Effective Methods

Emerging from Explore Your Universe came a number of methods for working with diverse and underserved audiences. These strategies may not be applicable to all audiences, but they can be used to understand what level and balance of co-production was found to be most suitable here, to help set expectations when engaging with community partners in this context, particularly for the first time.


A whole lotta stuff

Distribute a range of items and/or activities around the space. Allow participants to explore on their own terms and in any order. The activities they gravitate towards and enjoy can provide insight to guide the development and structure of future sessions.

Be sure to engage informally with participants. Get to know them and take their interests on board. You might want to visibly take notes to capture their feedback and suggestions.

This strategy is particularly successful when engaging with a particular topic where the content is unfamiliar to many children. For example, asking what area of STFC science the students are interested in exploring was unlikely to be fruitful in Explore Your Universe.

A blank sheet of paper can work if facilitated really well or led by your community partner, but it can also be overwhelming and too broad. Similar to being asked to pick any song for a playlist (your mind goes blank or you may be worried about saying the wrong thing) there are many reasons why a blank-sheet-of-paper or a completely open-question approach isn’t often the best opener.

I'm doing proper science!

Participant, partnership with Xplore! Science Discovery Centre

Learning from the wider sector

‘Our Space Our Future’ delivery partners reported the following:

“We didn’t have a lot of time, but wanted to work with their interests. Given complete freedom and a blank sheet, they worked with what they knew already, which was the Moon, the Sun, Mars … and Uranus! But we rarely explored further or talked about the diversity of space and careers on offer. So we introduced a section with multiple choice. They could still be in the driving seat, but have the opportunity to explore a black hole, fly through the ice of Jupiter’s moon, or vote for an astrobiologist as their favourite space career rather than an astronaut.”

This problem is summed up in this quote from a participant at We The Curious, Bristol when visiting the café as part of their Curious Researchers project:

I like apple juice, but if I knew orange juice was an option, I might have chosen that instead.

“What would you like to do next?”

This simple question is more of a consultation level of co-production (or ‘co-development-lite’ as one practitioner termed it) but it is still very valuable to deepen relationships and is far more collaborative than simple delivering a pre-set series of activities. Your willingness and enthusiasm to draw on the interests of your participants and the expertise of your community partner will strengthen the activity you offer.

Top Tip

Provide a menu of options that participants can choose from based on their interests. Multiple choice options, along with ways to make these choices engaging and anonymous, can help bring out the interests of group members who wouldn’t otherwise put themselves forward. Why not try using live polls like slido or mentimeter, or get hands on with plickers for the vote?

I also really liked having the big paper board that I could just write down on because it showed that I was listening to them... next time, I'd bring back that board and go "here's what you wanted to look at, here's what we're doing.

Practitioner, Techniquest

Top Tip

When the activities take place, if it is not obvious, emphasise areas where feedback has been taken on board to clearly demonstrate to participants that their ideas were heard and valued. Relationships flourish when partners or participants can clearly identify elements where they have had input.

Talk and listen

Building a rapport

Closely tied to building trust, create opportunities to ask questions or have casual chats, whether around food, during breaks or during activities, to gain wonderful insights into participants’ interests and experience of science and what they already value about it.

Not only does this help you get to know them individually, but it can also help you understand what they experienced from the engagements, what worked and what could be improved.

Building relationships and trust is particularly important when working with young people who may have had adverse childhood experiences. They may have been excluded from similar positive learning experiences previously, have a mistrust of authority or innate responses that are deep seated and cause unpredictable behaviours for those who don’t know them. So always value the experience of your community partner.

Case Study from Explore Your Universe

Taking a ‘co-development-lite’ approach Aberdeen Science Centre first proposed a set of activities to their community partner (Fersands and Fountain Community Project). On agreement, and once the initial activity took place, the two partners reflected together and Aberdeen Science Centre took on board the feedback from their partner to inform the following engagement.

The partnership progressed in this way, leading to a series of successful experiences for the young people involved and leaving both Aberdeen Science Centre and Fersands and Fountain Community Project feeling like the experience had been truly collaborative.

Top Tip

In all cases, reflection with your community partner – formal or informal – should take place. This can then feed into the development of future engagements. Reflection can be as easy as a brief chat over the phone. Ask the questions:

“What was a really good moment?”

“What was challenging?” and

“What learning can we take from this?”

Learning from outside the sector

“If something isn’t working - modify, change strategy and stay flexible. Stay real, visual and multisensory. And above all, you need to be a people person and develop a rapport with the students. Be quick to make those connections and find common ground. This is quite critical to building a relationship.”

Science Lead, Notton House Academy (specialised in working with young people with Special Educational Needs and Disability)

That kind of openness, asking the question, stating what we have that they can use, but also listening... if there's a whole bunch of people who are saying 'we'd really like thing Y', OK maybe we need to actually think about that because that's something that is going to be useful.

Practitioner, Cambridge Science Centre

Case Study from Explore Your Universe

A group of young people created an edition of Cambridge Science Centre’s ‘Open Up Science’ magazine. In this case, the theme of the magazine chosen by the participants was ‘animals’, and pairs of young people worked together to develop pages for the magazine. Although ‘animals’ did not fall neatly under the umbrella of STFC science, Cambridge Science Centre practitioners knew that the best way to inspire participation was to allow the young people freedom to choose the theme. Then, using their expertise, they could build a narrative into the activity that linked back to STFC science.

