By Lenka Janik Blaskova and Mélanie Gréaux, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

Do you ever feel that your PhD seems a little detached from the real world out there? Would you like to ‘make an impact’ earlier than your PhD research cycle is complete? If at least one of your responses is positive, you may want to consider public engagement as a means to fulfil some of these needs. Let us share a few of our lessons learned from organising a public engagement event at the Faculty of Education in November 2019.

There are many differences characterising our PhD projects, but Melanie and I quickly realised that we shared the most essential common goal: our intended impact. Ultimately, we both want our research projects to contribute to improving the quality of life of children with speech, language and communication needs. This shared passion led us to join the ‘Raising Awareness of Developmental Language Disorder‘ (RADLD.org) campaign together and become RADLD ambassadors.

We organised a free half-day workshop for parents, teachers, educators and speech and language therapists to share knowledge and best practice to support children with DLD. We aimed to answer questions such as ‘what are the common signs of DLD?’, ‘what are the risks to children’s developmental outcomes?’ or ‘how to support children with DLD to thrive?’ For example, did you know than around two to three children in an average UK classroom experience difficulties speaking or understanding language (Norbury et al., 2016), and that these difficulties can have long-lasting impact on emotional development and employability (Conti-Ramsden & Durkin, 2012; St Clair et al., 2011). [Note how we have learned to pass our key message E.V.E.R.Y.W.H.E.R.E 🙂]

Here, we would like to share our lessons learned in the process of organising:

1. Time demands

Putting the events together took a lot of our time. Planning the events almost 6 months in advance definitely helped with spreading the workload. We applied for a small grant from the ESRC, and succeeded in joining their Festival of Social Science. The application helped us put together initial ideas and timeline, which guided our next steps. During planning, we held weekly informal meetings to catch up on progress, kept a diary of the tasks to do and referred to it at all times. We also split the tasks to balance our PhD commitments.

2. Crisis management

In your planning, you cannot consider all the situations that could possibly go wrong. In our case, the parking ramp did not work on the day, one of our panellists did not show up, and even the coffee arrived too early and we did not have enough hot drinks for the break.

In those situations, we even more appreciated the help from our fellow PhDs, who volunteered to give us a hand on the day. When the unexpected happened and we were busy running the scheduled activities, our volunteers stepped in. They did make those extra jars of coffee, kept the visiting children entertained throughout the event, registered all visitors and kept them well-informed, and simply stepped in whenever it was necessary. If you are lucky like us, and have friends that you can count on, plan small jobs for them on the day. Ideally, you need to keep an extra pair (or two) of hands to step in, if the unexpected happens.

3. The two-way process of public engagement

When you are passing your message to your audience, the two-way nature of public engagement (as defined by the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, 2018) gives you an opportunity to learn from them as well. Your audience ask questions that may guide your work or lead to more beneficial engagement. In our case, some parents showed an interest in current research projects, and were keen for their children to participate. A different parent highlighted a gap in a policy, which we are following up with the vision to make life easier for the individuals with DLD.

4. Transferable skills

Organising the event we have gained opportunities to pick up skills that we can apply in other contexts, including the work on our PhD. For example, we learned to coordinate efforts as part of a team, which will be useful for future research projects delivered by groups or research centres. We harnessed the creative and technical skills we gained during an animation workshop to produce a short video to further promote the event. We were in touch with a communication expert to learn more about how to use social media effectively during PE events. We also practiced communicate professionally with speech and language therapists, which will pay off in our own PhDs (e.g. participant recruitment, disseminating our PhD findings,  professional networking).

5. Energy booster

As much as it takes a lot of your time and resources, the experience of public engagement event during your PhD can be an amazing energy booster. In addition to all the tasks and responsibilities, we enjoyed having fun in our regular meetings and quick over-a-coffee catching ups. When it felt as there were too many things happening in our PhDs and with the event, we had the benefit of supporting each other to get a perspective, prioritise tasks and see the bright side of it all. Sharing the enthusiasm when bouncing off ideas from one another transferred the energy into our PhD working days.

We consider the above areas as the key lessons we have learned in our experience of organising a public engagement event. They do take a lot of time and yes, they do require a lot of planning, but you know what? Based on the feedback and reactions that we received from the audience on the day, we feel that it was worth doing. In fact, we have been actively considering planning another event this year. After all, actively engaging with public shows you many ways that you can indeed make a difference even before you finish your PhD.

Note: here is a shout out to all who had supported us to succeed, namely Dr Jenny Gibson, Tina Basi, Alexandra James-Best, Dr Karen Forbes, Alison, our fellow PhD volunteers (Ana, Annie, Julie, Krishna, Tanya, Vicky), PEDaL, Facility and IT staff from the Faculty of Education (Patrick, Sue, Justin, Jon, Connor, Andrew)

References:

Conti-Ramsden, G., & Durkin, K. (2012). Postschool educational and employment experiences of young people with specific language impairment.(Clinical Forum: Language and Communication Disorders in Adolescents)(Report). Language, Speech, & Hearing Services in Schools, 43, 507.

National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (2018). What is public engagement? Retrieved from https://www.publicengagement.ac.uk/about-engagement/what-public-engagement

Norbury, C. F., Gooch, D., Wray, C., Baird, G., Charman, T., Simonoff, E., Vamvakas, G., & Pickles, A. (2016). The impact of nonverbal ability on prevalence and clinical presentation of language disorder: Evidence from a population study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57(11), 1247–1257. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.12573

St Clair, M. C., Pickles, A., Durkin, K., & Conti-Ramsden, G. (2011). A longitudinal study of behavioral, emotional and social difficulties in individuals with a history of specific language impairment (SLI). Journal of Communication Disorders, 44(2), 186-199. doi:10.1016/j.jcomdis.2010.09.004

Lenka Janik Blaskova is a PhD student at the PEDAL research centre in the Faculty of Education. Lenka is supervised by Dr Jenny Gibson and funded by the LEGO Foundation and Cambridge Trust. Her doctoral study explores the peer relationships and wellbeing of children with primary difficulties in language development. In a series of case studies, Lenka promotes participatory research to give voice to children in research about their social lives and social play.  Lb653@cam.ac.uk / @LenkaJBCam

Mélanie Gréaux is a PhD student at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. She is co-supervised by Dr Jenny Gibson and Dr Napoleon Katsos, and funded by the ESRC-DTP in collaboration with Autistica. Her doctoral project aims to foster more inclusive healthcare services for individuals at the intersection of communication disorders and linguistic and cultural diversity. More specifically, she will design and evaluate a cross-cultural e-learning programme for Speech and Language Therapists who support multilingual children with autism in India and the UK. mg696@cam.ac.uk / @MelG_SLT

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