Setting up a project
As you start to think more seriously about your project, you’ll need to make decisions on all aspects of it.
Here are some considerations and suggestions that might help.
Setting and measuring objectives
Showing whether a project is having any impact is often very difficult, but by setting the right objectives in the first place you can make your life a lot easier. Consider setting SMART objectives. These are objectives that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. So ‘address the supply of scientists’ might become ‘increase the number of A Level physics students in Birmingham by 20% by the end of 2010’.
Whatever the objective, thought should be given to evaluating the outcome – how will you know you’ve achieved the objective? Recording visitor numbers, school numbers and number of role models is a good way of seeing what your reach is and can be good for publicity or headline statistics. However, numbers give no indication of the impact, if any, on participants.
Gathering qualitative feedback through questionnaires, focus groups and informal anecdotes will allow you to see if your project is affecting the behaviour and / or the attitudes of participants. It is worth spending time developing questions that will illicit the information that you’ll need to show if you’re project’s having the effect that you want it to.
Be clear what any quantitative objectives represent. A high target for the number of visitors could mean that you end up concentrating your efforts on visiting cities with large, easily accessible populations in order to meet the objective. But if your project is also trying to reach groups that are socially, economically, culturally or geographically isolated, a high target for visitor numbers could be self-defeating. Be up front with partners and funders about how you’ve addressed any potentially conflicting objectives.
Evaluation should always be used to identify areas of improvement. So always act on negative feedback and if you’re not achieving what you set out to, think of what changes you can make.
Having a clear and targeted audience makes everything much easier. Not only can you develop content and activities knowing that they are suitable for visitors, but visitors will know what to expect. If you plan to visit schools, then consider linking to a section of the relevant curriculum. Many mobile science projects do manage to target more than one audience, but the successful ones have a clear primary audience which takes precedence.
If you are linking to a specific curriculum make sure that you involve teachers in the design of your activities. This can be more time consuming initially and sometimes more expensive, but it is essential for ensuring that your activities will work with the target audience and that other teachers will support your project.
When you’re thinking about content, be clear what it is you want visitors to achieve during their visit. In general, hands-on workshop formats are much better than shows at engaging visitors. However, shows can accommodate more visitors so you may want to offer a combination.
When thinking about how to staff your project, one of the main questions will be whether to have permanent staff or volunteers. The advantage of the former is that you have someone reliable and professional who is always there, but permanent staff cost money. Volunteers attract little or no cost, but there are often issues with reliability. In addition, if your project is based in rural areas, there may not be enough suitable volunteers. One answer is to have a mix of volunteers and permanent staff, however, the roles need to be clearly defined so that volunteers do not feel they’re being taken advantage of.
Staff training is essential for a successful mobile science project. Permanent staff should be confident in their role and it is good practice to encourage staff to think about their own development needs. Staff and volunteers alike may need training in first aid, driving skills, working with children, the project’s activities and working with the media.
All new projects need time to gain momentum, but if a project is free then it can be surprising how rapidly demand can grow once word is out. Most projects have some kind of online presence which, although important, shouldn’t be relied upon to advertise your project.
Newspapers, radio and television can generate huge interest in a project so it is worth investing time and effort in trying to generate media attention but don’t neglect word of mouth, personal recommendations and peer networks. Many teachers will only book an activity after a colleague recommends it as a way of ensuring quality control.
Make sure that you have a clear procedure for managing bookings and the capacity to deal with all the requests you will receive. It is likely that the workload in dealing with emails and phone calls will be high but if you don’t deal with people promptly and efficiently, you may damage your project’s reputation.
Unsurprisingly schools prefer projects to come to them. Busing children off site can disrupt a whole school day, is expensive, and rural children will always be at a disadvantage. However, having a school as a venue has its own problems and you will need to consider issues of health and safety, insurance, class sizes, power, accessibility, and preparation time.
If your project is going to be visiting schools, take the time to work through the logistics of a typical visit with a group of teachers. You may be surprised at the issues they raise especially concerning the best way of contacting host teachers, how much notice is needed, and what facilities a school is likely to be able to provide. If you have restrictions to where you can visit, be clear about these so as not to raise expectations.
Mobile science projects vary in terms of their funding models. Many operate with a mixture of statutory funding, commercial sponsorship and funding from trusts or foundations. Fundraising is probably the biggest challenge facing mobile science projects so it is important that:
- You identify relevant sources of funding.
- Match your objectives with theirs.
- Approach them with a clear idea of what you want and what they will gain from the project.
- Consider the merits of in-kind support, e.g. staff time or help developing activities, which is often easier for companies to donate.
Different mobile science projects have different stances on whether they will charge for a visit. You’ll need to consider what’s important to your project, although it might be that in the end you don’t have any real choice but to charge in order to help cover costs.
Many schools won’t be able to pay for a visit, or if they do it will be at the expense of something else. Not charging removes barriers, but charging can lead hosts to value to project more highly. There is no single right answer.