How can ‘geeks’ reach out to ‘non-geeks’?


Another silo that needs to be broken, or are we content with our cylinders of excellence?

This follows on from my post about a coding club for Cambridge, along with a talk at Cambridge Geek Nights.


“How can we reach out and get more people involved?” – a question that has been asked at almost every gathering of every society that I have been to over the past year or so.

This is something that I’ve given a significant amount of thought to – the initial results of which have been summarised in my thoughts for Cambridge L!VE in terms of how to get more people involved in what happens within my local community, and how to break those silos. This post looks at how people who work/study in science, engineering, maths and computing can reach out to those who have an interest or don’t know where to start.

Assume someone has a dormant interest: What’s already out there for them?

Looking locally in Cambridge, there are a series of academic courses that require a significant time and money commitment – one that the Government is making even more expensive. (Why do politicians never examine the cumulative impact of all of these loans?)

On the ‘computing’ side of things, there are also a series of commercial courses aimed at businesses – which are stupendously expensive. I’d love to do some of them but can I afford to spend £600+ for a day fee to do a course for one day?

Other than that, it’s self-learning via libraries and the internet – the latter through the likes of the brilliant Sarah Castor-Perry and The Naked Scientists. Yet there are other ways of learning too – ways that I think can be much more ‘sociable’ and enjoyable than ploughing through with distance learning or heading towards a summer exam.

Short term evening classes and a series of Saturday workshops

This is what I’d like to see Cambridge put on locally in these subject fields – but break out of the straightjacket of traditional exams. On the science side of things, I’d love to see a programme of “science in society” seminars – interactive ones that allows people from other disciplines engage with science and vice versa. For example it’s all very well saying “The science tells us X” but if your political analyst says “No one would ever vote for that” you have an impasse. How do you overcome that?

The other one is I’d like to see is one that gets people into the laboratory or engineering workshop. Many people in my generation who stopped formal science learning in the mid-1990s have not experienced science in modern science labs with modern equipment. Between then and now, many educational establishments have had huge rebuilding programmes bringing their facilities up to date.

Essentially you – we – have got to appeal to people who last did science when Pluto was a planet. In recent times I’ve bought a series of books aimed at teenagers and the light reader on all things science, geography and pre-history. The leaps and bounds that have been made since my school days have been massive. Pluto being a planet being but one. When I learnt about dinosaurs, a stegosaurus was a stegosaurus. Since then, scientists have established that it’s a damn sight more complicated. Which makes me wonder: Who does the workshops on dinosaurs and astronomy?

About a decade ago I had a great time at Cambridge University’s observatories. A friend I met through dancing sent a group of us an email along the lines of “Mars is very visible in the sky tonight – want to come over and have a look at it through our expensive telescopes?” Despite it being a 1 hour cycle ride there and back, I was there in a flash. Given that this post is being written not long after the death of Neil Armstrong, I thought it was worth linking this post -> If you know of anyone young who could be inspired by science, point them in the direction of Stephanie Wilson – also seen here in photo 19 preparing for lift off.

Going beyond inviting people in – proactively getting out and about

This is what I’m planning to do in the field of ‘Cambridge L!VE‘ but there’s a huge opportunity to take it further with other people in fields that I’m not nearly qualified to talk about. Initially I want to start with the secondary schools and colleges with a series of lunchtime talks across the county, if anything just to see what the reaction is from young people to what is already out there. But to hold attention on these things, it can’t be something that’s ‘one off’ – there’s got to be something more to it than that. There’s also a fair amount of myth-busting that I feel needs doing such as:

  • You don’t have to be a politician to like politics
  • You don’t have to be a scientist to be interested in science
  • You don’t have to be a man to be interested in car mechanics
  • You don’t have to be a woman to be interested in health and beauty
  • You don’t have to be a [insert stereotype] to be interested in [subject area, interest or hobby]

Do people know what’s out there?

Locally to me, my contention is “No”.

The reasons are many and varied. Anecdotally, my take is that we’re forgetting the importance of the human connection. It’s something that I feel chronically because I’m no longer in a workplace surrounded by people, and am still recovering from a recent mental health crisis that has drained my energy levels quite significantly compared to what they were. (I used to liken it to having the energy of a power station crossed with the attention span of a fairy – as one of my former bosses describes here).


One of my major criticisms of Cambridge University over the years has been its lack of interaction with those of us that live in Cambridge the city. I remember looking for a venue for my 18th birthday party and effectively being told that if you weren’t a member of the university or the college concerned, they weren’t interested. (Today, for the right price they’ll bite your hand off – emphasis on ‘the right price’). Later on I would criticise them for putting posters up for their really interesting ‘open to the public’ events up in places where the wider public could not see them – in corridors of buildings or in streets that the public would not have a reason to walk down. As any social media trainer will tell you, if you want people to engage you have to go where the people are.

Bringing motivated people from within those big institutions, & getting ‘out there’

That’s one of the many things I want to kick off this autumn. Hence why the past few months have been quite frustrating…playing a waiting and preparing game in effect. What I’m going to try and do is beat a path through the thickets: demonstrating that proactively getting out there & getting people involved can be done. Once I’ve made sound personal contacts within the various groups and organisations I have in mind, then I intend to put them in touch with the many excellent speakers and contributors that I have stumbled across in recent times. Can we stimulate enough interest locally to make things like evening classes and weekend workshops sustainable? Well…there’s only one way to find out.

How do you know if people are motivated?

It’s a lesson I learnt from UKGovCamp in 2011. If people are prepared to give up a weekend (or the equivalent) for it (without pay), that shows motivation. The Government Digital Service would not have got off the ground without volunteers giving up weekends and evenings to get the level of grassroots support and interest going that enabled the GDS to blossom.

There are many who are motivated and who already do lots. The challenge for Cambridge is to harness what they are currently doing and co-ordinate it in a manner so that the city can become greater than the sum of its parts. That’s my vision anyway.


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