Science Shop case study: UTS Shopfront

This case study is part of a set of case studies developed by SciShops to investigate different models of science shops and community-based participatory research.

UTS Shopfront Community Program is a science shop based at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. Since it was set up in 1996, UTS Shopfront has facilitated more than 1000 successful projects completed by UTS students as part of their disciplinary coursework for more than 800 non-profit organisations.


UTS, University of Technology Sydney, is a young university that was founded in its current form – as a result of the amalgamation of several higher education institutions – in 1988. With total enrolments of over 35,000 students, UTS has historically been characterised by strong engagement with industry. However, an independent audit by the Australian universities quality agency in the mid-nineties identified community engagement as an area for improvement. With initial seed funding for three years, UTS Shopfront was set up in 1996 as a “community research and advocacy centre”, partly influenced by the European science shop movement. Its aim was to extend the corporate citizenship and civic responsibilities of the university by providing services on a pro bono basis to community organisations with identified needs.

UTS Shopfront was the first cross-faculty community programme of its kind at an Australian university.  It has built up a strong reputation and established relationships with hundreds of local and national community organisations. Being situated in central Sydney, some of these organisations have a national remit. At the end of 2017, 1078 community research projects have been completed via its student community coursework programme.

In 2013, Shopfront launched a new programme, UTS SOUL Award, an extra-curricular volunteering programme for students who complete 100 hours of volunteering and training during the course of their degrees.

Shopfront also jointly runs a peer-reviewed e-journal Gateways: International Journal of Community Research and Engagement concerned with the practice and processes of community engagement.

Business model and organisation

UTS Shopfront receives core funding from the University and has done so for its entire 21 years. Following its initial three-year establishment grant, the intention had been for Shopfront to operate by sourcing external funding but, following consultation with stakeholders, the decision was taken at a senior management level to continue to core fund its work. This was partly influenced by the political climate at the time, where there was uncertainty and significant cuts to funding in the non-profit sector, and a belief that Shopfront’s purpose should be to support the community, not to compete for funding or ask NGOs to use their limited resources or project grants to pay for this type of work.

During its first decade, Shopfront was staffed by 1.8 positions, but now – because of the growth in its portfolio and the SOUL Award –  employs the full-time equivalent of four staff.

UTS is located in the inner-city suburb of Pyrmont-Ultimo, the most densely populated suburb in Australia.  The Shopfront staff are located in an office suite in one of the main university buildings, with close access to meeting rooms and training rooms.

The research process and relationship with stakeholders

At the heart of Shopfront’s activities is its cross-university Community Projects programme that connects community-based organisations with students to work on a wide variety of community-led projects These projects are run as disciplinary coursework by final year or postgraduate students and are usually undertaken in small project teams.

Students come from wide range of faculties, such as architecture, built environment, business, communication, design, education, engineering, information technology, law, and science.

A Shopfront project coordinator is assigned to individual projects to act as a relationship manager and provide continuity with the community organisations. Each project is also supervised by an academic researcher.

Community need and community initiation are central to the way Shopfront works. Projects are undertaken in response to a need identified by a community organisation (or group of community organisations) who then approach the Shopfront, and the core aim of each project is to produce useful outcomes for the organisation. The students and academic supervisors determine which projects they want to get involved in, and certain project types may be turned down that do not fit the disciplinary skills set of the university. On average, between 60 to 70% of proposed projects do go head.

Often community organisations tend view Shopfront as a form of consultancy service to fill their own skills gaps, for example in research, design and user experience, business planning and governance.

All project work is pro bono, so there is no cost for the community organisations. The project coordinator leads on the initial project scoping assisting organisations to focus the project and clarify goals. Project selection is undertaken together with the academic supervisors according to defined criteria, including the students’ interest in the projects. Therefore, not all projects get selected and, as projects are undertaken by students as part of their course work, Shopfront makes it clear that they cannot guarantee an outcome. However, Shopfront’s success rate, viewed as a project that gets used by the community organisation at the end of the project, is over 93%. On the rare occasion a project fails, it is mainly due either to a lack of student commitment or lack of depth in understanding and analysing the social issue.

