A Study of Scientific Communication and Public Engagement Techniques Focused on Public Participation in Soil Science Research

Elizabeth Stevens, September 2008

Supervisors: Dr Nick Voulvoulis and Dr Martin Head


School children trial the field guide on Hounslow Heath

This project was devised to help understand how to maximise public engagement with the new OPAL soil and earthworm survey guide.

The aim was to perform a series of pilot tests across a range of users, and determine the format that was best understood by as many people as possible.

The hope is to identify an acceptable level of complexity of the guide that could be understood by all ages and backgrounds, while still delivering the scientific data (of a sufficient quality) required by project scientists, to make the exercise worthwhile.


  1. Identify current mechanisms for public participation and engagement in soil science
  2. Assess the benefits from participating in soil science research
  3. Examine the impact of national curriculum soil science modules on people’s perception of soil
  4. Assess the effectiveness of tools used to promote and communicate soil science to the public
  5. Identify who would be best suited to communicate to the audience (project champion).

To assess the effectiveness of the guide, three field trials were organised. These trials involved participants within three distinct age groups, to explore key differences between them.

There is still debate on the quality of data that can be obtained from public participation in soil science research. However, overall the sheer quantity of data that can be obtained appears to outweigh any data deficiencies.

Participants in field trials were also asked to indicate whether it was necessary to have a ‘champion’ for the soil and earthworm project (87% indicated the project should have a champion), and, if so, who they would prefer that person to be. To gauge public opinion, several well-known celebrities were selected for their links with gardening, or soil, or general involvement/interest in environmental issues.

Results and conclusions

Results from an evaluation form completed at field trials demonstrated that participants had a perceived increase in their knowledge following the experience. However, the increase in knowledge has not been verified and is an indication of what the participants perceive their knowledge to be. Participants’ attitudes towards handling earthworms and soil changed amongst all age groups. Trends identified were that primary school children were no longer excited about handling soil but more excited about handling earthworms and this result was reversed for the adult trials.

This result could be due to a variety of reasons, eg the fact that most adults had handled earthworms previously and therefore the anticipation had gone. Almost all of the pupils handled earthworms during the field trial and remained excited by the experience. The pupils’ feedback was that they are not normally allowed to play with soil. Therefore, the fact that participants were permitted to handle soil was exciting. Adult participants enjoyed handling and characterising soil.

Wider implications of the project findings:

  • Identification of ‘live’ earthworms is not a suitable activity for Year 3 pupils and below
  • National curriculum modules introduced by DEFRA have raised participants’ perception of soil and demonstrate that the campaign is having a positive impact.
  • The conceptual model produced in this project could assist future soil science research programmes to identify suitable communication tools and engage participants.
  • DEFRA’s soil awareness campaign could develop into the UK equivalent of Citizen Science adopted in the US and Canada. This would encourage engagement and allow communication to the public on a wider range of environmental issues.
  • The fact that participants’ well-being benefits from being outdoors, reinforces the work by Mind (2007) and the research opportunity could be utilised in the ‘ecotherapy’ programme.
  • Supports the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s (1996) recommendations for additional research to examine the health of UK soils. Public participation would aid this recommendation immensely as it would enable a greater geographic area to be examined, especially when the current economic climate has led to cuts in research funding.

Further research is required to establish the suitability of Year 6 pupils to identify ‘live’ earthworms, and additional research would be recommended to firmly establish and quantify the benefits of public participation in soil science research.

Download the full project summary (PDF, 788KB)

Take part in the Soil and Earthworm Survey