Imperial College London

Pandemic public engagement supported through Rapid Response Seed Fund


Engagement activity at the Invention Rooms

In April 2020, the Societal Engagement team launched a Rapid Response Seed Fund to support engagement initiatives during the pandemic.

Seven projects from across the College have been awarded a total of £16,660 and the fund remains open for applications.

"We all had to totally rethink the way we carried out public engagement." Amy Seakins Public Engagement Manager, Imperial

The funding scheme is coordinated by the Public Engagement team. Amy Seakins from the team explains, “At the start of the pandemic we all had to totally rethink the way we carried out public engagement. We set up the Rapid Response Seed Fund to support new ideas and enable different approaches come to life.”

The fund was designed to have a fast turnaround with applicants receiving a response within just a week. “This meant that staff and students could act quickly and flexibly, enabling conversations and collaboration with our communities to continue and develop during such a difficult time for us all. Such a lot of great societal engagement takes place already across Imperial, with huge value for the public and our research – it was important to us that this didn’t come to a halt during the pandemic.”

The funding stream is still open. “We have really enjoyed reading the applications so far – people have come up with so many innovative and creative engagement activities through online and socially-distanced means! I can’t wait to hear how the funded projects progress and see what other brilliant ideas people propose in 2021."

Hear about a selection of the great projects already underway below and how they have been working with public groups during the pandemic.

Atom days

Artwork of a tree by a childA team from the Physics Department, including artist Geraldine Cox and researchers Alex Clark and Mike Tarbutt, were awarded £2500 for their engagement project to introduce 8-10 year-olds to “the beauty of atoms and their intricate interactions with light” through a series of discussions, art workshops, experiments, and even poetry and dancing.

Since being awarded, the team have worked with children from diverse schools and youth groups in London in a series of inspiring sessions. In total they delivered a mini-programme of activities to 171 children and their teachers or carers.

“I’ve enjoyed learning about atoms and how many there are,” one child said, with another adding "I never knew about them until now."

Each mini-programme consists of three interactive workshops and two research-art projects to be completed at home. The sessions are designed to inspire wonder, creativity and curiosity and expand the imagination. Children involved developed an understanding of atoms as building blocks, knowledge about the interior world of the atom, and an appreciation of how this is reflected in our everyday world as well as learning about the works of artists such as Henri Matisse and Alexander Calder.

I found that it was really interesting how everything is made out of atoms,” one of the children said. 

One teacher described the programme as an “absolutely amazing experience" that enabled her pupils to participate in an engaging workshop that "kept the children's minds away from what has been currently happening in the world.”

Alex, Mark and Geradline have said "We are proud of what we have achieved this year and the developments we have made. Our approach demonstrates that seamlessly combining the arts and sciences can have great benefits by helping everyone colour their new knowledge brightly in their imaginations and emotions.”

Longer-term the team is planning to train a network of colleagues to deliver Atom Sessions across the UK enabling them to further their reach.

Changing Worlds - Climate Cares

A girl types on a laptopImperial’s Climate Cares team was awarded £1400 towards engagement work looking at psychological responses to crises such as the pandemic and climate change amongst young people.

The project involves the creation of an advisory group made up of 16-24 year-olds to guide the research team in the design of their project. This will include co-developing an intervention that aims to support young people’s mental wellbeing. The Climate Cares team will work closely with other Imperial researchers – in environmental science, public health, climate policy, mental health, behavioural science – to ensure the insights gained from the young people are informing future research questions. The insights will also feed into policy work, led by Dr Neil Jennings at the Grantham Institute.

So far, the group have recruited their advisory panel and delivered three workshops with the young people.

Children’s Experiences in Hospital

Little girl in a hospital bed with a teddy bearUndergoing medical treatment in a hospital can be a daunting experience for young children with long bed days and separation from loved ones. It's suggested that more than 90% of children who are hospitalised show “erratic” behaviours such as nightmares, temper tantrums, or sensations of stress and anxiety.

Dr Lisa Aufegger and Khanh Ha Bui were awarded £2000 for their project seeking to improve children’s experience and understanding of care. They will work with children to reflect on their own hospital care experiences and articulate their thoughts and feelings into words and drawings. Children are then encouraged to translate their experiences into actionable, game-like, engagement activities, through creative storytelling and sketching. Children will be guided to design superhero characters who might help them navigate the challenges of hospital treatment.

“The funding has helped to organise a workshop and to hire an illustrator who will translate our work and research into a children’s book, making it available to public and hence creating impact and outreach at large scale,” Aufegger and Bui said.

The best 10 drawings will be digitalised by the award-winning children’s illustrator Anh Cao, while the best three drawings of characters will be brought to life with a custom-made soft toy.

Engaging communities in transport-related air pollution

London trafficThere is growing evidence that exposure to poor air quality is a key risk factor contributing to the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many areas local to Imperial have very poor air quality due to transport-related air pollution (TRAP) and are recognised as ‘black spots’ in London. These include areas close to the A40 Westway and the Cromwell and Earl’s Court Roads. Affected local communities include many vulnerable groups of people who are socio-economically disadvantaged, living in areas defined as having multiple deprivations which are often associated with low air quality, high levels of poor health and now also some of the worst COVID-19 outcomes.

"We could not have done this successful outreach project without the funding.” Audrey de Nazelle and Gia Pendred

Audrey de Nazelle & Gia Pendred were awarded £2500 for their project to engage local residents in White City and Earl’s Court in air quality research and give communities a voice to inform policy around the issue. “We ran an online survey for residents which had over a hundred responses and gave us an insight into how much our local communities know about air pollution topics. Our interactive online events just before Christmas got residents talking about solutions for improving local air pollution and the wider issues associated with doing that.”

The results of the group discussions will be collated and fed-back to an audience of policymakers and academics later in 2020 via an Imperial-hosted workshop centred on improving transport-related air quality.

“Very importantly with lockdown restrictions now back in place, residents also shared their views about digital inequality, probable reasons for it, and suggested alternative ways to engage with those people with limited or no digital access,” Audrey and Gi explain.

“Key recommendations were to engage with communities through faith groups, schools, and leisure centres (which were all open at the time), and to develop schemes for lending or donating digital devices, and free WIFI hotspots… We could not have done this successful outreach project without the funding.”

Future Geoscientists

'In a divided future there is a law relating to glaciers, what is it?'

So goes one of the prompts in a game created by Finn Strivens with space mining expert Kathryn Hadler. The game enables public audiences to consider and share perspectives on possible futures related to space mining. They were awarded £2305 seed funding to develop the game. They have since created a visual style and are developing an interactive web platform to host it. Geoscience’s associations with the oil and gas industry have made it less desirable in an age where young people want to have a positive impact on the climate. Imagining possible futures is thought to increase people’s sense of agency over the future.

The team also plan on developing the game into an in-person exhibit for the Great Exhibition Road Festival.

See here for summaries of the other great projects supported so far and find out how to apply to get your own engagement idea off the ground.


Ellie Cawthera

Ellie Cawthera
Office of the Provost


Public-engagement, Societal-engagement
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