You can’t carry out, plan or even suggest a science-based public engagement activity without someone saying the word “evaluation” a million times over. And there are two good reasons why. Firstly, with so many different factors to consider when doing public engagement, we need evaluation to help us to know what works best. The second reason why evaluation is an obsession is because no-one has really cracked it. It’s hard to agree on what success looks like – is it ‘teaching’ thousands of people one new interesting science fact, is it persuading kids to study science, or is it convincing the public that science funding is all important?
With evaluation in mind, we recently took biology to a music festival, specifically the Green Man festival. With the majority of our public engagement activities taking place at science festivals, this was really a bit of an experiment for us. Instead of talking to people who had consciously chosen to come to an event to experience some science activities, we were talking to people who were there to see their favourite folk rock bands, and happened to stumble into the science area of the festival by mistake.
But of course, ‘accidental’ participants were not our only customers. We were also engaging with young families desperate to have some distraction for their kids, teenagers drinking cider for breakfast who had heard rumours about our giant tarantula, and the over 70s who were just happy to be alive. Our area was called the Love Zoo, based in and around a ‘love bus’, and with activities to attract all these different audiences: crafting balloon flies, asking adults to vote on their favourite animal mating ritual (the argonaut octopus and its detachable penis was the clear winner), pheromone games, live animals including the aforementioned tarantula, and we provided our own music, where our resident songwriter, David Urry, had people shouting ‘oxytocin’ at the top of their voice.
So how did it go? From a purely quantitative point of view, we were religious in the use of our clicker counter. We had over 1,100 people visit the Love Zoo, and over 100 signed up to hearing from us after the event. The average amount of time spent with us was far greater than that at a science festival – we had to occasionally make unsubtle hints that it was time to move on and make room for others. Which takes us to the qualitative: we did take photos, but in hindsight and if we’d had the resource, I would have filmed the entire four days and edited it down to a 10 minute film as tangible proof of the intangible: capturing the level of real excitement and enjoyment amongst the vast majority of our visitors, seeing the surprised faces of the people exclaiming ‘That was amazing!’ and the parents saying ‘This is the kids’ favourite thing in the whole festival!’; hearing the dirty cackles of laughter at learning about the seduction techniques of certain animals; the people who’d been recommended to come by their friends, and the people who hoped we would be back next year. That video would have been the most powerful evaluation tool of them all.
The Love Zoo (largely conceived by Penny Fletcher) was a collaboration between the Society of Biology, the Society for Endocrinology, and the Royal Veterinary College.