By Emma Slater, Public Engagement Producer, Imperial College London

It’s the beginning of February 2021 and I’ve just hit ‘leave meeting’. I’m making the face I make when something I’ve just been a part of feels so meaningful that I might burst. We’ve just finished our first workshop with 10 of the most vulnerable young people in our local community. One young person, who has chatted with a researcher for 45 minutes says “I think about things like this all the time, but don’t have anyone to talk to about them with”. Heart full - it’s all worth it.

Rewind to December 2020 and we’ve just changed, replanned and postponed our ‘UKRI/UKSFN: Bringing young people and researchers together’ project for about the third time. The events of the past year have exhausted our community partner who is trying to make sure his young people have enough food to eat. He’s worried about the rise in the number of mental health-related issues he’s seeing in his group.

Rewind even further. It’s the Summer of 2020 and we’re about to get our planned series of music-based workshops rolling. Over a series of sessions, we’ll be exploring ‘futures’ with young people, Imperial College London researchers and rapper, Consensus. We’re excited about this creative melting pot and celebrating what had been created with everyone involved at the end.

Sadly, our music project didn’t happen in the way we had planned over the autumn. Our main challenge was an (understandable) reluctance from young people for online participation in any format, which worsened over time. Our community partner reported that their group felt self-conscious and fed up.

We caught up with our community partner on the phone regularly, just to chat about this and that. Aside from finding it really useful to understand how youth clubs work and their challenges, I wanted them to understand that we really cared, and that we’d still want to chat even if we weren’t actively running a project.

It was in one of these chats that they mentioned an art session they’d recently run for some of their most vulnerable young people. This was a version of a young person led, entrepreneurial project we’d talked about a while before: young people working with local artists, to design, customise and then re-sell trainers. The project was being cut for financial reasons, but they wanted to continue it to help those struggling with their mental wellbeing.

Our aim was always for our commitment to these young people to be long term, and it was important that we were there to help when it was needed. Together we came up with a way to run the project and remotely include Imperial researchers in these COVID-secure, in-person workshops. Now, throughout February, Imperial researchers will be chatting with the group about science, inspiring the creation of trainers customised with their work and conversations in mind. We’re only one session in, and I’m sure there will be unexpected challenges and things we might need to change, but I’m still really proud that we’ve managed to get this off the ground.

I’m really grateful for the British Science Association’s support throughout this fairly dramatic (and last minute!) pivot in another direction. As a result, 20-30 of the most vulnerable young people in our community are joining us for conversations and creativity with researchers, and our community partners are better able to support their user’s mental health.

So, back to the end of that first session I mentioned at the start. That ‘heart full’ moment was an accumulation of important reminders: how important it is to work with underrepresented and underserved young people, how resilient and joyful our community is, how essential it is to take the time and have a chat, and for me personally, why I do this job.

What are ‘UKSFN learning curves’ blogs about?

Since 2017 the UK Science Festivals Network, with funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI),  has supported its members to bring young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and researchers together. The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed how people can interact with each other. Science festival practitioners have had to re-think their approaches, particularly for audiences who do not necessarily see science as for them.

For this year’s round of UKRI funding, we wanted to support UKSFN members to innovate for the target audience in this new space. What resulted is a real mix of projects ranging from digital game development, to urban design, virtual dance movement workshops and lots of other interactive (and government guideline friendly) activities. To aid reflection amongst ourselves and the wider engagement sector, we will share learnings from this year’s funded projects as and when they happen. Blogs written by grant recipients from across the country will be published until all have been delivered in February 2021.