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"Permission to apply" - High community engagement transforms lives

October 31, 2017

As the University looks forward to the new campus development on the Western Infirmary site it’s clearly important that we think very clearly about what we want that campus extension to achieve. One important aspect of the development, the concept of an Open Campus, should allow us to construct facilities that allow us to do more and do better with key stakeholders, such as policy makers and partners from the industrial, health and arts sectors. But what about everyone else?


The University’s two week co.lab makerspace + event, which was launched last week, aims to bring together students and other interested parties, such as funders, academics, and student mentors, to investigate and understand the diverse ways in which we can be creative, innovative, entrepreneurial and effect positive societal change. From my perspective, as Dean of Public Engagement, I’m delighted that one of co.labs four key themes is Community Engagement, something that is firmly embedded in the University’s recently published Knowledge Exchange and Innovation Strategy. But what is Community Engagement?


According to the National Standards for Community Engagement for Scotland website Community engagement is a purposeful process which develops a working relationship between communities, community organisations and public and private bodies to help them to identify and act on community needs and ambitions. It involves respectful dialogue between everyone involved, aimed at improving understanding between them and taking joint action to achieve positive change.


So good community engagement involves building long-term mutually beneficial relationships, creating opportunities and having a two-way dialogue. It is also about discovering what the various community groups are interested in and helping to raise expectations, preferably aspirations that might be met. A key part of this is that we must think strategically and listen.


It follows that good community engagement is absolutely NOT telling communities how wonderful we are and how wonderful they could be if only they were more like us.




There are of course many examples of excellent practice in community engagement from a variety of interested groups across the University, and over the last four years or so I’ve become involved in the Applications of DNA schools project initiated by Dr David Bhella, from the Centre for Viral Research on the Garscube campus and Sharon Macnab from Glasgow Science Centre.


One problem many schools face is in delivering practical classes in Higher and Advanced Higher Biology. Schools don’t really have the money to allow them to deliver high quality practical experience, but even if they did have the cash it’s hard to acquire the skills needed to use complex pieces of kit just once a year. So ten years ago David and Sharon developed Applications of DNA, a whole day experience of practical skills, ethics and careers advice hosted by Glasgow Science Centre.


Applications of DNA was very positively received by teachers and their students, but the laboratories at Glasgow Science Centre can only host 25 students at a time. So in 2016 we moved the event to the University’s Boyd-Orr Building where we can cater for 100 students. But how to the schools feel about the change, and do they feel the event has lost something as (at least until our campus extension is complete) it’s difficult to deny that Glasgow Science Centre has much better break-out space than us.


So, what do the teachers think about the move? Not surprisingly all the teachers and students still really like the mix of practical skills, ethics and career advice. However, they also loved the move to the University campus as many of the students had never visited the West End of Glasgow, let alone the University itself. The teachers were keen to describe the day as an aspirational experience, with one teacher stating she felt it gave her students permission to apply.


In many respects it seems extraordinary that young people living in the West of Scotland feel that they need permission to apply to us. However, the key point here is that high quality community engagement raises the prospect of transforming perceptions and transforming lives.

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creative opportunities laboratory

30th Oct - 10th Nov

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