Seeking Perfection: Young People Exploring Enhancement with Researchers

Optional Abstract: 

'Seeking Perfection' was an engagement project exploring human enhancement using creative approaches. It was led by The University of Manchester, Nowgen, Contact Theatre and the Manchester Science Festival and this unique collaboration was successful in sparking the curiosity of young minds around aspects of biomedical research. A team of 15 young people worked with researchers from different disciplines and creative partners to develop a performance about enhancement. This was delivered in unusual settings to reach local communities who would not typically engage with biomedical science. This project was made possible through a People Award from the Wellcome Trust.

The 'Seeking Perfection' project was set up to explore human enhancement - which provides a rich vein for public engagement, exploring issues such as boosting athletic performance, taking stimulant drugs to improve memory and using plastic surgery. The project was led by The University of Manchester, Nowgen, Contact Theatre and the Manchester Science Festival and this unique collaboration was successful in sparking the curiosity of young minds around aspects of biomedical research. The creative approaches used made this a distinctive and innovative project.

Objectives:

1. To facilitate an innovative partnership between the young people (16-25 year olds), scientists, ethicists, artists and public engagement practitioners who make up the project team
2. To explore the scientific, social and ethical implications of enhancement within the project team using an informal and imaginative process
3. To create a series of performances and activities around enhancement for Manchester Science Festival 2010 that will be accessible and stimulating to the public
4. To organise a dialogue event about enhancement that presents the current scientific possibilities and explores where future boundaries should be set
5. To create and display a short film that incorporates elements of the performances, responses from the project team and interviews with experts

Activities:

The project brought together an unusual mix of people. There were fifteen participants (aged between 16 - 25) and most of them were from disadvantaged backgrounds. They worked in partnership with professionals to develop the project, co-create performances and perform in public during Manchester Science Festival.

The team met regularly over a six week period to explore the scientific, social and ethical issues associated with human enhancement. Scientists, ethicists, a plastic surgeon and a rugby player were involved in the workshops - giving presentations on their work and their perspectives of human enhancement. Each session encouraged the participants to discuss their ideas and improvise their responses through music, theatre and dance.

The project culminated in a performance that involved all the participants and was delivered in two unusual settings; at Manchester Arndale Centre (which is a large shopping centre) and embedded within a public debate about enhancement at a local arts centre. The format of our debate in many ways used a traditional approach, with a panel of researchers presenting their work, but when the young people performed alongside, it made a dramatic difference. Their thoughtful performance changed the atmosphere of the debate and helped to stimulate discussion.

The project team created a short video that captures the development of the project:
http://www.youtube.com/user/mcrscifest?blend=7&ob=5#p/u/0/T5Npe2o-IYg

Impact:

In addition to the project participants (including the young people and researchers) 262 people attended the 'Seeking Perfection' performances and debate. The project met all its objectives and was particularly successful in reaching audiences not traditionally engaged with Manchester Science Festival activities (the majority of participants were teenagers and young adults).

This project involved participants deeply over time, as well as impacting on large audiences who viewed the performances. Many of the young people involved, especially those from ’harder to reach’ communities had never met researchers before and as the project progressed they grew in confidence and started to ask more questions and express their views more openly. Many of the participants described being more intrigued by science after the project. One said: “I thought when I finished school I would never have to think about science again, and I’ve learnt it’s around us all the time and I should maybe pay more attention. I might blink and the world could be a completely different place.”

'Seeking Perfection' relied on the talent and experience of researchers within the University of Manchester and this project developed their engagement skills. It gave them opportunities to work with people from different backgrounds. Researchers reported that they found it stimulating to work with the young people and with creative partners, as this gave them new insights and ideas.

The public reaction to the performance was very positive and many people commented on the way it managed to be both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Originality

The project is noteworthy because of its high number of ‘firsts’ – it was the first time, among others, that Contact Theatre had worked with scientists or on a science theme in their young people’s work; it was the first young people’s project for Manchester Science Festival; the first time Nowgen and the Festival had worked with (indeed specifically targeted) disadvantaged communities and the first piece of commissioned theatre by the Festival.

The project team had diverse backgrounds, but they were able to share their strengths to allow everyone to try something new. The young participants were very supportive of one another and overall the project empowered them significantly.

The 'Seeking Perfection' project is contributing towards building a society where all can realise their potential. In this project the young people worked successfully as collaborators with university researchers and also with other professionals in the team.

'Seeking Perfection' successfully promoted engagement with local communities. We worked with Manchester residents in order to widen access to University facilities, networks and discourse.

Sustainability:

The partnership between the organisations leading 'Seeking Perfection' was highly productive and allowed each partner to achieve new goals. One of the organisers commented: “The experiment was a success!” (Nowgen)

The project allowed the organisers to develop new skills from one another. Some of their learning has been shared through the project film and through the evaluation report that has been disseminated. Further, the project enabled the formation of a community of practice across different Faculties of the University (Sciences, Medicine, Arts and Humanities) which has now created a cross-Faculty discussion forum about public engagement, with regular lunchtime meetings open to all University staff and students.

'Seeking Perfection' has given us impetus to develop new projects with the same partners and some of these projects are already underway. The 'Seeking Perfection 'project was funded by The Wellcome Trust, as part of a very competitive grant application process and we have plans to secure future grants to support multidisciplinary, complex projects like this again.

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