They were asking all the right questions. They wanted to know how to make it, what they're going to do better, and they were open to all suggestions and ideas... That was really refreshing for us all the way through - they kept us involved and asked us - rather than saying 'we're coming in to do this for you', they wanted to know 'how' can we come in and do this for you.

Community Partner, Cheshire

Top Tip

Many of the strongest examples of co-production start with openness and questioning, which is something that can easily be adopted by science centres, museums, researchers and other STEM practitioners embarking on this kind of work.


Don’t have a plan, have goals

Having objectives but no preconceptions of what your participants should be interested in, involves fleshing out a plan as you go, through interactions with your community and/or your community partner.

Deeper levels of co-production, where the creation, development and delivery is also led by the participants, is likely to take your engagement or research ideas in new and unplanned directions, so be prepared to get out of your comfort zone and let go of the control!

Learning from the wider sector

Parenting Science Gang, a Wellcome-funded, user-led, online citizen science project set out over two years to enable groups of parents to run their own research in areas of science that interested them. The topics for research were decided solely by the parents during the project and the whole process took place on Facebook.

The parents wrote a long list of parenting questions that they wished that research was providing answers to and then voted on which ones to investigate themselves. With the support of academics, the parents wrote and carried out 7 different research studies on subjects ranging from investigating the content of breast milk, to an experiment to look at the impact of gender stereotypes in picture books.

It feels a little bit unprepared not to have a plan but actually it's the right thing to do. Don't have a plan, have objectives.

Practitioner, Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre

Learning from outside the sector

Public Involvement, Imperial College London

Researchers from the Department of Primary Care and Public Health at Imperial College London invited parents and carers to a 2-hour online forum to share their experiences of accessing healthcare services during the Covid-19 lockdown. Their contributions had a positive impact on the team’s research, helping to inform future research directions and reflect on key messaging. For the researchers, public involvement strengthened their motivation to pursue their research goals and highlighted how important the issue was for parents and carers. For the parents, they felt as though they had been listened to, and appreciated being around other parents who had faced similar issues: “I have enjoyed this – it’s nice to have some empathy from other parents.”

Imperial College London have designed a set of resources for practitioners who want to involve the public in their research, from identifying areas for involvement and applying for funding, to evaluation. Find out more by visiting their website.

I feel that if I gave him an idea, he would deliver. He's open to any suggestions, any ideas and times, so flexible, so we can, if we want to improve it a little more we could have another meeting and sit down and put another workshop together...

Community Partner, Aberdeen

Heading towards an ‘end product’

Working towards a shared goal or ‘end product’ with your community partner can steer the activity in the right direction and give participants a reinforced sense of ownership, agency and pride. An ‘end product’ could be an activity, a tangible output such as a physical object or exhibit (e.g. a zine, drawing or fabricated item) or a celebration to signify the end of the project.

Case Study from Explore Your Universe

For community partners working with Science Oxford, their ‘end product’ was to develop an exhibition or display for their newly built community centre. Science Oxford worked in partnership with youth workers to support them and their young people in developing and presenting their very own planetarium show. This show was presented at the community centre, attended by friends and family members. They were the ones deciding what the activities would be and delivering the end product to proud family members.

No matter how complicated the research, or how brilliant the researcher, patients and the public always offer unique, invaluable insights. Their advice when designing, implementing and evaluating research invariably makes studies more effective, more credible and often more cost efficient as well.

Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England (2010-2019)

Learning from outside the sector

Walton Youth and Community Project

Over a period of twelve weeks, Walton Youth and Community Project worked with artists from Tate Liverpool to co-produce an exhibition designed by young people. The project had an ‘end product’ but there was no plan for how to get there. Asking the young people what they wanted to do in week 1 of the project was counterproductive – some of them had never used pastels or paints before – so choosing a ‘medium’ to create their art with was an alien concept for them. By listening to the ideas of the young people and letting them experiment with a variety of art materials, both the artists and participants grew comfortable in their new environment and decided upon a theme for their exhibition: transformation and identity.

Despite not having an idea for the exhibit until week 8 of the project, the artists’ flexibility and willingness to explore new materials with the young people, without being too concerned about time constraints, helped to develop their relationship and co-create an exhibition that neither party would have imagined was possible during the early stages of the project.

Science is making me curious.

Participant, partnership with Xplore! Science Discovery Centre

Supporting autonomy and agency

A key aspect of co-production is supporting the autonomy and agency of participants. Whether you reflect on a previous workshop to inform the next, consult participants about what they would like to do, make changes during the course of a workshop, or direct activities towards a clear ‘end product’, the significant aspect of all these strategies is building a feeling of ownership into the activities and supporting participants to actively contribute and participate on their own terms.

That was something that the children chose themselves, and that's why they took the ownership and they really loved it and they kept working on those.

Community Partner, Cambridge

Case Study from Explore Your Universe

Having never worked with North Cambridge Community Partnership before, Cambridge Science Centre invited their community partner to co-produce an edition of Open Up Science; a free, weekly magazine filled with facts, puzzles, quizzes, and experiments that can be done at home. When the project was completed, Cambridge Science Centre officially launched the edition in a red-carpet ceremony, which families and friends were invited to.