Over the last two years we have had the pleasure of working with a wonderful group of students from the University of Oxford on the Maths in the City project. In fact, as you will have no doubt realised from our previous posts about the project, these student volunteers have been vital to the success of the project. Over the last two years they have:
- come on maths hunts in London and Oxford to take pictures and get ideas for mathematical sites;
- created mathematical sites as examples for a public competition;
- brainstormed new ideas for the tours and developed existing ideas further in workshops;
- helped out at a competition event, engaging with visitors and assisting with the inaugural the tours;
- trained as guides, learning storytelling and communication skills as well as the content of the tours;
- lead 35 tours (reaching around 450 people): 31 for the general public, 3 for school groups, one for university students and one for university alumni;
- provided feedback on tours, suggesting improvements in their design and content;
- and used social media to promote the project and interact with the growing community, enabling us to reach an audience of over 2,000 people on Twitter and around 500 people on Facebook (this online community meant many tours were filled within days of being announced through our website and social media).
We were very fortunate to be able to build on the success of M3, the group of volunteers founded by Marcus du Sautoy to visit schools and science festivals promoting mathematics. The core group of these students that were actively involved in Maths in the City grew from eight students in 2010 to around twenty in 2011.
In order to make the most of the time and enthusiasm of these volunteers, we discovered it was important to keep the following things in mind over the course of our project:
- Availability: We had to accommodate their schedules and manage expectations of how much time they could contribute during busy periods in the university calendar (eg. most were busy with exams in Trinity (summer) term) and holidays.
- Travel costs: It’s not fair to expect students to pay for travel between cities for all elements of the project (workshops, training, as well as the tours themselves). This restricts access to the project for some potential volunteers.
- Reminders: The students are very reliable but they do have busy lives. We put in place a system of reminders, checking they were aware of upcoming events they were involved with (say a fortnight before and again a few days before), sending all necessary information (eg. meeting place, time, expected participants, tasks for the day).
- Backup system: It’s good to build in some redundancy, for example having three volunteers for each tour if you really only need two so it doesn’t matter if someone drops out but this wasn’t always possible. We were lucky enough to have paid staff who were always available to back students up if one of them was unable to run the tour.
- Use their strengths: The students were very happy to work hard in the workshops and other events but didn’t necessarily have time between events to work individually on the project. We focussed on priming them for a workshop or event with material they could use on the day but designing the workshop so it didn’t matter if they hadn’t been able to read the material beforehand. We realised their strength was generating ideas in a workshop, which the project team then developed into full resources that the students would go on to use on the tours.
Some of the previous points are specific to a project that requires volunteers to travel to and run events. We’ve learned, however, that there are some factors that would help any volunteer-based project succeed. Here are our top tips for making the most of your volunteers…
- Emphasise what they will get out of the project: As well as asking them to help us we also made it clear what they would gain from their involvement – communication skills, experience in public engagement and science communication and an excellent addition to their CV.
- Have them involved from the ground up: Some of the students have been involved in the project from the very first meeting. We have tried to involve them in as many aspects as possible and kept them informed of how the project as a whole was developing, as well as the parts they were involved in. Not only did this build their expertise, which was a great benefit for their and other student’s involvement in the project, but it also created a sense of ownership of the project for the group of volunteers.
- Give them ownership: We fully supported their growing sense of ownership. They we acknowledged at all times, on all material, as being a core part of the project, we asked for, and responded to, their feedback.
- Let them jump in at the deep end: After giving them initial training, we made sure they felt fully supported. For example the week before the initial run of pilot tours a team member and the kit were available every afternoon for practice runs. We also gave them the project mobile and help numbers to call so they felt like they had backup on the day. Then the project team essentially stepped back and handed the responsibility over to them – they lead the tours themselves with very little assistance from the project team. Expecting the best of them seemed to give the students confidence which grew each time they worked face-to-face with the public.
- Use peer to peer teaching: After initial training workshops, the best way of training new guides has been to team them up with an experienced guide and learn from them on the job. Not only has this meant we can continue to deliver tours while taking on new guides, it seemed to give both the experienced and inexperienced guides confidence in their abilities.
- Have a variety of involvement: Students could volunteer at any time during the project, they could attend and contribute to any of the workshops and they could volunteer to lead or just assist on tours or to join our online team. This meant that people could be involved in whatever way felt most comfortable for them and for whatever time they could contribute. And often once someone was involved in one aspect (say attending workshops or assisting on tours) they gained the confidence to participate in other ways.
- Say thank you: We regularly acknowledged, individually and as a group, the efforts of the volunteers involved.
- Let them eat cake: We provided snacks and drinks at workshops and meetings wherever possible. We also covered their lunch on the days they ran tours (they could claim up to £8 in expenses). Although this might seem a frivolous thing to include in a budget this was an important part in the success of our volunteer team. It encouraged people to come to meetings, particularly when they ran over lunchtime or in the evenings. Providing snacks and drinks also creates a positive atmosphere around the project as it is a physical manifestation of our respect for the volunteers and a recognition of their efforts and commitment to the project. We couldn’t have done it without them.
This is part of a series of blog posts which discuss our approaches to public engagement on the topics of; teaching/public delivery of complex material, what makes the public participate in public engagement initiatives and using social media for public engagement. There’s also an intro post that gives an overview of the Maths in the City project.
This post was written by Rachel Thomas, Public Engagement Officer for Maths in the City.