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Engagement Matters: Developing Table Top Science Activities

In this Engagement Matters post Sheena shares her six top tops developing a table top science activity.

There are lots of things to think about if you want to create a successful table top activity. Before you do this it may help to go (or help at) an event in which there are a variety of table tops activities to see what you think works and what you think does not work so well. Also do look at what happens in museums, visitor centres, exhibition spaces and galleries as often there will be examples of excellent practice there.

These are my six top tips for making a good table top activity.

1: Purpose: What is the purpose of your activity – what do you want people to take away from the activity? Do you, for example, want to share a research mechanism and therefore develop a game or prop to visualise this or initiate discussion and raise awareness about the field of research you are in? Always consider your purpose before going any further as it will help shape everything including helping you plan evaluation.

2: Audience: Who is the target audience that your activity is aimed at? One activity will not necessarily suit all ages so consider what is age appropriate and likely to hold interest. Can you trial the activity with someone else first – friends or family just to see if it works? I have used my children as guinea pigs for many of my activities and believe me friends and family can be amongst your harshest critics! On the plus side, my children know quite a lot about parasites now – a fact for which I am sure they are grateful…

3: The “Hook” and Levels of Engagement: Often it is helpful to have different levels of engagement to hold your audience. Ideally you will have a hook that draws people to your stand – this may be something eye-catching or something that resonates with people perhaps because it is relevant to them (the words eye-catching, relevance and resonance are important to consider when planning your “hook”). However, a hook is not enough to keep people involved and ideally you want a longer more meaningful engagement. So what games or activities do you have? If the activities are for children is there something for the parents too? Often this may be you yourself talking through the science and its importance and relevance. If you are struggling to come up with a hook or suitable games then do brainstorm with other colleagues, students and helpers.

Disclaimer: Do not necessarily use posters! I have put this in bold as many researchers are used to displaying information in poster format and therefore default to that. However, lots of small pictures, too many words and jargon are quite frankly off putting. In fact, so off putting can “the poster” be, I have found that some institutions have a blanket policy that does not allow you to display posters in an event. However posters can be a great way to frame your activity if used appropriately – either by using them as a screen to separate your activity from others or as an information source. So, if you DO use posters, ensure they are focused on key messages and use plenty of big, attractive images. Are there analogies you can use to help the message come over? Also consider where you place the poster – if posters are behind you then how can people read them-consider the size of text and where you place the key messages if the posters are to be placed behind you. I have previously put posters on the floor and found many people stopped to read them than perhaps would have looked at posters on the wall.

4: Flow through: This may seem obvious but ideally you want to structure the activity so you have a clear logical flow through of people. You may have your hook then for example encourage participants to move along the table or tables where your next activity (and perhaps another helper is poised) and so on. It is worth taking a little time to consider this as good flow through can really improve the activity.

5: Take home message: What is your take home message – what do you want people to leave with? Is there something they can take away with them to do at home or find out more info? Again, worth planning at the outset.

6: Evaluation: Last but not least – how will you evaluate the success of the activity? Has it worked for both you and the people you wished to reach? If you know the purpose (step 1) it is much easier to know what you will evaluate. I suggest, in the first instance you keep evaluation relatively simple. You can even see if you can build part of the evaluation into the activity so it is part of the fun. There is excellent guidance on evaluation through engagement@manchester here.

I hope these tips will help you plan your activity. Have fun and good luck! Do remember that all the best activities have been crafted from lots of trials, so don’t worry if not all elements of your activity come together – they may need refining to get them just perfect for your next event.

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Dr Sheena Cruickshank, Academic Lead for Public Engagement, The University of Manchester

Twitter: @UoMEngage | @sheencr | #EngageMatters