Top Ten Tips: Ideas for formats for outreach/schools engagement work

Whether it’s part of a Widening Participation programme, community engagement drive or a partnership with local schools, your University will have some way of either sending its students and staff out to schools and FE colleges, or bringing pupils onto campus. Running these sessions can be a challenge (honestly, I bow to anyone who can engage 30 teenagers in double maths immediately after lunch), but immensely good fun – if a bit boisterous – when they go well. It’s a fine line between making workshops relevant, interesting and engaging; and being downright patronising – and teenagers are extremely able to let you know how deeply, deeply uncool they think you are.

So, if you’re thinking of getting into this kind of work, here’s my Top Ten ideas for session formats to get you started – the idea being that you can fit your content into a suggestion here for the way to deliver it. The aims for these events vary – it could be to serve as a subject taster session for sixth-formers making UCAS choices, it could be to supplement a GCSE or A-Level syllabus, it could be to promote the joys of your particular institution. If you’re asked to run a session as part of on open day, make sure you understand what the class should get out of your workshop and tailor your format accordingly.  All of these can, of course be used in HE seminar classes as well – but bear in mind the differing priorities of undergraduates coming to a seminar class as part of a formal scheme of learning vs a group of school-age pupils visiting.

The exact way you set up your session will depend on the size of the class and how long you have. Some I’ve run over a whole day, some for 45 mins; you should be able to adapt these ideas and go into more detail if you have more time. Another challenge is that usually you will not have met the class before, so be prepared to pitch your session up or down depending on the response – you could have 11-year-olds right up to adults on FE access courses. And as in a previous post, always have a “last five minutes” activity up your sleeve.

1. The Construction. Literally. Split the class into groups and get them to physically build something – out of lego, drinking straws, sheets of paper, loo rolls, anything. Obviously relatable to maths, engineering, architecture… but I’ve seen it work really well in the social sciences and philosophy: building a lego model that serves as an introduction to yourself, your school, your community. How about building a film or theatre set to illustrate a discussion about a book – which scene best represents the main theme? Could you build something that represents a piece of music? Last five minutes activity: who can build the tallest unsupported structure using only paper – i.e. no sticking materials.

2. The Detective. Set up a crime scene (physical or descriptive, but at least have a few props) and have the class solve the crime. The popularity of CSI, etc, means that a good murder mystery works well, or have a pathologist’s report and other clues to establish a cause of death. This is great for biological sciences and chemistry that can set up real lab tests on dummy samples, but how about doing a mathematical one involving a message in code that must be decrypted? A geographer could use maps with witness reports to work out whether a suspect could have committed the crime. Last five minutes activity: what qualities are needed for a good detective? Would anyone in the class qualify?

3. The Front Page.  Split the class into groups if necessary and get each group to assign roles (or just hand them out) – Editor, Sub-Editors, Reporters, Advertising Manager, Picture Editor, Photographer, Graphic Designer, Lawyer, Layout Editor, etc, depending on size.  Get them to produce tomorrow’s front page.  You can either use fictional stories (have a selection of Press Releases, etc, to use) or if you have IT access, the web is your oyster.  Either use a computer layout package or a traditional (literal) cut-and-paste.  The editor should make sure everyone sticks to their roles – reporters find the stories and write the articles, sub-editors edit them, photographers take (or find) the pictures, graphic designers produce charts and diagrams, the lawyer decides what you’ll get in trouble for saying, etc.  It’s good for media-related subjects and languages but you can also do it for particular topics, e.g. “what are the current issues in health?” and produce the front page – what is the headline, what pictures might go with it, who might want to advertise their services?  Last five minutes activity: depending on how mean you are feeling you could allow more time – but towards the end, announce a “breaking news” huge story that will scoop the front page and force them to re-format.

4. The Researcher.  Pick a topic – a news headline, a recent statistic – and get the class (either individually or in small groups) to plan a research project investigating it.  What is the background to the topic?  How will they gather their data?  How will they analyse it?  How will they present their results?  Who will want to know the outcomes?  You can do this with any subject area – present to the rest of the class at the end.  Last five minutes activity: get each group to pitch to a “funding council” (of you, some of their teachers, their peers…) and decide which (one) project should go ahead.

5. The Poster.  Possibly a combination of (3) and (4) above, get out the A1 paper and marker pens and get creative.  For younger classes, producing an educational poster on some aspect of teenage life has been done a zillion times, so how about something for a different demographic – elderly people, perhaps, or a different cultural group?  If you’ve done (4) earlier, explain how research posters at conferences work and see if they can produce one summarising their research plan.  Last five minutes activity:  hold a speed-dating poster view – go round each one and allow a one-minute pitch.  Vote for the best.

