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The Department of Engineering Science’s 'Spotlight' event series has successfully bridged the gap between complex engineering research and public awareness. By fostering effective communication skills among researchers, the initiative has demonstrated the importance and relevance of engineering in everyday life to a wider, non-specialist audience. This case study explores the development of the initiative and the department's plans to diversify audiences and solidify its impact.

At a Glance

  • The department aimed to share the relevance and impact of engineering with non-specialist public audiences.
  • Researchers were provided with in-depth communication and presentation skills training.
  • The event enhanced public perception of engineering’s relevance to their lives and its potential for impact, and improved researcher communication skills.

The 'Spotlight Engineering' event series was developed to bridge the gap between complex engineering research and the wider public's awareness and understanding. Driven by Vicky Green, Events Manager for the Department of Engineering Science, and championed by Prof. Stephen Roberts, the initiative aimed to create short, engaging, TEDx-style talks that would be delivered to a live audience and would also generate video content for social media and other platforms to showcase the breadth and impact of engineering research within the department.

Group shot of speakers at 2024 event

Origins of the Spotlight Series: Inspiration and Objectives

The inspiration for 'Spotlight Engineering' stemmed from a desire to produce relaxed yet informative content highlighting the diverse range of research within the department. "We wanted to demonstrate the relevance and breadth of our work," Vicky Green shared, noting common misconceptions about engineering. The initiative aimed to emphasise its relevance to everyday life in areas from space travel to medicine, from AI to helping achieve Net Zero.

Additionally, it provided a fantastic learning experience for researchers to build and refine essential communication skills. "All you need to do is look at some of our more successful academics; they are really good communicators," Vicky highlighted. One participating researcher noted, "Science needs to be communicated to the public to have a meaningful impact."

Ultimately, the initiative provided a “win-win” situation for both the department and the public, as Vicky put it.

From Concept to Reality: Development Journey

The initiative began with an experimental phase, recording videos during a lecture series at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. However, "the format wasn't right because it was too formal," Vicky noted. The team sought a more suitable venue and introduced storytelling training to help researchers communicate more effectively with non-specialist audiences.

Training sessions covered storytelling, helping researchers simplify complex research into key takeaways and impactful messages. "It's about understanding the shift from speaking to peers at an academic level to communicating effectively with the public," Vicky explained.

The second iteration of the event series opened its doors to a live public audience at the Old Fire Station on George Street. This change allowed direct interaction between researchers and the public, and the team worked hard to make sure the atmosphere was relaxed and engaging.

Now in its third year, six more researchers participated at the Old Fire Station, covering advances in using gases to reduce infection, training machines to learn like humans, using engineering to treat back pain, and discovering how foldable origami structures could redefine space exploration.

Engagement Success: Highlighting the Impact and Value

Professor Stephen Roberts says, “Giving public talks offers such a valuable training for researchers. Not only do members of the public get to hear about amazing research, but presenting complex information to a non-specialist audience helps hone a researcher's communication skills and can lead to a deeper understanding of their own research.”

Having observed that many researchers started with academic slides, and this generally resulted in complex and overly detailed presentations that weren’t appropriate, Vicky noted the need to challenge researchers to restructure their approach to public communication. Researchers were asked to focus on three key messages and impact as the basis of developing their talks from the outset, with training sessions providing early feedback and guidance on tailoring their stories for a public audience and incorporating interactivity into their presentations.

Researcher, Joram, presentingFeedback highlighted the success of this approach. Researchers appreciated the skill development opportunities, expressing how the experience helped them refine their science communication abilities. Dr. Shreyank Narayana Gowda said, "It is important to be able to break down complex topics into digestible segments for people from unrelated backgrounds, and this was something I really enjoyed."

“I became a better 'presenter' for lack of a better word. I feel more confident and the quality of my slides drastically improved with the amazing feedback given.” Shared another researcher.

This was the case whether researchers were already comfortable giving public presentations or otherwise – everyone gained something valuable from the experience.

Public feedback indicated a notable increase in understanding and appreciation of engineering's impact on daily life. Simple audience engagement methods, such as hand-raising questions at the start and end of the evening, showed significant improvements in audience perceptions. At the end of the evening, everyone had learned something new, and the proportion of people who thought engineering had an impact on them had increased from 40% to 95%.

Vicky was enthusiastic about the energy in the room, and how the presentations sparked questions from curious audience members. “As if that wasn’t enough, it’s great fun too!” added Prof. Stephen Roberts.

Looking Ahead: Future Directions

"Public talks like this spark unexpected questions and discussions, as well as highlight new perspectives and potential new avenues for research." - Professor Stephen Roberts

After three years, the initiative has successfully engaged 16 researchers, attendees at events, as well as generating over a 1,000 views on YouTube. Recruiting researchers remains a challenge, but leveraging key contacts within research groups has proven effective. The team recognises the need for structured and mandatory training sessions to ensure participants are well-prepared. Despite the time commitment, the in-depth support has shown to be worthwhile.

What’s more, the scheme has been found to be cost-effective, “apart from people's time, to deliver, this current model is really financially light,” Vicky concluded.

Looking ahead, 'Spotlight Engineering' aims to diversify its audience by collaborating with community groups and participating in local events. Vicky is keen to explore reaching broader audiences who might have ‘less science capital’, and is listening to their ideas on useful formats. Potential venues include community spaces and local science festivals.


Want to improve your communication skills?

This case study was drafted with the assistance of AI: AI was used to transcribe an interview. ChatGPT was used to generate text according to human directed key points. The final text was edited for content and clarity by Michaela Livingstone-Banks, with further input from Vicky Green.