outreach

Reaching Out – How to Get Started in Science Outreach

Science outreach is a great way to energize yourself to work better at the bench. If you are curious about doing outreach and want to know how to get the ball rolling, I can suggest places to look for people and events to connect with. Like a knitted sweater, you only have to find one loose thread to unravel a vast number of opportunities to get involved.

Locate Those Who Are Doing Outreach in Your Location

Every department likely has one person who is passionate about science outreach. Figure out who they are and ask them about it. Ask what opportunities exist, and how you might be able to participate.

If you have trouble finding someone in your department, search through the undergraduate organizations at your institution. Even after being at my institution for over a decade, I discovered recently there were a lot of student groups that wanted to get out there and connect science with the public. Many universities also have Science Cafes where adults gather at cafes or bars to nerd out with a science presenter – it could be someone you know!

Check out Nearby Museums, Planetariums, or Zoos

The entire purpose of these wondrous establishments is to engage and inspire the public through science. They are usually quite good at it and can give you some great science communication training. Most would love to have some volunteers to join the good fight. Even if they don’t have opportunities available for you to work with them directly, chances are they have connections with people doing outreach in the area. They are also likely to know about public science festivals or other local science events.

Look for Science Communication Courses

I was lucky enough to be an instructional assistant for a course that required undergraduate students to perform 30 hours of outreach throughout the semester. Not only was I able to go to all of the events that undergraduate students participated in, but I was able to learn a lot by observing them. If you can’t find an opportunity to assist a class like that, then look for a class to take yourself. I’ve seen several science communication classes in other departments. They weren’t advertised very widely outside of their respective departments, so you might have to go looking for them. Check the course listings of all science and journalism departments.

Connect with a K-12 Teacher or School

Teachers are always looking for a new way to engage their students. Having a scientist visit or Skype with them, as simple as it seems, puts a face to the mysterious scientific profession and can really ramp up engagement. Most teachers I’ve met would love to have people interested in doing this kind of thing.

I also know of organizations that specifically try to connect researchers and teachers in my area (SciREN and DNA Day in North Carolina). Try out a simple web search to see if something like this exists in your area. If not, try just emailing a teacher directly. You might be surprised at how welcome your participation in their classroom activities would be. If you feel especially ambitious, you can also offer to let their students visit your lab.

Look at What Your Favorite Professional Society or Non-profit Is Up To

Public engagement is a high priority for many organizations. Society for Neuroscience, for example, has vast resources on its webpage for engaging in neuroscience outreach.

Regardless of your research area, there is likely some organization, either national or local, that has an interest in promoting science outreach. Some organizations more broadly serve the scientific community, like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) which offers science communication workshops. Speaking of which…

Take Advantage of Workshops or Other Science Communication Training Opportunities

I began my journey by attending a low-stakes science communication workshop from my local planetarium. From there, I found out there was a great diversity of things I could do and skills I could hone. For example, I found out about a national workshop in the U.S., “ComSciCon”, that is solely concerned with this kind of training – from science journalism to blogging to multimedia projects. They accept applications every year and, although it’s highly competitive, attendees I’ve spoken to really loved their experiences in the workshop and found lots of likeminded people to network with and bounce ideas off of. The national workshop has spawned several local workshops across the US that you might want to look into as well.

Do Your Own Science Outreach Thing!

Outreach can really be anything. I’ve seen efforts that ranged from simple PowerPoint talks at libraries to scientists creating lesson plans for teachers based on their research. You’ll learn from each kind of event how to adapt your science for effective public translation. You can even start a podcast, videocast, local university radio show, or write blogs. There’s really no limit to what will give you outreach experience and there are so many options these days.

You’d also be surprised at how many of the organizations I’ve come across were founded by graduate students. It’s clear that there’s a growing need for public engagement with science and that graduate students are filling these voids in their own unique ways. The next opportunity for outreach could be yours!

I Leave You With This

There are many flavors of science outreach. You might like one more than others, but you won’t know until you try it out. I urge you to not think of outreach as a one-size fits all nor as a path with a single entry point. In the end, you just want to get out there, meet people, and experiment. It’s not so different from being in the lab after all!

Further Reading

  1. Lohwater, Tiffany. (2014). How to Effectively Communicate Your Science to the Public. Society For Neuroscience, Science Communication Workshop.
  2. Science Magazine – Science Outreach Resources

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