Inside Track | Don’t be fooled by the fun – Public engagement is a serious business

Sarah Hall, Director of Strategy for Research Impact, reflects on the University’s public engagement programme – and why it matters.

Inside Track | Don’t be fooled by the fun – Public engagement is a serious business. May 2023

Be Curious Live – the University’s annual showcase of our world-leading research to the wider public – is fast approaching. On 13 May, Leeds will once again open its doors to families from across the city and beyond, offering a range of activities that communicate our research in engaging and creative ways.

This year’s hands-on activities include fighting floods with fluid dynamics, creating a fossil print, participating in a chocolate trial, testing a robotic arm and making a mini hovercraft.

Last year, 160 colleagues participated in Be Curious Live, with the event attracting 1,200 visitors – predominantly families living in Leeds and the surrounding area. The annual in-person event is part of a suite of Be Curious projects, including:

  • Be Curious: Lates – a programme of online evening events for an adult audience
  • Be Curious: Read, which includes the publication of new children’s books engaging young people with research
  • Be Curious: Make – a suite of research-based maker kits; and 
  • Be Curious: Create – a collection of research animations and videos.

Inspiring future generations

Annual evaluation shows satisfaction rates for Be Curious are consistently high, and there’s no doubt visitors and participants greatly enjoy the experience of interacting.

But the value of Be Curious – and the wider programme of public and community engagement activity conducted across the University – extends beyond the fun.

For many children and their families, Be Curious will represent their first experience of engagement with scientific research and their first visit to a university. The importance of engaging and inspiring young people from an early age cannot be understated. 

A 2015 UK Commission for Employment and Skills report found that 43% of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) vacancies are hard to fill, mainly due to a shortage of applicants with the required skills and experience. 

A skills gap is reported regionally, too, with the Local Skills Report for the Leeds city region – published in January last year – highlighting below-average skills at critical technical levels and endemic skill shortages for technical roles at professional, skilled trades and technician levels, all factors that constrain productivity and the performance of the economy. 

Addressing the skills gap is critical to developing a workforce that’s equipped to address the sustainability, health and digital challenges of the future. Efforts must include a focus on the start of the pipeline – primary school pupils – and at the key educational milestones that follow.

Driving public opinion

Evaluation of Be Curious Live 2022 found that 29% of visitors were aged under 16. Feedback showed 94% of all visitors enjoyed Be Curious, 62% learned something new, 39% were more positive about the University of Leeds, 55% were inspired by what they saw or heard and 28% found out that the University conducted research.

Public engagement is an important driver of public opinion. The UPP Foundation / HEPI Public Attitudes to Higher Education Survey published in August last year found many positive attitudes towards universities. A healthy 77% agreed universities are important to research and innovation, for example, with only 12% saying they’re unimportant to the UK economy as a whole.

However, there were findings that indicated lower levels of confidence, with only half (50%) agreeing that university research should receive funding from the taxpayer, and only 52% believing the advantages of getting a university degree outweigh the disadvantages.

Significantly, half of respondents hadn’t interacted with a university in any way during the course of the year, including with university research, students or at their place of work.

Only 18% of the survey sample had actually visited a university in the 2021/22 academic year – those from the highest social grade groups (AB) were significantly more likely to have done so compared to the lowest social grade groups (DE). 

Tremendous contribution

Public engagement activities play a vital role in defining public attitudes towards the HE sector and inspiring the researchers and scientists of the future. 

If we’re to maintain positive public views, mitigate negative attitudes and grow our ability to address some of the world’s most significant challenges, we need to continue to take public engagement seriously, and to strive to make visible the tremendous contribution universities make to local, national and global wellbeing.

Our institutional strategy, with its three over-arching elements – community, culture and impact – speaks strongly to enabling a university environment “without walls”. Welcoming our Be Curious visitors on 13 May will see that vision in action and making a difference to our collective future.

Comments left by guests leaving last year’s Be Curious Live events included the following:

“Thank you for a good day. This event has really inspired my older two children about what they want to do in the future.”

“My first Be Curious and I’ve never seen my children so engaged in ‘educational’ activities. I struggled to make them leave.”

“My 10-year-old son was so inspired by the long chat he had with the virologist on Saturday that his school has asked him to do a special presentation about viruses.”

See the full Be Curious programme if you’re interested in finding out more.

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