Working on Workshops

30 Dec

It’s been a very long time since I posted but the ol’ PhD work has been catching up with me of late (I’m now in my fourth and final year –eek!). I do want to put out a series of posts about some workshops I ran back in October though, before the final months in lab and the writing up takes hold.

The workshop was funded by the Biochemical Society and involved several small but exciting Biology practicals coupled with short videos of people who’ve studies Bio-sciences (see this earlier post). The aim of the workshop was to enthuse students about science and help them see a link between a subject they enjoy, higher education and a possible real world career. The students competed for points and during the activities and the team at the end with the most points won.

During the introduction I wanted to challenge the view of what a scientist looks like so I got the groups to describe a typical scientist. In every workshop, with a bit of directed questioning, each group described the carton on the right. scientist stereotype and nickI explained that scientists don’t look like this. Then showed a picture of my friend @Nick_A_Johnson (with his permission of course) and that got a laugh. More importantly though I wanted to make the point some scientists do have crazy hair and glasses but equally some don’t. Some are fat, some are thin. Some are old, some are young. It doesn’t matter what you look like or who you are – it’s your ability to think and enjoy science that matters. I then went on to point out they would see lots of different types of people who studied science in the videos throughout the workshop and this would also help them get an idea of some of the jobs available for those who go into Biology.

There were several activities in the workshop, which I will post about individually in case you want to try them, but here I will highlight a few things I learnt while running this style of workshop:

Workshops have a different atmosphere when you’re in school.

I’m used to running workshops and sessions in the university or museum, where you’re on your own turf. Often as a result the students are a little out of their comfort zone and impressed by their surroundings. The upshot is they’re much more likely to behave. I didn’t have any huge behaviour issues in my sessions but I soon realised the students are a bit more relaxed and a lot more chatty when you’re in their territory (school) and I needed to approach things slightly differently.

Advice: If you’re in a similar position (i.e. a researcher going out into schools to run a workshops or activity) establish the rules at the start of the session. Something that worked well for me was to tell the students at the start of the session that when I raised my arm I needed them to be quiet and listen for instructions. If they couldn’t hear the instructions then we wouldn’t get through as much fun stuff. Whenever I did this, students would see and tell their team mates to be quiet. I did plan on deducting points for teams that were talking but luckily the arm up technique worked really well and it never came to that

Start the session with your strongest activity

This sound like a no brainer, but in my first session I saved my favourite activity until the end as a treat. What I realised was that the students were the most animated and enthusiastic during this activity and if I had put it at the start it would have really set a nice tone for the rest of the workshop. I changed the running order for the following workshops and it really made a difference. The students were equally enthusiastic about some of the later activities that were less hands-on because their attitude to the whole workshop was very positive.

Advice: If you’re doing a workshop with lots of activities pick your strongest activity and put it at the start of the session. Also, don’t talk for too long at the start – get them up and doing something. If the students have to sit and listen for too long they might zone out. Obviously you need an introduction and a background to the science, but you can go into further detail and engage the students in discussion throughout the workshop. I find a ten minute introduction with plenty of questions to keep the students engaged usually works well.


I do think there are some things that are incredibly difficult to evaluate from a one off workshop, particularly in relation to long lasting effects upon students’ perceptions of science and HE. There are however, really practical things you can get pointers on. For example, after my first workshop the feedback was that there were too many videos (seven in total originally) and that the last activity was their favourite. This meant I had feedback I could put into practice and improve the workshop. I reduced the number of videos in subsequent workshops and as a result the feedback about them changed to become very positive. In my experience negative feedback is almost always constructive and can be really helpful. Plus any positive feedback you might get is always lovely to read!

I also found when evaluating the students’ opinions on things like HE and science I should have used more close ended questions, where you pick an option, rather than open ended questions where you write an opinion. Using the latter meant although they were interesting, the answers were difficult to analyse.

Advice: Evaluate as much as possible and put the feedback into practice. Think carefully about the questions you’re asking beforehand and how you’ll be able to use the answers.

So I think that’s everything I can think of in terms of general things I’ve learned from running the outreach workshops. The workshops were so much fun to run and the students seem to really enjoy them. I would strongly encourage anyone who is interested in going into schools to get involved – most schools are really happy when researchers are willing to come out to them. If you’re interested in funding an activity both the Biochemical Society (click here) and Physiology Society (click here) offer funding for these types of events.

All of this post is based on my personal experience and different approaches work for different people. So do you have any experiences and advice you’d like to share? Comment below!


One Response to “Working on Workshops”


  1. Mini-Beasts Microbiology Activity « biofluff - January 20, 2013

    […] activity was part of the workshops I ran back in October and it was my favourite practical in the session. During the workshops each […]

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