“Coffee anyone?” Encouraging student and staff informal interaction in Biomedical Sciences

Photo credit: unsplash, Charisse Kenion, CC0

In this post, Dr Celine Caquineau and Dr Phil Larkman, from Edinburgh Medical School: Biomedical Sciences, showcase two initiatives recently run in the deanery of Biomedical Sciences to build academic community….

Recognising the benefits of having an effective academic community on both student and staff experiences, the deanery of Biomedical Sciences (BMS) was keen to create more opportunities for staff and students to meet outside the classroom in a relaxed environment. With this in mind, the deanery ran two new initiatives this year: “Meet the researcher Prize Draw” in semester 1, and “Student Staff Cake and Coffee Conversation” in semester 2.

‘Meet the researcher’ Prize Draw

Our student feedback indicates that academics are often seen as intimidating “super humans” who students feel uncomfortable to approach. Research shows the importance of the first weeks in building effective relationships with students, highlighting the importance of the first semester of year 1 in creating a supportive environment and a sense of belonging.

Hoping to facilitate the building of an effective student-staff relationship at the start of the student university experience, as well as helping undergraduate students in getting to know their lecturers a bit better, all new students were invited to meet researchers from the BMS community over drinks and nibbles during a mid-semester event. During the evening, students were encouraged to participate in a treasure hunt for research answers based on artworks displayed at the biomedical teaching organisation. To find their answers, students talked with the academics standing next to artworks made with images from their labs. At the end of the evening, prizes were awarded to three lucky students whose answers were pulled out of the draw.

The event went very well, students and staff attending enjoyed the informal nature of the evening and the opportunity to meet new members of the deanery.

Student-Staff coffee and cake initiative: the BMS perspective

As previously described in these blog posts by Dr Cathy Bovill and PhD Student, Catherine Clarissa, the principle of the coffee and cake initiative, originally designed by Dr Cathy Bovill (Institute for Academic Development), is simple: Students and staff members are paired together, given some money or vouchers, and encouraged to go for coffee in a coffee shop of their choice.

In January this year, all undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as staff members from the deanery, were invited to register their interest to meet other members of the deanery. One staff and up to two students were then paired together. Efforts were made to ensure that students paired together didn’t already know each other, by pairing students from different years or different degree programmes. To help to get the conversation going, a series of questions were provided, which aimed to help participants in identifying common interests and experiences.

A total of 30 peoples went for coffee over two months. Only a couple of groups didn’t meet due to timetabling issues. The feedback from participants was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone participating enjoyed the experience with all students recommending it to their peers. 

Challenges met

Finding the appropriate time to run social events for a diverse population was, and will remain, challenging. The time of the day and semester which is suitable for all staff is unlikely to be suitable for all students, and vice versa. Navigating the financial regulations to fund the coffee and cake initiative was surprisingly cumbersome. Finally, demographics of the student participants highlighted a need for more effective channels of communication to promote these events.

Next Steps

We hope to run both initiatives again next year and encourage even more participants to join. In discussion with students and staff, we are currently reviewing all students staff extra -curricular events to ensure we offer a mix of activities that would appeal to our diverse community. We are also considering how to effectively include our vast online BMS community in these events.

Celine Caquineau

Dr Celine Caquineau is a lecturer at the Edinburgh Medical School: Biomedical Sciences and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She is currently doing a secondment at the Institute for Academic Development on “Fostering student staff academic community in Biomedical Sciences”. Celine is interested in innovative teaching and was the academic leader of the Massive Online Open Course ‘Critical thinking in global challenges’, one of the first MOOCs offered by the University of Edinburgh. She also runs the Biomedical Teaching Organisation (BMTO) teaching network which aims to encourage interactions and sharing of practices between all staff involved in teaching as well as to stimulate interest in research in Higher Education. For upcoming sessions, please visit the BMTO teaching network website.

Philip Larkman

Dr Philip Larkman is Director of Teaching in the Biomedical Teaching Organisation (BMTO).

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