Public engagement and university teaching

Heather Rea What does public engagement have to do with university teaching ?




Of or concerning the people as a whole.


Ordinary people in general; the community.




1)      Occupy, attract, or involve (someone’s interest or attention).

2)      Cause someone to become involved in (a conversation or discussion).

In a research intensive institution it is a key tenet that research is important to quality learning. On top of this there is growing understanding of how public engagement is important for research and researchers. Having worked for four years in one of the Beacons for Public Engagement, and now the Beltane Public Engagement Network, this is where my expertise currently lies. I know that researchers who engage benefit not only from increased publicity for their work, but can also develop deeper understanding of their research questions when faced with the different perspectives of different publics, as well as benefiting from a host of softer or intangible outcomes.

But how can public engagement enhance teaching? Is there a place for the public in our lectures, tutorials and lesson plans?

In my experience there are two ways that public engagement can affect learning and teaching: through enhancing your teaching skill and by enriching the student learning experience.

Let’s start with the teaching skills.

By engaging with the public, researchers have the opportunity to develop some very transferrable skills:

  • Developing a presentation for school aged children will force you to think of some imaginative ways of explaining complex ideas, and ensure you address common misconceptions about your subject area.  It will also ensure you strip the jargon, and the confusion it can bring, out of your language (especially as you become aware of innuendos which can set young people off in fits of giggles).
  • When preparing for more adult audiences, as in a TED talk you can become aware of the importance and power of narrative in delivering messages.
  •  If you are brave enough to try your hand at the likes of Bright Club and have to deliver 8 minutes of stand-up comedy to a paying audience you will learn the art of reading your audience as well as the delight of making them laugh. All very useful in engaging a large lecture room in their latest lesson.
  • If your public engagement focuses on dialogue, you can develop the facilitating and listening skills for fostering productive small group working and student led learning.

What about public engagement’s effect on learning?

  • Through your engagement activities you will come across publics, or as I like to call them, people, with a great interest in your research and who may have a great deal of experience and expertise that they could share with your students.  Some of them may have real world problems for your students to work on and solve. And knowing you are working on a solution for a person rather than a theoretical problem can be a great motivator and confidence booster for students.  Queen’s University in Belfast run a “Science Shop” where community groups can propose projects and the “Science Shop” will find and manage students who undertake them as their final year projects.
  • How about getting your students to engage with the public, as we all know that teaching is a great way of consolidating our learning. For the less confident learner it can be a confidence booster to see how far they have come since they started their studies.

These are only a few of the benefits that I have seen work.  But I would be really interested to hear of your experiences and ideas too.  Comment below or email me at


Beacons for Public Engagement;

Beacons for Public Engagement

Beltane Public Engagement Network:

University of Edinburgh TEDx talks:

Bright Club Edinburgh:

QUB Science Shop:


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