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Public Engagement

Reflecting on 2020

Before we say goodbye to 2020, the CPE team thought it would be good to reflect on what has been a challenging year for many,  and take some time to send thanks to all across Queen Mary who have continued to share knowledge and work collaboratively with the public throughout.


In a year where COVID-19 and social distancing have been the main features, it's difficult to think back to January and February when these were just words rather than our realities. But in this time Before-COVID (BC) we had such an exciting couple of months!

In January the Organ-on-a-Chip Technologies Network had their grand opening of the 'Organ on Chips Shop' at Science Museum Lates-- serving over 200 hungry customers who got to take their own minature organ on a chip keyring to take home. You can read more about their experience here on their blog.

We caught up with our eight Large Grant projects that were well-underway-- with collaborations established and a packed calendar of activities coming up. The 'Promoting engagement with end-users in disability research' project had started working with AbilityBow on testing the robotic wheelchair ahead of competing in Cybathlon 2020, and 'The Big Science Question' project had started their exploration into bringing citizen science into the classrooms of east London (more on that in a blog coming soon!)

Meanwhile in the CPE, we were deep into the planning of our fifth Festival of Communities. We had so many people popping in for a chat at our Festival Advice Surgeries with all manner of amazing ideas for the weekend and were encouraged that so many people in Queen Mary and in local community organisations wanted to be part of it. We were certain we were on course for our biggest and best Festival yet.

In March, a month where Queen Mary joined the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was fantastic to see staff and students respond to local needs and support the communities closest to home. In a collaboration between the School of Medicine and Dentistry and the Faculty of Science and Engineering, we saw the launch of an initiative to create and distribute 3D-printed visors for frontline staff at the Royal London Hospital. The Queen Mary Catering Team worked with Tower Hamlets Council to provide free hot meals to local families across the Easter and October half-terms. The Queen Mary Technicians Network rallied around and collected any remaining PPE at Queen Mary to donate St Joseph's Hospice in Hackney.

Whilst some of our Large Grants had to pause their activities, some projects took their work into online spheres to support their communities during these uncertain times. The 'Green Screening Workshop' team have now created a whole bank of open-source resources on their website for people across the world to be able to use the participatory performing arts and interactive technology approaches to allow stroke survivors to explore new physical and social identities. The 'Decorating Dissidence' sent out a number of craft packs to the young people they'd been working with and continued their crafting workshops in the online world, the results of which you can see as part of their 'Take Dada Seriously' website.

The cancellation of the Festival, although heartbreaking to us, was not all loss. We were then able to launch the Community Engagement Activities Fund which allowed the development of new activities for next year as well as hyper-local, socially distanced projects during the Lockdown. One such project was the 'Felting Mask Workshop' run by Jessica Jacobs in Geography to explore how society was changing under COVID-19 through examining the role of masks in our lives (again, more on that in a blog coming soon-- but you can have a sneak peek at some of the masks here).

Centre of the Cell also came to keep us all entertained during lockdown through launching their at-home weekly challenges. Based on their shows, the team provided us with a whopping seventeen challenges to help families explore science at home-- which are still all available here if you're looking for something to keep you busy over the winter break...

Our commitment supporting the arts and culture across east London continued throughout the year. The Season of Bangla Drama moved online for the first time; artists and community arts groups partnered with academics to reimagine life beyond COVID-19 as part of the new Queen Mary Conversations initiative which we ran in collaboration with the Arts & Culture team, and this creative thinking continued as part of the Being Human Festival, which saw Queen Mary staff and students explore topics ranging from the cultural history of reproduction to the legacies of colonialism-- both of which will soon be available online for you to re-live if you missed out!

Being Human Festival also offered us the opportunity to reflect on some of the more 'human' experiences of COVID-19 through the 'COVID-19 in 2020: Apart But Together' exhibition which had over 100 artworks submitted and displayed outdoors on the Queen Mary campus. You can also explore these artworks, and the thoughts behind them, on their online exhibition here.

And we’ve seen incredible efforts across Queen Mary and Barts NHS Trust to administer a COVID-19 vaccine trial, helping to ensure that everyone can have access to different types of vaccines that work for all. COVID-19 has severely affected people in east London, and researchers have worked tirelessly to ensure that vaccine trials are accessible to our diverse communities, supporting people from all ethnicities, minorities and health groups to participate and contribute to a new vaccine.  

These projects represent a fraction of the exceptional work across the University to continue to engage with the issues that matter most to society.  

Looking to the future

Public engagement can be challenging at the best of times, and this year’s NCCPE Engage Conference shone a light on the sheer complexity of the world we are now operating within. Not only has the COVID-19 crisis exacerbated the existing and critical issues of racial inequality, political tribalism and the climate emergency; it has highlighted just how vital it is to engage with and work in partnership across society. 

But there were also moments of inspiration. We were particularly struck by the words from Dawn Austwick OBE, CEO of the Big Lottery Fund, emphasisng the importance of responding to what matters most to communities – not what’s the matter with them. And Vidhya Alakeson, Chief Executive of Power to Change, explored how universities can support communities post-COVID-19 through community wealth building-- something that as a team we're incredibly passionate about, and hope you are too.

This is why we're already looking at how the CPE can support our Queen Mary community to continue meaningfully engaging throughout 2021. We've got a number of things already in the diaries which you might be interested in:

Finally, thank you for your dedication and commitment throughout this challenging year. We hope you have a restful break and we look forward to working together in 2021.  


Emily, Sarah B, Sarah G and Natt

The Centre for Public Engagement 



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