-be-present-in-the-UK-but-isn’t-anymore-carnivore-poo (spoiler: it’s a wolf). After playing this game, it was easy to lead people into the tent to take part in other activities; match the larvae to the adult, camouflaged animal spotting, learning about our box of live bees (who knew you could buy boxes of bees?!) and so on.
I was put on the first shift and was quite nervous. It was a bit unnerving shouting “WOULD YOU LIKE TO LEARN ABOUT POO?” to total strangers, eagerly walking past in the direction of the beer tent, but getting people chatting became a game in itself after a while.
Two hours went by in an instant and it was incredibly enjoyable. It was reassuring to see people so keen, and to see that young people and children already knew so much about British wildlife. To my surprise and delight, not one person seemed disinterested or put off, and everyone wanted to know more. We weren’t selling anything or asking for money; just out to spread the word about BES, and that scientists aren’t just people in lab coats. Everyone, especially children, loved it and came back multiple times over the weekend.
The overall experience was brilliant, and I would definitely recommend getting involved with this kind of public engagement volunteering whilst doing your PhD, or whilst at university (or just anytime, it’s fab). There’s loads to choose from; aside from the BES, there’s talking about your work on the streets of London with SoapBox Science, giving a talk at Science Showoff or Bright Club, chatting about your research at Pint of Science events, the Big Bang Fair, getting involved in the Cheltenham Science Festival or London Science Festival in 2017, and so on. There’s something for everyone. If you want to find events to volunteer at, Science Live is a website that does just that.
I met fantastic people on the stall, and was delighted by the enthusiasm of people of all ages in science and wildlife in Britain. Some other bonuses; we all got free BES t-shirts and I saw three of my favourite comedic TV actors (Bill Bailey, Matt Berry and Craig Charles!). I had an incredible amount of fun over the weekend whilst, importantly, improving my confidence with public speaking and gaining some public engagement experience. It adds another string to the bow and, if nothing else, you get to go to a great festival for free!