New perspectives; co-creation with unheard voices

Exeter Science Centre (ESC) has a great track record of taking STEM engagement into the heart of communities around Exeter, as demonstrated in 2022 with the STFC Sparks Award-funded climate exhibition.

With this additional funding they quickly seized the opportunity to revisit this piece of work to make it better, more representative, and more attractive to local communities than before. Ross, the science centre’s Project Officer, set out with colleagues to gather the interests and views of young people all from underserved backgrounds. They did this via their network of youth groups, community organisations, and schools, consulting with them on the exhibits, features, and content that they would like to see. Ross explains that they wanted to work with people that the centre doesn’t typically “see a lot of – they’re the ones that we really wanted to communicate with… to see what they wanted in an exhibition and in a wider science centre”. Ross further explains that he was conscious to keep principles and measures of social inclusion at the forefront of his mind. “We tried to make it really clear to the groups that we’re working with that they are having a direct impact on forming this exhibition”, Ross says, emphasising that “their contribution will be used”. Ross believes that this was an important factor that helped to build people’s sense of ownership over the content, and their agency to share their ideas.


Opinions and preferences were gathered via a variety of engaging methods which included digital questionnaires, chalkboards, tablecloths for writing on, interactive tasks, and informal discussions. Below is a snapshot of some of the learning that ESC will put towards their exhibition and their science centre of the future.

What do people want/not want in a climate themed science exhibition?

Across the different groups asked, interactive elements were an unsurprising winner for what would draw people to visit an exhibition or a whole science centre, with VR, games, and arts and crafts coming out top amongst this category. The inclusion of food was also highly rated as a big plus by all groups! Amongst the most common themes for what would disinterest people were too much reading and writing, and PowerPoint presentations.

How do they best like to learn?

It was clear from this question that a lot of the participants asked agreed that tactile, hands-on learning is enjoyable. Popular responses to “Other” included playing games and listening to podcasts or audio.

What questions do they have about climate and planetary science?

Questions from participants varied widely, but the most common interests captured related to the Sun (specifically how hot it is and why), human exploration of Mars, the Big Bang, weather mechanisms, and solutions to climate change.


Making a difference by engaging the youth voice

Ross expresses his admiration for the young people he met with and describes their ability to have constructive and self-guided conversations amongst each other, reflecting that it is vital to not “underestimate the intelligence and maturity of young people”. With this approach, ESC is giving a voice to this often overlooked and underrepresented demographic on important topics such as climate change. A technique that Ross found worked very well with the pupils at Newtown Primary School was to tell them that that he wasn’t very good at his job and so needed their help; something he says “they loved” (but hopefully didn’t fully believe) and it clearly empowered them. Backing this up, the teacher reported that they were still talking about their ideas for the exhibition for some time after the session.

Another important learning point for the ESC team was around being flexible, especially when meeting a new group of young people whose confidence you want to encourage and ideas you want to hear. In describing his interaction with 14-18 year olds from Space Youth Service, Ross shares that “they were really interesting, passionate young people so you sort of had to just go with the flow a bit with where the conversation went”. However, on the other side of this, working with 9-11 year olds with physical and learning disabilities through Ellen Tinkham College showed the need to be prepared, and that sometimes taking the time to get to know the workings of a group through detailed conversations with teachers and carers ahead of time can help make the most of short sessions.

What’s next?

With the opening of the new and improved climate exhibition planned for September 2023, there’s plenty to be keeping the ESC team busy. Revisiting some groups while engaging with new ones is a priority, giving as much voice to underrepresented groups as possible while monitoring how young people feel about the exhibition and their likeliness to visit. There is also a longer-term vision for all this work with the eventual design and construction of a fixed location for Exeter Science Centre. The inclusion of a dedicated youth space will be a clear legacy of this consultation work, ensuring that Exeter Science Centre remains a place designed by and for its local young people.

I think for our Year 6, it worked well. Giving them a chance to provide feedback and to have a hand in naming the Exhibition was very well received (they were still talking about the names during lunch!).