The Curious Researchers

The Curious Researchers project was created by We The Curious as part of our research collaboration with UCL and the YESTEM project.

In January 2018 we recruited eight Year 7 students from a secondary school in south Bristol to form a research team and worked with them until July 2019. The Curious Researchers supported the ongoing development of We The Curious, in particular through our public question campaign and prototyping ideas for our new Project What If exhibition. Regular sessions designed and led by one of our Live Science Team took place in the school along with longer visits to We The Curious once each term.

Project aims

For young people:

  • To develop their curiosity, creative thinking and social skills.
  • To support them to confidently engage with STEM issues.
  • To provide the opportunity to meet and collaborate with professional practitioners such as scientists, engineers and artists.

For We The Curious:

  • To better understand the conditions that promote young people’s curiosity, supporting our learning and the development of our methodology in cultivating a culture of curiosity.
  • To embed a youth led participation element in our public question campaign.

For the school:

  • To promote innovative approaches to the development of science capital for disadvantaged students.

Who did you work with and had you worked with them before?

We The Curious had delivered limited long-term engagement programmes with young people previously, focussing more on formal learning and shorter term funded opportunities, such as with the Princes Trust. We were keen to pilot a more embedded programme to support young people, develop our learning and highlight what institutional changes could be made to support our future work within an equitable framework.

We partnered with a secondary school in south Bristol. This was a new relationship for us, and we explored with the school any additional objectives they had for being part of the project. For example, the school were keen to run a week-long science festival led by the Curious Researchers and We The Curious staff during British Science Week.


How co-produced was your programme?

Where were you aiming for on the spectrum below:

  1. Information shared (the offer is decided and provided by you as the lead partner and people join to hear information)
  2. Consultation (the community partner/participants choose from a range of options, involving listening, feedback and discussion, but broader project objectives and delivery are led by you)
  3. Deciding together (community partners/participants support the creation and design phase, bringing new options and joint decision-making. Delivery and evaluation/reporting is led by you as the lead partner)
  4. Acting together (involvement of community partner/participant at each stage - from the planning and design, to the delivery and evaluation – with shared decision-making that forms a partnership to carry out the full programme)
  5. Supporting independent community interest (supporting partner agency, including offered funding, advice, and support to develop the independent ideas and agendas of the community partner).

I think we achieved level 3 on the spectrum. We had hoped to reach level 4, or beyond, but due to educational pressures the school preferred to work with us through an offer of a more defined programme, which left less room for working with the school and young people to develop the project together.

We were working with young people from historically excluded communities and were therefore looking to build new relationships and practices that would support our reflection and impact on our organisational change. In particular, we focussed on developing our methodology for facilitating longer term engagements, understanding how to embed equitable practice across the organisation, and beginning to diversify as an organisation as well as our exhibition content.

The design of the project was partially co-produced with the school partner, the HE partner and We The Curious all sharing our priorities. Once the young people were recruited, the Live Science practitioner worked hard to co-develop the programme with the young people, albeit within the restrictions of what was possible within the school timetable. By the 2nd year, the work the young people were doing was totally based around what they said they wanted to do. In order to get to that point, they needed a context of what was possible and what kind of opportunities an organisation like We The Curious could offer. This is where a work experience idea, which in the first instance came from us, was introduced to extend the experience in to different departments. Eventually, the group felt confident enough to be able to report back on the forms of evaluation and reflection we used and rejected them in favour of a more creative approach.

I think being part of the team has changed me because I feel I can express my feelings, emotions and what I think more freely now.

Comment from Curious Researcher as part of their reflection

What science / knowledge / skills were you sharing?

There wasn’t a focus on “formal” STEM content, but on the research and development of ideas through prototyping exhibits, and involvement in the exhibition process.

For us the positioning and power sharing was also novel and part of a change in culture or values. We took part in YESTEM to support our learning to help us better fulfil the Diverse Participation element of the (then) new manifesto which was leading the Project What If transformation. Initially, it was scary to share power with young people and we were developing new skills to learn to trust their input. Shortlisting the publicly submitted questions with the Curious Researchers to help create the new Project What If exhibits was the first moment of trust for us and was a new experience at a key point in our development. Going through the experience once, and seeing the brilliant results of a more diverse input into our decision making built our confidence to carry on the process with other partners, including ideas generation and prototyping.

Individual We The Curious practitioners developed new skill sets, modelling more equitable behaviours around sharing expertise in the room, making sure all voices heard, building equitable relationships and trying and testing new ways of working with young people. Also, we explored new ways of working across different departments such as modifying the Project Team’s ‘rapid ideas generation’ approach for creating exhibition content as a process for supporting the Curious Researcher’s to develop their own ideas within a limited time, whilst experiencing a professional process.

What actually happened?