Until recently, UTS’ academic year consist of two semesters of 14 weeks during which students undertook the project. A recent move to three semesters means that projects can now be conducted all year round, which has also meant a reduction in the scope of the projects to suit the shorter semesters.

When Shopfront was first set up, a lot of time was spent communicating the concept to community organisations. However, for many years, Shopfront has not needed to advertise externally and evaluation shows that 85% of its project requests are a result of word of mouth or having previously worked with Shopfront. Prior to each semester, a call for applications from local NGOs to submit projects is launched via the UTS website, networks and social-media channels.

Shopfront has a robust project initiation and management process, which includes project scoping, brief development, project management timeline, planning, project monitoring and formal evaluation and feedback, as well as quality management processes and failure procedures.

Intellectual property rights are owned by the community organisation and the organisation retains control over the outcomes. Project delivery consists of a professional presentation to the community organisation at the university and handover of a report or other project collateral. The community organisation may also host a launch to which they invite relevant stakeholders, such as politicians, or occasionally ask Shopfront to help with dissemination. Some outcomes, e.g. feasibility reports, remain confidential.

For larger, more complex research or research requiring lengthy ethics approval, Shopfront has a brokerage role and puts the community organisation in touch with an appropriate researcher, which may lead to a paid consultancy agreement for the university.

Examples of research projects

Shopfront students undertake a range of projects, including research (e.g. desk research, literature surveys, feasibility studies), design (e.g. user prototyping, visual identity, animations, films), business planning, financial management, governance, and sustainability. There is a growing demand for projects involving the development of new technological infrastructure and digital platforms.

The focus of many projects is emerging social issues. Often, projects fill gaps that arise between government provision of services and community need, and result in increased visibility for these kinds of issues.

For example, during 2017 Shopfront undertook a project for the Gender Centre, a small non-profit organisation working on transgender issues.  People who are transgender often have poor health outcomes as they don’t access health services due to not being treated in suitable and respective manner. The project investigated ways to improve this, researching the experiences of transgender people, developing case studies and looking at how to visually represent and communicate issues relating to the transgender community. The project also investigated how educational modules could be designed to assist health workers. As a result, a prototype for a training package has been developed, which the Gender Centre is hoping will be funded and rolled out for staff induction programmes for health services.

Shopfront often works with organisations working with Australia’s indigenous population. In another 2017 project, a UTS student undertook a collections audit and developed a public access policy for a nationally significant archive that traces Indigenous education and the Indigenous rights movement over 60 years at Tranby National Indigenous Adult Education and Training Centre, Australia’s oldest not-for-profit independent indigenous education provider. Following a successful collaboration, the student is continuing working with the organisation on a voluntary basis.

Other examples of Shopfront’s projects can be found on their website

Caption: Two UTS students participating in one of the UTS SOUL Award workshops.

Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI)

 Whenever possible, Shopfront works interdisciplinarily, involving different stakeholders to provide different perspectives and expertise. Some projects involve coalitions between community organisations and Shopfront acts as a facilitator, bringing organisations together to explore shared issues and identify aspects to be researched.

Design thinking and design led innovation is a core strength of UTS. Over the past year, Shopfront has been experimenting with using design thinking as a participatory methodology for its community-engaged research to better understand community needs through numerous iterations of the problem.

Shopfront has an umbrella ethics framework. Due to time constraints, primary research as part of coursework projects can only be undertaken if they have a straightforward process for achieving informed consent.

All of Shopfront’s publications are open access and they ensure that they are written in an accessible way.  UTS has its own publishing house and all of Shopfront’s books and research papers are available free of charge. Shopfront also jointly runs an open access e-journal, Gateways.

