by Colin Moran and Naomi Brooks, University of Stirling, UK
Engaging the public with science is really important, but it’s hard to get any credit for it from Universities. Perhaps this is no surprise, as Universities are judged primarily on research excellence, not public engagement excellence. One solution is the BBC’s Terrific Scientific, a project that combines research and public engagement.
Public engagement matters on all sorts of levels. What’s the point of doing science if you don’t tell people about what you’ve found? Especially when those people (the public) are the ones who ultimately fund most of what we do in Universities. You could argue that engaging with children is even more important; they are the next generation of scientists who will take our work forward. And it goes even further. An educated society has reduced crime rates, improved health, lower mortality rates, and increased political participation. Public engagement is part of that education process.
Despite public engagement being routinely overlooked by employers and excellence rankings, the rising value of quantifying the impact of research brings hope to many who would like to champion public engagement. However, building an impact case study around public engagement can be difficult. If you can’t quantify it, it’s not impact; yet, quantifying how much you have increased public understanding of science or how many kids you have inspired isn’t realistic.
So, how can we keep doing public engagement in a way that gives it more obvious quantifiable value? One option is citizen science – getting the public involved in doing research – and using that as the hook for getting them engaged with science generally. We’ve seen citizen science previously: when we were all asked to let our home computers work on giant networked physics projects; with mass campaigns to map the changing temporal or spatial ranges of various creatures; or when observing the effects of climate change on the flowering time of plants. The fact that it is also research, making it publishable and fundable, is the hook for Universities.
We wanted to get primary school kids involved with doing physiology research, and specifically teach them as much as we could about exercise and their brains, without them realising. BBC’s citizen science campaign, Terrific Scientific, made this possible.
The campaign’s overall aim is to engage primary school children with science, increasing their understanding of science and the scientific method in the process, as well as inspiring the next generation of scientists. The campaign is composed of multiple standalone experiments run by researchers at various universities.
This all sounds great but what makes it citizen science rather than just public engagement? There is a catch, of course. Or a twist, a bit of genius, whatever you’d like to call it. Normally in public engagement, we might recreate a classic experiment, one we have done a hundred times. We know how to make it work, we know what can go wrong, and we know what questions we are going to be asked. Not this time. To be involved in Terrific Scientific, you have to come up with a public engagement experiment that no one knows the answer to, and then teach the kids how to collect the data to answer the question themselves. They are the researchers, the participants, and the students all at the same time. What could go wrong?
Our Terrific Scientific experiment builds on our work with the Daily Mile. This project looked at whether introducing this increasingly popular physical activity intervention into primary schools altered physical activity levels, physiology, cognition or wellbeing.
The experiment on Terrific Scientific is called the Exercise Investigation, and looks at the acute effects of exercise on cognition, i.e. our ability to concentrate and learn. We designed some online cognition tasks that kids do before and after completing one of three physical activities: control – sitting around outside doing nothing for 15 minutes; self-paced walk/run – walking or running laps of the playground for 15 minutes; and, run to near exhaustion – a multistage fitness test, also known as the bleep test or shuttle run. They have to organise the activities themselves, assess their friends doing the bleep test as well as do it themselves, and enter this and other data about themselves into our website. They get some feedback about how their class did and enter this into the BBC map. There are also online quizzes and interactive pages with information about the effects of exercise on our bodies and our brains that we helped the BBC create. As well as the research component, we hope to engage the kids with physiology and psychology, and encourage them to be more physically active.
Working with the BBC has been a steep learning curve, mostly because they work on a different timescale, so things need to happen fast. On the whole, it has been a really positive experience and has been a genuine collaboration. We recently participated in a ‘Live Lesson’, which streamed directly into UK primary schools. We were given about 80 seconds between live segments show a change in the brain during exercise. A colleague in psychology at the University of Stirling, Jamie Murray, suggested we use an fNIRS (functional near infrared spectroscopy) device to show the increase in oxygenated blood flow to the brain that goes with exercise. Near infrared light can pass through the skull allowing the fNIRS to measure the colour, and therefore oxygenation, of the blood in the brain. Rehearsals were fascinating, if slightly nerve-wracking since the equipment was brand new, even to Jamie. The fNIRS was fast, very visual and looked like proper comic-book science (complete with ‘hat’ plugged into a computer), which the kids loved.
Citizen science is one possible way to engage the public about science while also collecting exciting data for research. It is a great way to engage a very large number of people with your research and definitely something we would encourage others to do.
This project was made possible via funding from The Physiological Society’s Public Engagement Grant. Participants in the projects included Colin Moran and Naomi Brooks at the University of Stirling, Josie Booth at University of Edinburgh, and Trish Gorely at the University of the Highland and Islands. Please encourage any primary teachers you know anywhere in the UK to sign up to the project here.