Projects

Project picture

Mentoring for Public Engagement

Location
The University of Manchester

Project Summary

So what lessons can we learn from the EPSRC's successful mentoring scheme and how are we able to adopt some of this best practice to meet the public engagement training and development needs of our own researchers?

 

 

Project Partners

Name:
Dee-Ann Johnson
Role:
Communcations Officer
Role Description:
Researcher Development, Faculty of Engineering & Physical Sciences, The University of Manchester
Name:
EPSRC Public Engagement Mentors

Benefits & Impact

The key recommendations from the interviews will be made available to the following recipients in appropriate formats:

  • Skills Training and Development Teams
  • Public Engagement Champions/Advocates
  • Faculty Senior Managers (Research, External Affairs & Graduate Education)
  • Public Engagement Networking/Best Practice events
  • Manchester Beacon.

For example, the EPS Researcher Development team are looking at the requirements for science communication and outreach training. In particular they are looking at implementing a course based on the Rising Stars programme at the University of Cambridge, which combines theory and real world practice. To enhance this programme, the introduction of professional science communicators as mentors for the duration of the course is being investigated.

Another example is the opportunity to further explore mentoring and the role of professional science communicators at events such as the proposed public engagement day planned for July 2010. PPE mentors could be invited to share their experiences of supporting researchers in public engagement as well as sharing their expertise in the field of science communication. (This would contribute to the aim of learning from best practice initiatives as discussed in the Beacon reports.)

Footage of the interviews is currently in post-production. It is intended that a highlights package of video will be made available to skills training teams (for internal viewing) to support public engagement training and initiatives and to the Manchester Beacon website for external viewing. (Note that full approval from participants must be sought on the final footage before it can be made available to a public audience).

The impacts of this pilot project will take some time to be fully revealed.  Initial discussions with skills training teams indicate that the use of mentoring to support researchers to undertake public engagement activities is invaluable. However finding appropriate (and willing) mentors is an issue.

The use of professional science communicators to enhance the experience, knowledge and skills of researchers appears to be the source of success in the EPSRC PPE Award. However such expertise does bear cost and resource issues. So the question is whether mentoring schemes that don’t use such expertise would be as successful?

Quotes

"I did an award on mentoring but what I was able to do was shape the Faculty Team’s training programme for public engagement because for me the award was actually about meeting people – researchers and external science communicators  - and a lot of those lessons have come back into our skills training programme more so than an actual mentoring scheme." Dee-Ann Johnson

Lessons Learnt

  • Professional science communicators are well placed to enhance the academic researchers experience of public engagement. As full time communicators, they devote their time to understanding what engagement is and how best to engage with people. They understand the latest engagement thinking, have a bank of techniques and have a much bigger overview of what’s going on.
  • Individual mentors are assigned to project teams, but collectively they provide a network of support, advice and contacts for each other and the project teams.
  • Mentoring support includes: project strategy and planning, audience analysis and delivery, identifying and building contacts and networks, troubleshooting, project evaluation, media and publicity support, and sometimes simply reassurance.
  • Mentors see the big picture; they provide the objective voice and experienced hand. For less experienced PE practitioners they may be quite directive and instructional. For more experienced PE practitioners it may be about simply getting a different perspective.
  • Mentoring is a two-way process; mentors gain just as much from the experience as mentees.
  • Mentoring for public engagement works best when there is a focus, a particular need such as implementing and delivering a public engagement activity.
  • For organisations, mentoring provides a means of better understanding what issues researchers face when involved in public engagement as well as providing opportunities for promoting public engagement activity.

Background

The Manchester Beacon reports that barriers hindering researchers attempts to participate in public engagement include a lack of support, training, networks and champions.

Researcher Development within the Faculty of Engineering & Physical Sciences provides transferable skills training for early career researchers. It proactively encourages researchers to take up opportunities that ‘contribute to promoting the public understanding of one's research field’, but currently provides little training or support for this specific activity. 

One method of supporting researchers could be through mentoring. One such scheme specifically focussed on supporting researchers funded to do public engagement was the EPSRC Partnerships for Public Engagement (PPE) Award, in which a mentor was assigned to award holders to offer guidance on the project's development and evaluation.  The PPE Award had been running for 10 years and two years in EPSRC introduced a mentoring scheme to support award holders. 

Two external evaluations of the PPE Award have highlighted mentoring as a key factor in the success of this public engagement programme. But in each case, very little was said about why the mentoring scheme is successful.  So with this mind, this project set out to explore why was it successful and what could we learn from the mentoring scheme.

Aims & Objectives

This project aimed to look at one aspect of encouraging and enabling researchers to participate in public engagement by exploring the mentoring model used by the EPSRC Partnerships for Public Engagement (PPE) Award. The mentors, assigned to PPE Award holders, are hired independently and are recognised experts in communicating and engaging with the public.

The project aimed to:

  • Understand how the mentoring scheme works
  • Identify strengths and weaknesses of the scheme
  • See how the scheme has evolved and what lessons others can learn
  • Look at potential uses for the scheme at Manchester

The project was informed from three perspectives - the research council itself, the mentors and the mentees involved with the PPE Award.

Approach

To explore the mentoring model used by the EPSRC PPE Award, a series of interviews were held with the following participants:

  • EPSRC - Kate Miller, Public Engagement Programme Manager
  • PPE Mentor - Dr Karen Bultitude, University Of West England, Professional Science Communicator (lecturer & researcher & experienced practitioner)
  • PPE Mentee - Prof Trevor Cox, University of Salford, multiple PPE Awards and experienced PE practitioner
  • PPE Mentee - Dr Kevin Tan, University of Manchester, Research Associate, first PPE Award.

These interviews were recorded with a view to creating a set of resources (such as videos/podcasts and advice guides) as well as a set of recommendations that could be utilised by different initiatives across the University.

The first step was to gain permission from the EPSRC to conduct the interviews. From the start the research council were fully supportive of the project, providing background information about the PPE Award and offering a contact list of mentors and mentees.

Having made the appropriate contacts, interview questions were prepared and sent out to participants for comment.

The interviews were recorded at The University of Manchester during the week of the Manchester Science Festival (24 Oct – 1 Nov 09), which meant that it was easier to coordinate the diaries of busy public engagement practitioners.

Each interview ran for approximately an hour. In addition to finding out about the mentoring scheme, participants were also asked to share their thoughts on their own public engagement experiences.

Following the interviews, the footage was reviewed to identify key recommendations and an edited highlights package of video is currently being created, with a view to making this available via a number of skills training and public engagement websites.