Clever Microbes (Chem Eng)

Ikhlaas Kasli from Chemical Engineering is the winner of the Alice Roberts’ 2015 prize for public engagement as part of the Postgraduate Certificate in Advanced Research Methods and Skills (PGCARMS). Read his case study below. Congratulations on your prize Ikhlaas!

 

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Ikhlaas Kasli – ‘Clever Microbes’

I planned and performed a public engagement exhibit at the Thinktank Science Museum called ‘Clever Microbes’. I wanted to determine what the public perception of microbes (such as bacteria and yeast) was and also demonstrate how microbes are useful to us in a variety of applications such as the production of food (e.g. bread, salami and cheese), drinks (e.g. beer and wine) and therapeutics (e.g. insulin and human growth hormone).

The exhibit included incorporated hands on activities and posters to engage the audience. The first activity allowed the public to grow bakers’ yeast, a process similar to that used in beer and bread making which showed how common microbes were. The second activity involved the separation of the dyes from M&Ms by thin layer chromatography, a similar technique to that used in industry to purify therapeutics that are made in microbes.

kasli

Planning

I started by setting my aims, where I decided to learn about the public perception of microbes and demonstrate how they can be useful. I wanted to talk to an audience with a varied age range, in order to see how perceptions of microbes changed with age. This made the Thinktank an ideal location to communicate with young children, their parents and often their grandparents. From there I planned the activities with this age range in mind. I used real life applications of microbiology to things which mattered to my audience to facilitate this. This meant talking about pizza dough and toppings with children, whilst focussing on beer and therapeutics with adults.

Practicalities

I have found that it is easy to underestimate the the number of practicalities when planning a public engagement event. This includes, but is by no means limited to: Deciding on the location; Recruiting visitors to your event; Recruiting volunteers to help you run it; Acquiring funding to pay for materials you require; Purchasing the materials required; Optimising the activities to make sure they run well on the day; Completing risk assessment forms.

Reflection

I found almost all aspects of planning and running this activity enjoyable. The least enjoyable part was trying to get funding for the activity whilst the most enjoyable part (by far!) was doing the activity itself, where I saw the efforts in planning pay off. It is incredibly rewarding when children and parents thank you, saying that they had learnt a lot with beaming smiles on their faces. I found that reflection really benefited my evaluation. I did this by looking at my aims and considering the simplest way this could be measured. It is important to make sure visitors actually complete your evaluation (online questionnaires for visitors to complete after the event rarely works!), so it needs to be simple to complete yet informative for your evaluation.

Evaluation

My evaluation consisted of two parts, one completed by my volunteers and the other by the visitors. As the volunteers were people I knew well (and could chase up to get responses from), they were given a questionnaire where they were asked what they perceived the public attitude to microbes to be. The visitors were asked if they could name three ways in which microbes are useful to us. To answer, they were given a sticker which they could place into one of three columns:

  1. Yes
  2. No,
  3. Yes, but I couldn’t before today too.

Each column was split into two rows, for people of different age groups (16+ and <16) to place their sticker in. In addition, male and female visitors were given different colour stickers to allow the evaluation to see differences between genders too.

What did I learn?

I learnt that before visiting the activities, adults generally named infectious disease as a negative consequence of microbes with, however, were unable to mention a beneficial consequence despite believing that there probably were some that they couldn’t name.

From talking with the children, I found that it is very difficult to engage with children under 3 since they did not know what microbes, bacteria or yeast were and that the learning curve was too steep for them in such a short period of time. Most importantly, the volunteers and I learnt that public engagement is a very fun and rewarding experience.

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