Impact and evaluation

Shopfront has a formal evaluation process that takes place at the end of each semester. Customised online surveys are completed by both the students and community organisations to evaluate the quality and significance of their experiences. Shopfront also gets face-to-face or telephone feedback from the community organisations at the end of each project.

Each year, Shopfront produces an impact report (e.g.UTS Shopfront Impact Report 2016[1]) and also provides information to inform the university’s quality reporting.

In addition, the academic supervisors are invited to meet at the end of each semester to share experiences and identify any improvements that are required.

Shopfront views a project as successful if it results in an outcome that is used by the community organisation. Many projects also result in follow-on projects in a different disciplinary area (for example a community consultation may lead to a funded project, or a feasibility study may lead to new programme design).

A paper on ‘Useful, usable and used’: Sustaining an Australian model of cross-faculty service learning by concentrating on shared value creation[2] by Lisa Andersen, the Programme Manager of Shopfront, analyses 10 years of evaluation data, to define the value that is created for community partners and students through the project work.

Project outcomes (reports, designs, plans etc.) form part of the student’s coursework assessment and are evaluated by the relevant faculty.

Many projects have resulted in long-term impacts, such as changes in public policy, law reform and new community services. However, evidence for longer term impact is anecdotal based on on-going relationships with the community organisations, rather than formally monitored, due to time and money limitations.

One of the aims of Shopfront is to produce ‘work-ready’ graduates with an understanding of socially responsible professional practice. Evaluation shows that student participation in the projects contributes to both professional and personal development in terms of skills, experiences and relationships gained. Many students also go on to volunteer or even become board members with the community organisations.

Caption: A group of UTS Visual Communication students who partnered with Minimbah, a community organisation to redesign their marketing materials for a Shopfront community coursework project. The student team Melanie Coggio, Karina Huang, Stephanie Jefferson, Joshua Moll and Anne Jiahua Su are pictured here with their client, Wayne Newell. They were supervised by UTS academic, Claudia Leigh.


Success factors

Relationships with community organisations are based on trust that has been built up over time due to positive experiences. Community organisations feel they have control over the outcomes and process.

Working on projects in teams often leads to better outcomes as the teams support and motivate each other.

Each year, insights and lessons learned are used to develop further improvements to the programme. Quality and risk managements procedures assist relationship management, ensuring that problems are can be addressed as soon as they arise. Shopfront staff also actively keep an eye on new methods of community engagement.

Main challenges

 Achieving transdisciplinarity i.e. working across entrenched faculty silos, encouraging the cross-disciplinary use of different models and methodologies, and ensuring input into projects from multiple disciplines. Shopfront often facilitates face-to-face meetings between faculties to try to overcome this.

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in work-integrated learning in Australia, and other nearby universities are starting to introduce community engagement and placement programmes. Although, this will provide greater opportunities for community organisations, a more crowded marketplace may impact Shopfront.

Caption: UTS Shopfront winning the UTS Vice-Chancellor’s Social Justice/Human Rights Award for 20 years of service in 2016.

Future development

UTS is currently considering setting up a Community Engagement Capability Hub, in which academic and professional staff currently working on coursework community projects would play a role in developing peer capabilities around community engagement and exploring how these capabilities can contribute to career progression.

Shopfront also offers a Community Fellowship, an internal award for academics who are doing community engagement to either assist the development of a research project or publishing their research outcomes, and the Shopfront Research Series:  peer reviewed, open access books for UTS research with high social impact. This research programme was developed ten years ago as a result of observations that, while there is a high level of interest amongst early to mid-career academics in doing community-engaged research with social impact, more needed to be done to support them in scholarly publishing and career progression.

Shopfront will shortly be moving to the newly-established Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion. Social justice is stated as a ‘core value’ of UTS and the university has developed a Social Justice Framework to measure impact and guide strategic efforts. This strategic move may present opportunities for Shopfront to expand its programme.

Contact details
Lisa Andersen, Manager, UTS Shopfront Community Program