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By Beth Hawkins on

What does engagement mean to us?

We talk about engagement a lot in our work, it is at the heart of everything that we do and we use it to describe and measure the value and benefit of our experiences. However, it can be a hard word to define. Beth Hawkins explores 'what exactly do we mean when we talk about engagement?'.

One of the challenges of talking about engagement is that it is a homonym, a term that has a different meaning depending on the context it is used in. When you look in the dictionary you find multiple definitions – which range from a formal agreement of marriage through to a fight or battle between armed forces.

SO, what do we mean when we talk about engagement?

As a group of museums, we have used the term for a long time. Like other informal learning environments, we aim to give our visitors memorable, inspiring, and engaging experiences.

For our context the closest dictionary definition of engagement is probably ‘being involved with or taking an interest in something’. But, this does not fully capture and reflect what engagement really means to us.

One of the interesting things about engagement is that you tend to feel or know when it is happening, even if you can’t exactly define it. Whether you are in a museum, a classroom, or any other space, you instinctively know that something positive is happening when people are alert, excited, talking about their experience and wanting to do or find out more.

Our work around science capital made us critically look at what we mean, and should measure, when we talk about engagement. When we worked on the Enterprising Science project we looked to academic research for guidance and found that there wasn’t a consistent or commonly agreed definition of engagement in academic literature either.

But, from looking across different education, science education and informal science learning research, the project pulled out the most common and central ideas that lie at the heart of engagement. These were:

  • Having a meaningful connection with an experience and/ or its content
  • Feeling a sense of belonging and ownership
  • Personal expression, making links with what you know and experience
  • Having positive emotions towards an experience
  • Purposeful involvement and active contribution
  • Perseverance and mastery

So, coming back to the question of what engagement means, and looks like to us – in short, it is more than something that is simply fun and enjoyable and gives a sugar rush of excitement, instead it is an experience that leads people from a wow moment to a sense of wonder.

Engagement is what happens when content comes alive, feels relevant, ignites curiosity, and sparks discussion and is something you want to share with others – genuine engagement continues beyond the experience itself.

We see that if we can increase people’s engagement with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and help deepen people’s attitudes, identity and connection with it, we can start to grow and build our audiences science capital.

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