Working on societal impact via a science festival – lessons learned from a researcher’s perspective
“Societal impact is investing in creative ways to engage the future generation in science.”
On Expedition in Franeker: Social Lab
On the 6th of May, the L-CID team and colleagues of the Erasmus SYNC lab presented the Social SYNC Lab at Expedition NEXT; the national science festival for children, organized by the NWO-NWA. The festival was sold out, which meant that 6000 children and their caregivers came to the former university city Franeker to learn more about and experience science. The goal of the NWO-NWA was to get children and their parents excited about science and spark their curiosity. In festival-style, children could really experience and engage in all fields of science. Expedition NEXT fits in the broader ambition of NWO-NWA to show the value and importance of science to society. We share this ambition and therefore contributed by developing a special Social SYNC Lab; designed to represent important parts of our research on social development in children and youth. Our Social Lab consisted of three main parts, reflecting different research lines within the labs: self concept, the voice of children, and brain synchronization. Read more about it here in the report of the day (including lots of pictures). In addition, children could ask Eveline Crone everything about friendship and feeling good in a mini lecture. The overall question and topic of the Social Lab was: ‘Why do you need others to feel good?’
Preparing for a science festival is very different from regular research practice but very important in order to work on societal impact. In November 2021, we were informed about the opportunity to participate in Expedition NEXT. After our proposal for a Social Lab was approved by the NWO-NWA, we closely collaborated with BKB, a campaign bureau. Although the preparation of the science festival overall went well and the outcome was very successful, looking back I will share a few lessons learned for researchers like me who want to translate their research into a science festival or similar events as well: 1) be clear about roles and responsibilities, 2) leave room for improvisation and creativity, and 3) be realistic and place yourself in the shoes of the target audience.
1. Be clear about roles and responsibilities
We collaborated with BKB to organize everything we needed for the Social Lab. This meant translating everything that was needed for our proposal to very practical materials. I underestimated how challenging this was, as it involved thinking about electricity, number of materials and the square meters needed for each of our elements. It also involved thinking about a budget for the materials and finding out where to find more creative things we required. It turned out to be quite time-consuming to think about these practical things if you’re not experienced with it. When raising this point in the organizing team, it turned out to be something that could be done by BKB as well, as this is what they are very good at. To discuss this transparently in the team helped me to identify what kind of help I needed and stay closer to what we as researchers are good at; thinking about the conceptualization of the elements and the link to the content of the science we wanted to communicate. My lesson learned here is that it is important to be clear about the roles and responsibilities for each step of the way from the beginning and make sure that you complement each other as a team by using each other’s strengths. This way, you can still learn from each other in the process, while staying efficient in working together. I look back at a very fruitful collaboration with BKB and NWO-NWA and would recommend that researchers broaden their horizon to work on these type of outreach events that require translation of science in very creative ways.
2. Leave room for improvisation and creativity
As a researcher, I tend to control everything. I had to let go of this tendency a bit during the preparations for Expedition NEXT and definitely during the day, as improvising and adapting to the situation at hand worked very well at a festival. In the preparations, I asked two researchers per research line to come up with creative ideas based on the proposal. They came up with really cool ideas to translate their scientific messages into festival elements. Their creativity was sparked because the sky was the limit during Expedition NEXT. Also during the festival, it was important to have sufficient researchers available to adapt to the audience in the moment. For example, there were a lot of questions of parents and children and there were groups of children who did not speak Dutch or English. We managed to spend more time on each of them because we were present with a large and flexible team in which everybody could help out with each element. We also heard on the day itself that the festival had sold out. Again, we were flexible enough to think on the spot of buying additional materials and thinking of things people could do while waiting. For example, we asked people in line for the photobooth already to think of the compliments they wanted to give each other to show in the picture, which sparked nice conversations between children and parents. Taken together, the day was very successful due to the flexibility and creativity of the research team, in combination with their enthusiasm for the scientific messages they wanted to communicate to the children and their parents. My lesson learned is, therefore, to leave room for flexible adaptation to the situation at hand as much as possible. This is also a skill that is required in specific steps of the research cycle (such as data collection), and I would recommend to extend to this type of outreach events.
3. Be realistic and place yourself in the shoes of the target audience
We came up with the idea to develop a Social Lab with five elements to show five different research lines and an element to connect these five elements. In preparing all these elements, this turned out to be less feasible than expected. For each element, we had to think of a ‘wow’ effect that would attract children on a science festival where there would already be a lot to see and experience. We also had to think about a way to engage children for not too long as they would be walking around the science festival with their parents and maybe other children who would not all have the same interest. Thinking about this ‘journey’ that children and their parents would take on the science festival, we decided to focus on three main elements that met the criteria of having a ‘wow’ effect and flexibility to engage in. We also wanted to ask children what it is they would like to know from us as researchers. To that end, we left brain flyers for them to ask their questions. This turned out to be more difficult than we expected it to be, as children seemed to need more guidance on what they could think of. For a next event like Expedition NEXT, we could think about creative ways to spark their questions and document these. We were already inspired by the Q&A sessions of Anna Gimbrère in which children could ask renowned scientists, like Eveline Crone and Diederik Gommers, about a specific topic. In Eveline’s Q&A session, the topic was friendships and feeling good. This sparked a lot of questions, including out-of-scope questions about meteorites and hair. My lesson learned here is, therefore, to spend time and effort into focused elements that would work best if you place yourself in the shoes of the target audience.
Expedition NEXT contributes directly to societal impact
This reflection on Expedition NEXT in Franeker started with the ambition that we share with NWO-NWA, bridging science and society by motivating children to become curious about science. I loved to see how inclusive this festival-style science event was, as it attracted a variety of children and caregivers. Although the festival was focused on children between 6 and 13, it also attracted younger children and grandparents. There were groups of children from the Asylum Seekers Centre who could still join the activities as they could engage without speaking the language. This also applied to children with disabilities, who could still join a lot of activities. Therefore, the festival was a great way to engage all children in science activities. To me, societal impact is investing in creative ways to engage the future generation in science, sparking their curiosity, feeding their critical mind, and really listening to them. Expedition NEXT was a perfect example of this!
Read and watch more!
On the website of the SYNC lab, I wrote a blog on all the elements of the social lab, including lots of pictures. Here you can find the Twitter thread we made on the day itself. We also made a (Dutch) vlog about the day. Watch it here! On the website of Expedition NEXT, you can find more impressions of the day and follow Expedition NEXT on tour.