Reflecting on “Walks and Talks” – an engagement project

In late 2021 I organised a series of public events titled “Walks and Talks“. I was inspired by many of the guided nature walks I’ve been on as either a participant or host, particularly those in Hong Kong at the Lung Fu Shan Environmental Education Centre. In my events, I wanted to feature early career researchers as presenters, so that attendees can directly interact with people who are doing the research. I organised these events with support from a grant from the Ecology and Evolution division at the Australian National University.

I thought it’d be nice to write about my experience organising “Walks and Talks” and how it went. I hope it inspires others to organise similar events too.

Audrey Prasetya giving her talk

Each event consisted of three parts. It started with (1) an indoor talk by a presenter, (2) followed by a guided nature walk, (3) ending with a session back at the indoor venue with an opportunity to debrief, ask more questions and interact with some demonstration materials provided by the presenters.

The overall purpose of the event was to create a series of welcoming and educational events, whether they know a lot about nature or not. The intention of the event is also to increase diversity in engagement with nature. As an Australian born person with Chinese ancestry, I don’t see a lot of people with a similar background in environmental science (although they are definitely there and I have met some of them!). I wanted to create some “cool” events that would be appealing to a young adult demographic.

I reached out to Bonnie Koopmans, a Canberra based scientific illustrator and natural history artist to create some graphics which would hopefully signal that the events were aimed at a “younger” crowd (but not too young!). I think she did a wonderful job based on my very loose descriptions!

Art for “Walks and Talks” by Bonnie Koopmans

An important part of the project for me was to feature presenters who were from a culturally and linguistically diverse background. I wanted to highlight researchers who were minorities and doing interesting work – right here in Canberra. I only had enough funding to fund three events, so in the end the speakers were myself, Audrey Prasetya and Dr. Jess Fenker. It ended up being perfect. Audrey presented on her research taxa, which is birds, and Jess presented on her research taxa, which was lizards and geckos. I asked each of them for an animal they might want Bonnie to illustrate, and that’s how we got our animal selection. I selected Macarostola formosa, a leaf-rolling leaf-mining moth. Audrey selected the welcome swallow Hirundo neoxena, and Jess selected the grassland earless dragon Tympanocryptis lineata. These all occur in the ACT.

I reached out to a friend of mine who worked at the Canberra Environment Centre (CEC) to see if I could run my events there. Turns out it was the perfect venue, as it had everything we needed (tables, chairs, projector), was close to ANU and there was a lovely park we could explore right next door.

As a team, we planned our events for three consecutive Sundays, before the end of 2021. We promoted the events across our social medias, reached out to university groups and did what we could to advertise the event. We decided to manage the bookings via Eventbrite, which is a surprisingly handy tool for this kind of thing. We capped participation at 25 people per event, and to our surprise we got that many people signed up. It was great to see.

One of the display tables with reptile specimens, books and microscopes on it for attendees to ask us about

The actual events all went off without a hitch. I like to say that’s because I did a LOT of planning, but it was also fortunate that Audrey, Jess, Chrissie (my CEC friend) and/or Tina (an undergraduate student I recruited) were there to help each day. I think we’d had 2 or 3 in-person meetings before it all happened, and I think those helped with communication. I couldn’t have done it without such great and enthusiastic team members.

I was so glad to see how keen people were for the guided nature walk. I’d love to do more. I had allocated 40 minutes of time for the walk and it was rarely enough time – we’d always be finding something interesting and stopping to have a an extended discussion. Participants also enjoyed the debrief session, where they could bring some stuff from outside and look at it under a microscope – always a fun time. However I think 2 hours was probably the perfect amount of time for both the organising team and attendees.

Happy faces at one of our Walks and Talks events

Overall it was a great experience. I had an awesome time working with my team, there was so much support for each other. I would love to hold more Walks and Talks events, but alas I don’t feel comfortable holding them without being able to pay the people involved (including the speakers!). As my events target people from a minority background, and feature people from a minority background, I don’t want to create additional burdens by asking people to donate their time. So I am on the lookout for funding opportunities or partnerships to be able to hold more of these events. I have applied for some grants – but if you are a Canberra based institution and this post got you interested, do reach out. I’m happy to share my experiences. I hope to have some exciting announcements for 2022.

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