Public outreach in a COVID world
HEATHER LAMPARD AND CHANNA JAYASENA | Features
It was March and, packed into boxes, were thousands of circadian clock medallions, hundreds of pencils, and stacks of card games. I had just booked a rental car when an email with ‘cancelled’ in its subject heading landed in my inbox. In the time it took to open it, the world of public engagement found itself shut down and zapped into some kind of non-existence – that’s how it felt anyway.
The reality was that what it means to deliver public engagement changed overnight. We, like many other public engagement professionals, had to adapt or face hibernation until … who knows when?
AN ALTERED REALITY
Every year, the Society’s Public Engagement Committee attends science festivals across the UK, recruiting members to deliver exciting, hands-on activities for school children and families. Our aim is to spark curiosity about the human body and the role hormones play in our everyday lives, through fun experiments and meeting experts.
On 9 March, we were preparing to represent our sector at the largest science festival in the public engagement calendar, with a stand booked at the Big Bang Fair in Birmingham. Across 3 days, we were ready to engage thousands of people with an enthusiastic and dedicated team of members. But, alas, COVID said ‘no’ and we soon found our outreach calendar stripped bare. Where once we valued the importance of ‘hands on’ when engaging the public, we were now limited to interacting solely through a screen. But what did this mean for us?
EMBRACING A DIGITAL APPROACH
We already have an impressive digital presence when it comes to public engagement, thanks to a monumental effort from our members. Our ‘You and Your Hormones’ website receives thousands of unique hits a day. It often outranks Wikipedia in search results, with a plethora of endocrine information written by experts. It’s a project we are all hugely proud of. In this new COVID world, we feel that now is the time to transform its offering, bringing it even closer to the public’s attention.
Since the end of 2019, we have been working behind the scenes, producing our very first podcast series called ‘Hormones: The Inside Story’. Although this project was already in our engagement plans, it now felt fortuitous to expand our digital collection with more personal stories, expert insights and myth-busting facts from our members.
In an age of information, our podcast series brings audiences the truth behind headlines, challenges preconceptions, and sparks conversations around our hormone-driven health. With a collection of inspiring speakers, each episode helps us connect science to stories in the media, aiding our listeners in distinguishing fact from fiction.
'Our podcast series brings audiences the truth behind headlines, challenges preconceptions, and sparks conversations around our hormone-driven health.'
This type of public engagement satisfies the thirst for digital consumption, and provides the public with a trusted source of information in an online world that is burdened with misinformation about hormones.
MAXIMISING MEANINGFUL INTERACTION
With digital consumption on overload during the pandemic, we wanted to expand our engagement methods and facilitate a more meaningful interaction with recipients. The Public Engagement Committee pooled their creative ideas to develop a pilot project, a first of its kind for the Society.
The virtual outreach project for schools has been born of the hugely successful schools’ outreach workshop, which takes place every year at the Society for Endocrinology BES conference. The Committee wanted to bring the magic of these events directly into the classroom, and our recent, rapid familiarisation with virtual technology has made this almost effortless. Our new, pilot project digitally invites expert members into classrooms, where they can share stories of their STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) career journey, as well as fascinating insights into the endocrine system.
'The Committee wanted to bring the magic of these events directly into the classroom, and our recent, rapid familiarisation with virtual technology has made this almost effortless.'
This (safe) form of engagement broadens career awareness and provides students with a unique opportunity to meet real scientists. They, as role models, have the potential to ignite an interest in science and possibly inspire the next generation of endocrinologists!
We are finding our feet in this new, digital era, with the support of our members. We may have had to adapt and reprioritise our objectives, but one thing is for sure… Whatever we face, we have an important voice in the public engagement landscape, and the public want to listen.
Careers and Engagement Officer, Society for Endocrinology
Chair, Public Engagement Committee