Pair a Community Leader and a local researcher. Support them to learn about each other and discover mutual interests. The outcome? The Community Buddy programme, creating meaningful science engagement projects and long-lasting relationships between communities and researchers.

In 2020, we piloted our Community Buddy programme, pairing 14 Community Leaders with local researchers to spark new ideas and drive innovative, community-led science engagement. Any projects or ideas that developed were entirely up to them!

So, how did it go? We asked a Community Buddy pair about their experience.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves? 

Gemma: I'm an Education Officer at a small china clay mining museum down in Cornwall called Wheal Martyn Clay Works. I've been working with [the British Science Association] for a few years. Initially through delivering British Science Week activities with school groups and community groups at the museum. I then became a Community Leader and in the last few months, joined the Community Buddies scheme with Katharine, which has been a really interesting experience. 

Community LeaderGemma Martin, Education Officer at Wheal Martyn Museum

Katharine: I'm a professor at the University of Plymouth at the School of Art, Design and Architecture. So, the first thing I should say is, I'm not officially a “scientist”. I'm actually an architect by training. But I do a lot of work with technologies and space, specifically how to engage people with technologies and how it can enable them to visit or access spaces. The Community Buddy Scheme is the first contact I'd had with the British Science Association. I've been involved in lots of engagement type work with other organisations, but not with a BSA before. So, this was entirely new to me. After I signed up for the programme, I was paired with Gemma at the Wheal Martyn museum, which is about, 30 minutes from where I am but I hadn't actually been to the museum before we linked up as Buddies. One of the great things I’ve found is the chance to find out more about the museum that Gemma works in.

Researcher - Katharine Willis, Professor of Smart Cities and Communities at the University of Plymouth 

One of the core concepts of this programme is relational training. How did you find using relational meetings in general and with the Buddy programme?

Katharine: From my point of view, I have experience with similar ways of working before. I'm involved in a funding project, and we have a buddy scheme as part of that. So, the process of doing the “buddying” was not too unfamiliar. And I think it's interesting that in many of the projects I’ve been involved with, you've got to deliver something. But with relational meetings, you start off without any particular agenda. It was just a chat and there wasn't any pressure on doing anything, particularly if it didn't work. Relational meetings were a nice base point to literally just find out more about each other's work, what we both do and things like that.

Gemma: It was really quite a new way of working for me, actually. I'm in a museum, which is a charity—it's quite a small charity. We rely on funding grants to keep us going. And with that funding, there's always specific targets to be working on. So going into this concept of building a relationship, seeing how you connect and developing from there was a really nice way to work. It really should be how work is done, rather than being driven by the targets that were written at the start of a project three years ago. It's a great way for me to explore new ideas, new concepts, and sort of open my mind up to fresh ideas that I would never have perhaps, contemplated.

What have you found to be successful in being part of the Community Buddy programme?

Gemma: The most positive, successful side of this is partnering with Katharine. I've learned so much through her skills, expertise and enthusiasm for the area that she works in. The project we've started to develop explores immersive technologies, and how they can enable us to reach new audiences at Wheal Martyn Clay Works. I previously didn't know anything about immersive technology - I didn't even really understand what some of those words meant! So, Katharine's really opened my eyes up to something entirely new.

Katharine: We have a strategy at the University called a ‘civic university strategy’, which is about the benefit that we, as academics, give to the world beyond academia, and making sure that we do that meaningfully and responsibly. So, from my point of view, success is having the opportunity to work with Gemma and to bring some benefit, hopefully, to Wheal Martyn and apply our research thinking into new settings.

And personally, I've really got on with Gemma. We've enjoyed talking to each other. I also get to visit the amazing museum and learned a lot more about something which was fairly local to me.

On the flip side of that, have you faced any challenges? Could you tell us a bit about those challenges?

Katharine: Like lockdown? [laughter] I have managed to get to visit Gemma once when we went in and out of lockdown.

To some extent, the challenge was also an opportunity because we were talking about immersive technology and other ways to visit and experience the museum. So actually, some of that rationale for why that might happen became more real. But we ran a workshop with school kids, and we had to think about how we were going to do that remotely. We had to figure out how to get the equipment to them (sending out lots of packages!). It's been a challenge but we found ways around it.

Gemma: I suppose I did find it quite challenging not having a specific outcome that we had to achieve. As the British Science Association didn't say “by the end of this project……at the end of March… we would like you to have done this” Not having that defined goal, personally was a bit daunting, as I suppose I approach things quite scientifically. Normally I get my Excel spreadsheets out and that sort of thing. Not having that was quite a different way to work. But once I got over that, it was actually really refreshing.

Are there any other learnings that you’d like to share about your experience in the Community Buddy programme?

Katharine: One thing I found quite interesting was running education projects that don't link with the university, seeing that there is still a common agenda. We know we're both educating the people who live in our local area. So, perhaps finding better mechanisms for these linkups to happen would be good.

Gemma: Going into the Buddy programme it's really important to remain open-minded and just allow conversations to circulate and come back around. Katharine and I had quite a few Zoom chats with each other where we kind of went in circles and then finally, we were able to move forward with a plan. Just through chatting with each other, we finally found common ground that we felt we could move forward with but it took quite a few conversations.

My last question is what’s next for you and your Buddy? Do have any next steps in the works?

Gemma: As Katharine's covered, so far we have looked at immersive technologies at Wheal Martyn. Katharine has put me in touch with a local business who can carry out 3D scanning on our site. So, we're really hoping this is going to develop into a larger project for us both in terms of developing some fantastic immersive resources at Wheal Martyn but also working with Katharine, the University and possibly even some students at the University as well. So, we're hoping it's going to grow!

Katharine: I'm thinking about a piece of research looking at how we can make space more accessible for people with hidden disabilities, or those who find it challenging to visit the museum through immersive technology. Hopefully, we can build on it and Wheal Martyn can become a case study for how to do that.

Read more about the Community Buddy programme and the rest of the British Science Association’s community engagement work. Learn more about relational meetings in this blog post by Froilan Legaspi from Citizen’s UK.