Public science outreach can be a starting point for encouraging diversity in STEM, says Aliyah Weinstein.
Community outreach events are a fun way for scientists to interact with members of the public and inform them about exciting scientific research. Besides the fun, though, it’s important for scientists to consider how effective their outreach will be in reaching the audience. When planning for an outreach event, scientists commonly think about the main point they want to get across, their word choice, and the scientific background of the audience.
These considerations should form the beginning of the planning process, but scientists should take advantage of outreach events to encourage diversity and accessibility in STEM. Among many things, differences in age, culture, language, or mental or physical disabilities can impact how someone engages with science. Scientists should embrace the heterogeneity of the public and practice techniques to ensure that their outreach is made accessible to all. For scientists not used to engaging with groups that are under-represented in STEM, here are some suggestions to help.
Whether because of age, wheelchair use, or other factors, not everyone is able to see a display fixed at table height or a poster hanging up on the wall. When designing displays for outreach events, I hang posters to the front of a table instead of on the wall, where the lower height means it can be seen by more people. I also choose props that are moveable, so that instead of needing to see an object set on the table to understand what is being explained, objects such as books, lab equipment, or stuffed animals can be passed around to visitors. These techniques allow a display to be adaptable to the needs of each individual who visits your event.
It is also important to provide your audience with multiple ways of accessing the same scientific concept. Visitors may have different learning preferences, or be unable to read, see, or hear. To address this, you can provide a mix of written, audio, and visual explanations of key concepts related to your research. For example, I have explained my research in cancer immunology using an annotated diagram of cell-cell interactions and a subtitled video explaining the history of immunotherapies. These each incorporate multiple ways that visitors can learn the same information, depending on their capabilities and preferences.
In some places, there is more than one language commonly spoken among members of the community – for example, in the United States, some cities have a significant population that speaks Spanish. If you are not able to speak multiple languages, you can share information using bilingual texts, or videos spoken or subtitled in multiple languages. Or, you may have an opportunity to work with interpreters or translators, who provide an invaluable service by conveying your science in another language. Depending on the audience demographics, any of these techniques can greatly expand the number of people who are able to understand the research you are trying to share.
Finally, be cognizant of cultural differences between you and your audience, and where possible, tailor your demonstration to be inclusive of these differences. For example, when I ran a workshop about using microscopes for a predominantly African American group of middle school students, the lesson plan asked the students to pull out a strand of their hair and look at it under a microscope. Immediately, many of them were concerned that they couldn’t follow these instructions – they were wearing a weave. We were able to transform this situation into an unpredicted learning experience by asking the students to look at their hair, whether natural or not, under the microscope and compare the differences between the two. Since then, however, I’ve realized the importance of discussing with others the sensitivity and inclusivity of possible approaches to explaining a concept.
Outreach should be considered successful when techniques are applied that make it accessible to diverse audiences – by age, language, culture, and ability. By doing this, scientists can engage populations for whom engagement with STEM is lacking. Specifically, it is important for scientists to show their support for this through action. While scientists can’t choose who the audience will be at a public outreach event, they can make a concerted effort to ensure their outreach is accessible – showing their support for a diverse STEM workforce. In the long run, this benefits everyone through the inclusion of novel perspectives and ideas in the scientific community.
Aliyah Weinstein is a 4th year graduate student in immunology at the University of Pittsburgh and a STEM Chateaubriand Fellow at the Cordeliers Research Center in Paris, France, where her research focuses on the tumor-immune microenvironment. Outside of the lab, she’s interested in writing, travelling You can find Aliyah on LinkedIn, Twitter, and her blog.