Last week I was asked to speak about our experience of engaging under-served audiences. Here are my notes from which I spoke:
IAS is free online activity that connects school children and scientists. Kids go online, read scientist profiles, ask questions, take part in live chats and vote for the one they want to win.
Split into zones of 5 scientists and about 350 students. Mixture of general and themed zones. Been running since 2008 and reached nearly 70,000 students and over 1,000 scientists and engineers have taken part.
Scientists hear about it through colleagues, organisational emails and social media. They apply for the chance to take part. Tough selection process 1:4 for general zones.
Students hear about it through their teachers who sign up to take part. Over subscribed for I’m a Scientist and many teachers don’t get as many classes as they would like.
One way we do reach students who don’t normally get involved in science engagement is through product design.
Anecdotally, if a scientist visits a school, a class, 1:3 kids might stick their hand up to ask a question. With the online, pseudonymous nature of the activity we tend to get nearly 90% of the students actively participating – asking questions, chatting, commenting or voting. A side effect of this equality of voice is that not only do the quieter pupils get to ask their question but the other, louder, more confident students learn that their quieter peers do have something interesting to say. On a micro-scale this is reaching new audiences. And it is important. Not every engagement style works for everyone.
And it seems to suit some young people who don’t always get a say.
IAS is a spin off from a different project called I’m a Councillor, Get me out of here.
The inspiration for that project came out of conversations with council officers trying to interest young people in local democracy. They were doing things like inviting kids to shadow councillors for the day or they would invite students to visit the council chamber – and marvel at the majesty of our democratic overlords. The idea of an online activity was attractive to many, even if for some it just meant they weren’t going to need to clean up the graffiti left behind in the council chamber.
The why for us was that councils were trying to engage with mini-politicians, not mini-citizens. For me that was the more important democratic objective.
Over the 7 years that project ran some of the most memorable encounters were between the councillors and students from traditionally under-served groups.
I could talk about the pupil from the special school asking about the “futcha” for Bexhill or the feedback from the teacher at the PRU in Derbyshire who told us it was the first time that their pupils had ever been taken seriously by an authority figure. But it was the live chat between Nadia and a couple of Cardiff City Councillors that I remember best. The chat had been booked for 8pm by Steve a youth centre manager in Cardiff. It wasn’t the greatest of chats. Nadia was the only person online and was demanding a swimming pool for her and her mates. The two councillors patiently explained that Nadia should get together with friends and start a petition. After about 20 minutes of chat punctuated by strings of ****’s as Nadia’s choice of words got caught by our profanity filter, the chat was brought to a sudden end with Nadia typing, Nah can’t be bothered, bye bitches.
A disaster I thought.
5 minutes later Steve, the youth centre manager called me. That was brilliant he told me. Nadia had been excluded from every school in Cardiff and banned from every youth group. That night’s chat was the first time that Steve had ever seen Nadia engage with anything. Normally 1 in 5 words was a swear word but tonight in was only 1 in 20. He was ecstatic.
The point is that for some groups online communication is better than face-to-face and not just because of geography.
But having established that a project is good for certain groups it isn’t always as simple as that to get them involved.
We also look at the promotion aspect of reaching under-served audiences. Traditionally and anecdotally we’re told that science engagement projects do tend to reach the better resourced schools where kids often have plenty of privilege. Which means some schools are not taking part. But it isn’t so easy to identify them. Tied in is the issue for universities of widening participation as part of their fair access agreement required to charge £9,000 per year.
But what does widening participation mean? Apparently no two universities share the same definition (perhaps this has changed by now). We looked at a number of measures: IDACI, POLAR (participation in local area), and GCSE 5+ – when we looked at how the schools participating in IAS compared to the national profile against each of these criteria we were quite happy. We were getting a broad cross-section. And when compared to another large scale science engagement project we were performing well. But still not well enough.
There are flaws in the use of these measures. IDACI and POLAR give results based on the postcode of the school rather than it’s catchment area. The two can differ greatly. Secondly many of the schools in the poorest inner-city areas would also get greater funding through pupil premium and city-weighted education funding, perhaps allowing teachers more opportunities to bring in outside science engagement activities. Combine that with the fact that inner-city schools are also more likely to be within a short distance of a university and perhaps the inner-city schools aren’t so underserved.
So we still have a challenge on defining underserved.
We’re currently trying to work with other organisations like STEMNet to form a definition but in the meantime one of the factors we are looking at is distance. We’re looking to target schools from the poorer coastal areas in the UK.
But targeting is easier said than done.
We’ve conducted a few small experiments in recent years.
1. For one zone recently we sent 20 secondary schools in the most income deprived areas of the UK a teacher pack for the event inviting them to participate in the upcoming event. The idea was to make it as simple as possible for them to join in. Not one of them did. Not great.
2. More recently we posted a letter and some flyers to 200 primary schools in rural and coastal areas inviting them to apply to take part. The letter explained that Y5/6 was particularly important and that since they were in a remote area they might gain the most benefit. We’ve had 2 sign up. Not bad. OK
3. For a Food Zone in 2013 we looked at the schools signed up for the zone and worked out which would “qualify” as widening participation schools. There were about 5. Each teacher was called to make sure that they had received their packs and that they understood how the event worked. We looked after them, gave them special treatment. Every single one showed up online compared to a usual 2/3rds rate. It worked.
The learning we take from this is that you should look after the people already showing an interest. You get a better impact than simply going after more and more of your target. It might sound obvious, but for us we don’t have the time to call every school.
But we now realise that the time and money we might have spent sending stuff out to schools who hadn’t shown an interest, would be better spent on looking after the ones who had already shown some interest.
We’ll be repeating the specific targeting of schools in remote areas and giving special attention to those who respond. Thank you.