We met with the group regularly over 2 academic years in term time. Regular sessions took place at the school supported by stimulus days at our venue each term. Sessions and meetings at We the Curious frequently took place in office meeting rooms, not the classrooms where school sessions usually take place. School based meetings took place at lunchtime in a classroom. As we were inhabiting a formal learning environment we began to consider how to temporarily create a ‘space’ or environment that supports our ethos for different practice. This led to a planned Transition Phase at the start of each session, through a regular ‘check in’ with all in the room, playing a piece of music, having specific objects, naming the space the Curious Research Lab etc. The group also collaborated to create ground rules or a code of working collectively for behaviour and activity within the space.

The process made us all reflect on what kinds of relationships were in play. Were the young people volunteers? Were they participants in an education programme? Was it a research project? How we understood these relationships really changed over time. Young people’s time in the YESTEM research project was compensated for in that they received gift vouchers & tech to support their involvement. As the collaboration went on we sought more ways to meet the their needs and build on their assets such as providing staff, or ‘researcher’ passes. Not only did these denote that they were part of the ‘team’ rather than school visitors but gave them free access to visit with friends and family whenever they wanted.

The young people took part in a work experience day at WTC which introduced them to a wide range of ‘professionals’ in the STEM sector and was an important part of their experience in terms of future aspirations. This included: science communications, graphic design and planetarium software programming.

They collaborated on designing activities for British Science Week in their school, which is partly fulfilled one of the school’s priorities. Whereas the group were happy with the planning and helping to make choices, they were embarrassed to be in front of their peers and taking the lead.

The group had already indicated that they wanted to have an ‘effect’, as in make real changes. Having experienced that with question selecting and prototyping (where they were shown how their responses related to actual changes in the designs) they were keen for more. This led to inviting them to select a question and develop ideas for installation as part of our Wall of Everything. When they worked on this and presented it to the senior project leads they were so invested in their ideas that they showed real confidence in formally sharing them.

As a Curious Researcher one day I would really like to bring a friend here so that they can see what we actually do and how fun it is.

Comment from Curious Researcher as part of their reflection

How did you capture/measure the impact for this project?

We introduced a strong use of formative evaluation and opportunities for reflection on our practice, which was further supported by the peer workshops with the YESTEM research partners. We used questionnaires for teachers and young people to reflect on changes in confidence and ‘questioning’ (as part of curiosity), regular session reflections with the young people to check on well-being and any changes that needed to be made to the programme design, and end of year reflective discussions. The final piece of reflection carried out at the end of their Year 8 summer term was for them to write postcards to their Year 9 selves describing one thing they wanted to remember about their experience as a Curious Researcher. These were posted to them at school at the start of the new Year 9 academic year.

As part of YESTEM it meant we were also involved in a 4 year externally funded research-practice partnership that supported reflection and included data collection by the academic partners and the development of reflective tools. Young people created “portfolios” about their experiences of the project, their expectations and perceptions around science, informal science learning, their futures, their school science experiences, their communities and the specifics of the project work they carried out with We The Curious. Through the development of their portfolios they regularly met the research team who carried out informal interviews, focus groups and observations with young people as well as We The Curious staff.

The most important thing about being in the group is that we can have fun and be honest.

Comment from Curious Researcher as part of their reflection

Where is the long-lasting change?

On the whole, the Curious Researchers didn’t just give the learning for WHAT to do, but rather taught us that we needed to know more about this and showed us where there were gaps in our practice and systems. Working with a longer-term engagement process gave us more time to listen and reflect and build relationships through trust. In addition, long lasting change is being felt in:

Staff skills development and vision. Being engaged in actual activity, even in a light touch way, and connecting with participants is an incredible way to demonstrate impact and build confidence in participatory work.

Institutional culture change. In particular, the learning from not just Curious Researchers but the wider YESTEM research partnership, has influenced policy change to support how we create more equitable relationships within our programming. For example: rationales and policy for payment of young people for their contributions. Equitable recruitment policies are also now being worked on for young people in programmes and for our organisational recruitment, i.e. not just those who are most qualified or confident or who get picked by their teachers. We are exploring ideas such as sharing any interview questions before hand, trying to adjust language around roles and how we communicate opportunities and who with. With further plans to develop in this area, these ideas are moving from youth projects into organisational HR processes.

Developing institutional memory around working with schools and young people in historically excluded communities, understanding that these relationships take more time, more effort and totally different ways of working.

Research partnership. Being part of YESTEM meant we were involved with 3 other sites in the UK & 4 sites in the US. This breadth of practice in very different settings was valuable, and we could draw on the other partners experiences as well as the research. This is particularly useful, as we developed our practice through a very specific model, but we also need to draw on best equitable practice from a wider range of engagement models. A key part of the legacy is also scope to continue the practice and research relationships beyond the project.

Equity compass. We are exploring how to use the equity compass in a range of ways across the organisation as a reflective tool, not just to help frame work in our young people’s programming, but to embed thinking about equity into all our work.