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The University of Southampton
Public Engagement with Research

Dark Energy Pilot

The Dark Energy pilot project engaged local home-educated children (4-13 years of age) and their parents with the Dark Energy Survey (DES) research within Physics & Astronomy.


getting creative with Dark Energy
getting creative with Dark Energy

Project Lead

Dr Sadie Jones, Astronomy Public Engagement and SEPnet Outreach Officer 


The idea for this project came about as a way of working more closely with the local community in Southampton, with the potential for long-term relationship building via a series of regular interventions – rather than the one-off interactions typically enabled by our Astrodome programme.  (STFC consolidated grant funding to engage the public with Dark Energy Survey research provided some resource.)  We wanted to excite the young people about astronomy by using one of the biggest mysteries in astronomy - Dark Energy! We wanted them to appreciate that science as a whole still has many unanswered questions, and that in today’s society it is important to question things, to do our own research from several sources, and not just accept what we are told as true facts.


Initial plans had been to work with the local YMCA youth club, but once some sessions had taken place there it became apparent that the project was not going to be successful in this particular environment (see below under Challenges for more on this).  Following a quick re-think we identified the Home Educators group – with whom there was already a link via the Astrodome – as an alternative audience.


Initially we partnered with a local YMCA youth club to pilot the sessions, but following difficulties with this setting (see below), we worked with the Southampton Home Educators Network to deliver the same objectives.

Approach taken

Four groups of children attended four two-hour workshops (one a week) at the beginning of 2019. Thes were held on campus at  Physics and Astronomy building. The children were supervised by the Astronomy Public Engagement leader and Dark Energy Survey researchers plus a freelance Film Technician from Solent University, with the aim of producing media clips inspired by the research.

At the end of the project the 14 children who took part also made scientific posters explaining their research. The posters they produced were then presented at our Poster day which also included a screening of the 5 films that had been made.  Parents and astronomy researchers attended this event along with representatives from PERu and the John Hansard Gallery. The children were then presented with their Discovery level CREST STEM awards at our annual Physicist of the Year awards in July 2019. The awards are funded by The Ogden Trust and this year the CEO of the Ogden Trust attended and presented the awards.

Dark Energy posters
Dark Energy posters

Evaluation methods

Making use of the CREST Award scheme enabled us to evaluate the project from the ‘self-reflection’ passports that each student completed.  We were also able to assess the posters and films which the children made, and we invited additional feedback via a paper form circulated at the final Awards ceremony.  Unfortunately in the busyness of the event we didn’t manage to collect that many completed forms; with hindsight this would have worked better if we had allocated someone to focus on encouraging completion of the forms and collecting them up.

A sample of the feedback collected shows that the activities were well received:

‘I liked it all’; ‘I liked using the 360 camera’; ‘it was fun’; ‘I liked the short film’.

‘It was really rewarding to watch the children blossom whilst undertaking this project. Many of the children started the project being very timid and shy, but really came out of their shells. It was especially nice to see some children with special educational needs do so well. One of the parents was thrilled that her child who struggled to even talk in front of others be able to plan, produce and star in a video on such an advanced subject like Dark Energy. One mother was so excited that her daughter who was reluctant to write was now so excited about space that she was undertaking loads of her written work of her own accord at home on the subject. The children not only learned a great deal about the research we undertake at the University and Dark Energy, but they also gained an enormous amount of confidence too. I have been asked several times would we do it again.’

Achievements, outcomes and legacy

The original objectives of the project were met, albeit with a different group of participants than originally intended.

Following the successful pilot with home educated children, we have been asked by the CEO of Solent Youth Action to run the sessions again on a larger scale, working with young people with special needs.  Preparation for this has included a co-written bid to the BBC Curiosity Fund.

We are also in touch with the Home Educators Network about running further projects with them, plus the InTo Partnership ‘academic evenings’ team about working with them on something similar.

The films will be included in our Dark Energy content for Hands on Humanities Day and Southampton Science & Engineering Festival, and audiences for those events will be invited to comment/respond to the films.

Challenges and lessons learned

Initial meetings with the YMCA Community Manager were very positive, with interest shown in the opportunity for the young people to earn CREST STEM awards.  The youth club seemed an ideal venue with its computer and music rooms providing a base for a ‘problem-based learning’ approach, and weekly sessions started, based on a ‘tried and tested’ programme of activities.  Unfortunately it gradually became apparent that these structured activities (which work well in our more familiar settings) were not suited to the environment of the youth club.  Factors at play in this were:

(1) fluctuating and inconsistent attendance – different young people coming along each week, making it hard to build on learning across the weeks; the project lead was gradually able to build a rapport with a small group of younger children (older ones were more interested in video games and sports taking place at the same time) but progress was too slow.

(2) the computers at the Centre turned out to be unusable and the lure of other activities in close proximity detracted from keeping children engaged.

It was important to acknowledge at that point that the project was not going to be deliverable in this setting, and that we should find an alternative in order to salvage what we could in the time left.  This was enabled by capitalising on our existing link to the Home Educators Network and providing a programme for them on campus (which they were used to visiting).

On reflection, some informal visits to the Youth Club to test out the activities at an earlier stage would have enabled us to test our assumptions and assess the true viability of our proposals; this might have led to a different approach both within the application for funding and in running the project.

Although we were able to run things successfully with the Home Educators, the last-minute change of group and setting did mean that we lost some of the intended impact (ie working in a community setting with an ‘under-served’ group).

However the lessons learned from the pilot activity at YMCA have been very valuable.

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