As discussion of science engagement increases, notably absent is an accompanying conversation about how to appropriately prepare and find opportunities for outreach. Here’s how to get started.
Guest contributor Maria Wheeler-Dubas
The average American does not personally know a scientist, which leaves their opinions of science open to the mercy of pop culture and political pundits. In spite of this concern, one thing that has been greatly encouraging to see in the scientific community is the rise in discussion of STEM outreach. More and more scientists are recognizing science engagement as a way to break stereotypes, have a broader impact with their work, and manage sceptics of tax-funded grants—which is fantastic. However, an important part of the discussion that has been missing is how to go about getting involved in meaningful outreach. How can a research scientist maximize the use of what little time for outreach they might have? Here is what I’ve learnt as Science Outreach Coordinator.
Take a science communication workshop before you do anything else.
Though we tell each other to stop using jargon, many of us lab-dwellers are so entrenched in our own worlds that we don’t realize when we’re using it. Jargon creates barriers in an outreach setting and further distances us from those we are trying to reach. Besides jargon, most scientists have been trained to communicate eloquently in a scientific presentation or when giving a poster talk, but this strategy is completely separate from how the public wants to get their information. A training course will help you wade through these issues as well as specifically equip you to share complex subjects with someone of a different educational, political, professional, or cultural background.
More and more universities are offering workshops, seminars, and even entire courses on science communication and science outreach. Take advantage of them — either in person or online (e.g. edX courses). In addition, many institutions outside of academia have developed initiatives to both train scientists and give them a platform to connect with their communities. For example, a program called Portal to the Public from the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington, has created a network of museums, zoos, and public gardens across the US that trains scientists to engage the public and then gives those newly-trained individuals the chance to share their research with museum or garden guests. Another museum programme is the National Living Lab from the Boston Museum of Science; this initiative trains cognitive development researchers to conduct their research with museum guests — which uniquely offers the chance for researchers to recruit participants while providing educational opportunities for guests.
Beyond museums, professional societies have also stepped to provide communication support. NatureEducation Scitable offers a variety of resources and tools online to enhance science communication skills, and for entire departments who may be so inclined, AAAS offers to bring a science communication workshop to you. The important thing is to take a workshop and then practice.
Work out who will host you.
Find a local museum, public garden, library, zoo, or other educational institution and find out what kind of platforms they periodically offer for local scientists to engage the public. A quick Google will show that educational facilities across the country regularly offer some variety of “Meet a Scientist” or “Scientist in the Spotlight” days (examples from Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, The Field Museum, and Natural History Museum of Utah). You will have direct contact with your community and probably have the chance to connect to the tax-payers who are supporting most scientific research.
Make your own opportunities.
If opportunities like this are not available to you, you still have options. First of all, you can network with the education community in your area. Start volunteering at schools, afterschool programs, or education advocacy non-profits — Phipps Conservatory offers a comprehensive volunteer program across a range of topics, as one example; or attend the local educational symposia and board of education meetings that are open to the public. Get to know the educational movers and shakers in your area; they can help you plug in.
Start blogging about your work or trends in your field — but be careful about what you shoot into the ether. A science communication workshop would still be a major benefit, but also try to seek out writing advice before getting started. Before you post your articles, ask an honest, non-scientifically-trained friend to read over your material and identify any area that might be too technical. And remember, the goal is to build bridges. A blog that is snarky and condescending towards those who misunderstand science may garner a following of scientists and enthusiasts, but it will widen the divide between us and those we want to reach.
Spend your costly time.
The most difficult part of all this is that doing this kind of work will take up potentially a lot of your time. Within the academic community, the last thing most scientists have is free time as we churn through our publish-or-perish cycle, but the unwavering devotion to that cycle is isolating us from our communities. Scientific communication needs to become part of scientific culture if we’re to bridge the gap with the public.
The modern scientist needs to be an individual that is ready for outreach, but we need to be sure that we all are prepared for meaningful interactions. I say this as a passionate biologist-turned-outreach coordinator: scientists, the public needs to see you. They need to meet you. And they need to know they can trust you.
Maria Wheeler-Dubas, Ph.D., is the Science Education Outreach Coordinator for Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, PA. Maria has nearly fifteen years of experience in education, from working and volunteering in zoos and museums to teaching in university classrooms. She completed her B.A. in biology from Otterbein University in Westerville, OH, and she earned her doctorate in biology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.