Public engagement with education: You can never start too early

Together with a group of enthusiastic colleagues, the Public Engagement Fellows of the Open Science Programme, I reflect on public engagement with research and education. We interviewed each other last year to explore what this concept means to us. One of our lessons was that you can never start too early when it comes to training and educating socially engaged researchers. I immediately took this lesson to heart.

In talks with students I drafted a module on public engagement. The goal: to increase knowledge about the added value of public engagement with research and education, and to develop the skills needed to be successful at it yourself.

Together with the Centre for Science and Culture, the press office and other Public Engagement Fellows, the students will experiment over the course of a few months with translating academic research for various target groups. They will also discuss research with non-academics, learn how to set up impact measurements and develop their own product or activity on the basis of their own (thesis) research.

My first experience has been that I’m learning just as much as the students themselves how to work on public engagement effectively. Had I myself ever really reflected on how I could evaluate the impact of a blog or a guest lecture? Am I myself clear enough on how I want to profile myself in the public debate as a scientist, and on where my boundaries are? And have I ever really engaged my audience in conversation, or has it been more of a monologue about my research so far?

The module holds up a mirror to me, gives me new pointers and makes us all more focused on and skilled in that which we all work for: creating impact. It’s great to really reflect and work on this together with students..

I can now say it’s true: when it comes to public engagement, you can never start too early! I recommend that others take this lesson to heart and that they experiment and explore, with students and PhD candidates, how attention can be freed up to strengthen public engagement skills. For example, students can contribute their thoughts and cooperate on public engagement in your research. And if you yourself didn’t start early enough: don’t worry. Be open and learn along.

Dr. Marij Swinkels is researcher and lecturer at the faculty of Law, Economics and Governance. She organised an honours module for students on public engagement.


This article also appears in the second edition of the magazine Close-up, full of inspiring columns, background stories and experiences of researchers and support staff.

View magazine