Over the last 30 years we in The Queen’s University Belfast Science Shop have been fortunate enough to learn from people with a passion for change both in Northern Ireland and across the world.
Collaboration has been at the heart of everything we’ve done which is why we are so delighted to be recognised by Advance HE with the first Collaborative Award in Teaching Excellence received in Queen’s University Belfast (QUB). This award is not just for us but for all those we have collaborated with across the last 30 years – in Northern Ireland our community and voluntary sector partners, academic staff and students in Queen’s University Belfast, our sister Science Shop in Ulster University and indeed the Department for the Economy who have resourced us through Higher Education Innovation Funding. It also recognises all of the development work we have done with our wider community of practice across Ireland, the UK, Europe and beyond.
Collaborating with communities
At the very heart of our collaborations are community and voluntary sector organisations across Northern Ireland. So much knowledge is held in communities, about everything from the natural environment to government policy to the experiences of local people. These organisations are almost invariably under-resourced for the level of work they are delivering. This is where a Science Shop project can help, bringing in a student or student(s) to do a piece of research collaboratively with them.
Our starting point for us is asking community organisations what kinds of research they want. This is different from the more traditional university engagement approach which is to go out to communities with a research plan already in place. This means that we offer a huge breadth of research questions – everything from deep dives into medical statistics to look at multimorbidity to the cost of installing solar panels on a community building; from developing a business plan for online retail as part of a fundraising strategy to looking at gender equality policy in sports. We work with community organisations to define their research question in a way that can fit as a curriculum-based student research project.
Collaboration in the University
We collaborate with academics to embed community research questions into degree programmes. Often this will be as a dissertation-type piece – and QUB now offers consultancy projects instead of dissertations at both undergraduate and masters level. But sometimes topics can be built into an individual module or course as well.
Once the projects are agreed with academics, we work directly with students. We help to prepare them for working with local communities, encouraging them to start thinking in practical terms about how they will approach the research. We host a meeting where the community organisation, student and supervisor collaborate to tie down project details. We underpin the process start to end, making sure that the student submits the project to their partner at the end and evaluating the process with all parties.
We have gradually grown our base in the university, from initially working with a small number of social science dissertation students to now working with academic staff in 13 of the 15 QUB Schools. Between 2019-22, during the Covid-19 pandemic, we worked with 830 students across 63 academic pathways. We worked with 88 community organisations right across Northern Ireland, including 32 new partners, designing 210 projects and completing 171 projects.
Of course, not every project is a success. We have a lot of experience of things going wrong – people get sick, loved ones die, research doesn’t work out as expected. We are honest with all parties that there are no guarantees with a community engaged research and learning project. In particular we are also open with community partners that they will see a benefit over time but not necessarily with every individual project. We also have lots of experience in working to mitigate the impact of problems and in harvesting learning from them.
But it also goes right a lot of the time. Our partners get small scale pieces of research they wouldn’t otherwise have time to do themselves and they get to share the issues that matter to them with a new generation coming through. Students come to appreciate the depth and breadth of knowledge held in local communities. They also come to understand how their own specialist disciplinary expertise and their ability to focus deeply on a piece of research can bring a useful resource to the community they are working with. They understand the importance of research as an engaged process not just as a technical exercise. They understand impact.
Collaborative learning in European projects
Much of our development work has been done alongside European partners and funded through the European Commission. This funding firstly enabling us to make the case (now widely accepted across Europe and beyond) that engaged research with communities is important, then to develop curricula for engagement through the €1.5m EnRRICH project and then to support academics to develop their own skills to underpin community engaged research and learning projects as part of the €390k Erasmus + Strategic Partnership Project CIRCLET. Most of this collaboration is done through the Living Knowledge Science Shop Network (and if you’re wondering where the Science Shop name comes from it is a literal translation from the Dutch ‘wetenschapswinkel’).
Next up is working with European partners on a new Mission Soil project called LOESS – Literacy boost through an Operational Educational Ecosystem of Societal actors on Soil health. We are currently building a UK community of practice of people who are passionate about soil education. If this sounds like you, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
To find out about Science Shops and community engaged research and learning, check out Queen’s University Belfast Science Shop, the Living Knowledge Science Shop Network and CIRCLET websites for more information and resources. If you want an immersive experience, the Living Knowledge Network’s next big conference will take place in Girona from 26-28 June 2024 and will be preceded by a Science Shop Summer School.