How to succeed at engaging the public's interest in science
May 19, 2011Published: May 19, 2011
Over at Astrobites, the astro-ph reader's digest written by graduate students for undergraduates, one of us (Dan Gifford) recently posted an article discussing reasons why students should get involved in science outreach. We hope Dan's article will convince readers to share their knowledge of and passion for science with their community. The big question is, How?
Whether you're a veteran or a newcomer to outreach, and no matter what stage of your career you are in, there are plenty of ways to get involved. In this article, we share some personal experiences and discuss various ways you can make an impact.
There's no shortage of motivations for engaging in public outreach. On a personal level, community service helps to develop your interpersonal and public speaking skills and can be wonderfully rewarding. It's important for your career, because fellowships and grants reward scientists who give back through outreach and education. For the field at large, we must explain the role of science in society in order to convince taxpayers that research is a good investment. As an added benefit, sharing science with others can be tons of fun!
"Outreach" refers to a broad range of activities. Outreach can mean visiting schools and making presentations to packed auditoriums or working one on one with students. It can mean inviting the public into your workplace to illustrate how research works or finding ways to capitalize on public enthusiasm through citizen science. Part of the fun—and value—of outreach is defining it for yourself.
How to succeed at engaging the public
The first rule of outreach is to share your enthusiasm. Think back to your favorite teachers in grade school or your favorite college professors. Chances are you remember them because they managed to bring the joy of learning into the classroom. Excitement is contagious!
Be visual. As an educator, you should find it impossible to teach torque without pushing on a door, or describe parallax without running up and down sidewalks. Physics is all around us, and astronomy is as wondrous as it is beautiful. It seems only natural to use the world around you to describe the world around you.
The universe is a huge place, so finding ways to "bring it down to size" can be an educational experience—and a workout! Try organizing a scale-of-the-solar-system hike. If the sun were the size of this beach ball, how far away, and how big, would all the planets be? This exercise is great in a wide open area where participants can see how far they've walked.
Stay current. People may find it interesting to hear about Isaac Newton and his apple, but they are riveted when you mention the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and antimatter. Outreach wears many hats, but your favorite should be the flashiest one. Captivating your audience may be the most important goal.
Keep it light and fun. Change the learning environment by keeping things active—challenge a group of high school students to flip out their iPhones and race to find the next time Halley's comet will pass by. It is easy to fall into presentation mode, but remember—you are not trying to show how much you know. Rather, you are trying to make your audience realize the potential within themselves.
When speaking with other adults, respect their enthusiasm even if they are mistaken. Suppose that someone is excited to tell you about an article they read describing the dangers of the LHC. Instead of acting like a referee and immediately pointing out flaws in the article, find a creative way to shift the conversation to a related topic of value. If an audience member says, "I hear the LHC is going to create nano-black holes that will slowly destroy the Earth," you might respond, "I haven't heard that. Hey, did you know that astronomers are finally very certain a supermassive black hole lives at the center of our galaxy? They can actually watch the stars zip around it!"
Ready? First, ask around
You might be surprised to learn what outreach organizations are near you. The Nucleus lists 50 physics and astronomy outreach groups, there are science cafes in nearly every state, and many of the more than 650 chapters of the Society of Physics Students engage in outreach. Check your university's website and ask your colleagues and friends what activities they participate in. Many astronomy departments hold public lectures and observing nights, like we do at the Center for Astrophysics, that can provide great opportunities to work with enthusiastic visitors. And local museums often have volunteer programs just waiting for fresh faces.
Universities and museums probably aren't the only outreach venues in your area. Many local astronomy clubs all over the country specialize in giving planetarium shows, setting up telescopes in parking lots, and visiting scout troops and elementary schools to introduce the public to the night sky. Some of these clubs arrange meetings with city councils and local businesses on how to limit light pollution by reducing the use of skyward lighting. A great outreach example is the Tacoma Astronomical Society, which brings astronomy to the community through its observing nights and visits to schools, scout troops, farmers' markets, and libraries.
Once you've found an organization you'd like to contribute to, get in touch. Don't let your busy schedule stop you from getting involved. You should never make a commitment you can't keep, but volunteering doesn't have to be measured in hours per day. Many schools look for science fair judges in late winter and early spring. Besides being nostalgic (many kids still make volcanoes) and fun, the judging is usually in the evening and may last for only two or three hours. Outreach groups almost never turn down volunteers, so don't hesitate to contact them and discuss how you might help fulfill their mission.
A great example of a flexible outreach organization that offers a myriad of avenues for involvement is Harvard University's Science in the News (SitN), which brings the kitchen sink to public outreach. Graduate student volunteers give weekly public lectures that attract hundreds of people from throughout greater Boston, a twice-monthly web publication highlights high-profile issues, science cafes introduce researchers to the public, and SitN works directly with schools. The organization is truly a facilitator of science outreach and can help you get involved no matter what your interest, goals, or abilities.
Take the lead
In addition to the immediate motivations of the organization, outreach programs can be vital in providing students with leadership experience. Any outreach organization you're committed to will probably have avenues for you to expand your involvement. On the other hand, if you're deeply involved in an organization, think carefully about how your group's work will continue once you move on.
Michigan State University’s Science Theatre is a great example of an organization that encourages its members to take charge. A student-run outreach organization, Science Theatre has been performing interactive demonstrations for two decades in all fields of science at K–12 schools and events across Michigan.
Science Theatre encourages any volunteer with an idea. For example, volunteers often develop new demonstrations to add to the more than 60 in the theater’s repertoire. This creativity can be the first step toward becoming one of the ten officers that organize and lead performances. The leadership structure eases in new members and is invaluable to student organizations, which have a guaranteed turnover every four or five years.
Start your own
If you find that no existing organization can help you share your passion as you would like to, consider starting your own. That's what we did at Astrobites. Our personal experiences had alerted us to the need for a resource that we did not think existed—an informal tool to ease the transition from reading textbooks to reading journal papers. Since we all continued to tackle this process to some degree, we decided we were in an ideal position to provide a useful service to readers.
The first step in starting a new venture is to seek help. If you have an idea that you are willing to invest your time in, you can be confident that many of your peers will feel the same way. Astrobites started with a team of five that had responded to an e-mail sent around to astronomy graduate students at Harvard. It has since grown to include friends of the original members and friends of those friends. The blog now has 16 contributors from seven schools around the country. We are grateful for the consistently supportive feedback we receive from friends and colleagues. A group of students at MIT has started a sister site for chemistry, called Chembites.
The next step in making your project a success is to spread the word. You can’t help your audience if you can't reach it. Start by contacting organizations that have similar goals; ask them for feedback about your plans. Once your program is well defined, begin contacting institutions associated with your target audience. Michigan’s Science Theatre, for example, attracted more than 200 local elementary school students to its 2009 Halloween event by coordinating with local schools to distribute hundreds of fliers.
It's equally important to help your audience find you. Having a web presence is imperative. Even if your work is not primarily online, make sure you have a website that is informative, accurate, and up-to-date. Make yourself available and prepared to field questions via as many media as possible—mail, e-mail, phone, and even Facebook and Twitter.
An important aspect of a new venture is to make sure you and your collaborators are enjoying your experience. The best motivation to encourage participation in a project is to make the job fun, and that is especially true among volunteers. Talk openly about the state of your project and make adjustments to keep things light.
Are you involved in a great outreach project, or are you starting your own? Have you had experiences similar to ours? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
Nathan Sanders is a graduate student in the department of astronomy at Harvard University, where he works on type Ibc supernovae. Dan Gifford is a graduate student in the department of astronomy at the University of Michigan, where he works on galaxy clusters.