6. The Agony Aunt/Uncle.  This can be adapted to fit most fields and you do need to do a bit of prep in preparing the “letters” for the class to answer, either individually or collectively.  Try a historical perspective: “My colleagues don’t take me seriously, Rosalind Franklin”, etc; and look at discoveries made throughout history with a modern perspective.  It’s a good way to discuss the progress of science and technology, and ways to disseminate information.  Try writing a reply in the language of the time (perhaps a poet or playwright has writer’s block and needs some advice), or in a foreign language for ML sessions.  Try answering some letters from contemporary people – perhaps a government minister wants confidential advice on a matter of state, or a producer wants to know how to set his latest film.  Last five minutes activity: Consider the tone and language used and talk about styles of writing for different purposes.

7. The Game Show.  No need to explain!  My University apparently has a set of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire handsets that are borrowable although I haven’t tried yet… A Family-Fortunes-type thing is easy to set up by splitting the class into two “families” and playing against each other.  Do a maths one explaining how you can use probabilities and logic to improve your chances at winning Play Your Cards Right or picking the best option in Deal Or No Deal.  Use the rounds from Only Connect to explore links with literary themes.  Last five minutes activity: have a lightning round of quick-fire, ‘on the buzzer’ questions.

8. The First Impression.  This type of session is easily adaptable and requires fewer props.  Prepare a set of slides – 10-12ish is plenty – with a single thing on each one.  For example, a quotation, a painting, a statistic, a news headline, anything that fits your topic.  Show each slide for 10 seconds each with no commentary, and ask the class to note down anything that strikes them, any responses they have, positive or negative.  Ask who made notes for which slide and group them together if it’s a big class, or discuss as a whole if not – what did they notice?  Why is it interesting?  Do they agree/disagree?  Next give out copies of the slides (or show them again for longer) and ask them to look again – have their views been influenced by further consideration?  By their colleagues’ input?  What has changed?  Would they rather discuss a different slide now?  Why?  Last five minutes activity: this is a more sedate, after-lunch-type format, so end it by asking for their suggestions for what to put on the slides for the next time you do the session.

9. The Committee.  This is a good one for prompting debate so stay in control!  Again, split the class if you need to, then appoint them the Committee For Deciding Something.  This could be a government department, charitable trust, whatever, the main thing is, they have to agree on, say, a finite budget to allocate for a year.  Provide costings for different options, price lists for equipment, salary scales for staff, etc, and at the end of the session, a plan must be produced.  An extension of this is to allocate each person within the committee a particular role or viewpoint to argue – for example, setting a budget for a hospital, you could have the Chief Executive, Chief Medical and Nursing Officers, Financial Officers, patient representatives, etc.  On the Hanging Committee of an art gallery you could have people who prefer sculpture, modernism, old masters… and room for 20 works that form a coherent exhibition.  They can decide however they like but agreement must be reached.  Last five minutes activity: discuss who made the most noise?  Did it mean they got their way? Who were the peacemakers?  How much compromise was involved? How did they find arguing for a position (in the activity) that they may not hold in real life?

10. The Real World.  Great for sixth-formers and relatable for teenagers nearing the end of their school careers.  Give them brief info on either student loans or the national minimum wage (or both).  Collectively produce a list of potential monthly outgoings if living away from home.  Give them a selection of letting agency printouts showing a variety of properties for rent in the local area.  You can tailor this depending on how flexible you want to be but in the end they have to decide on where to live, how much to work, how much to spend on leisure activities, etc to balance a household budget.  Mostly a mathematical exercise, obviously, but can also be used to start a discussion on social science topics, health, life in general… Last five minutes exercise: whenever I’ve done this kind of thing it turns into a discussion on life after school in general – so be prepared to offer some of your own experiences or answer questions on budgeting for university/work life.

One last tip – if you haven’t noticed, schoolchildren are ridiculously competitive. Most of my last-five-minutes things are competitions (as well as several of the main activities) – for some reason, if you challenge them to do something better than their peers (or you!), it’s a real motivator for even the most Kevinish of teenagers.  If you’ve any suggestions to add, please do!

Hannah Perrin is an ESRC DTC Scholar and PhD student in Social Policy, and Assistant Lecturer in Health Policy at the University of Kent, with interests in clinical education and training, occupational socialisation and work transitions. She blogs about her research and HE topics at; or follow @HCPerrin.


One thought on “Top Ten Tips: Ideas for formats for outreach/schools engagement work

  1. Tom O'Bedlam

    Reblogged this on Hernhill Forum and commented:
    Courtesy of a colleague at work (via her blog), here are ten great ways of organising sessions in the classroom, and applicable for any number of situations where engaging children in an educational setting is key.


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