Unisexual Ambystoma

Unisexual Ambystoma

Thursday, June 6, 2013

What I've learned about outreach

This past week was the last week of the first Scifund Online Outreach Class, in which more than a hundred scientists and educators from around the world got together to improve their outreach skills. I was excited to participate in the class, and ended up enjoying it more than I ever expected.

My former advisor, Stephen Richter, identifying stream insects with local biology teachers.

Science outreach is loosely defined as any activity that raises the public's awareness of science. Unfortunately, that definition is a little too simplified. The "public" are a bunch of people: kindergartners, moms/dads, police, politicians, and retirees sitting on the beach in Florida. All of these groups have different values and a different perception of science, but in some way or another, science matters to all of them. 

Some scientists, including myself, think that there is a big disconnect between  scientists and the public. Unfortunately, scientists can tend to point a finger at the public for having a negative attitude towards science. In a study led by Dr. Elaine Ecklund from Rice University, a quarter of surveyed scientists suggested that the attitude of the public is the main difficulty in science outreach. In contrast, one graduate student interviewed in the study stated that she thinks the public views scientists as "snobby intellectuals making a judgement on high". 

I'm fortunate to be a scientist, and I believe that part of my job should be sharing my science with the public. I get the feeling that most scientists have historically viewed this outreach as optional or even frivolous. However, some scientists are suggesting that science outreach is quickly going to become a necessary part of keeping your research relevant, productive, and funded.

With that in mind, here are the four most important things I learned from five weeks of outreach training with some of the most interesting scientists in the world:

1. You should be able to explain your research to anyone, no matter how complicated.

"You see that new paper about experimental
Markov chain Monte Carlo simulation methods 
for phylogeny reconstruction?"
Most scientists have extremely narrow areas of expertise (I like Matt Might's explanation here). When you have studied a single area of science for years, you are standing on a gigantic heap of prior knowledge. This prior knowledge makes it possible to come up with ideas that are new to science, but also makes it easy to forget that most folks have no idea what half the words mean in that scientific article you are reading.

The solution to this problem seems to be getting practice putting yourself in your audience's shoes. Sounds easy right? 

Imagine you are explaining what you study to a bunch of 10-year-olds. What if I told you you can only use the 10,000 most common words in the English language? Try it!

Here is what I came up with to explain salamander genetics:
"I look at animals with four legs and wet skin. These animals are made of tiny parts that hold something that is like a book. The letters in these books make the way the animal looks, moves, and eats. I study how these wet skin animals share their books and letters with their babies."

That sounds pretty bad, but it sure is good practice! 

Beyond knowing your audience, it helps to refine your message. Science is complicated, but just focusing on a single idea or message can vastly improve your ability to communicate. My eyes have glazed over listening to other scientists (in my own discipline!) describe every detail of their research, and I've learned that focusing on a single idea makes things a lot easier. One method we learned to combat this is the message box from Nancy Barron's book Escape from the Ivory Tower

2. New technology makes for new ways to connect.

Connecting to people all over the world is easier than ever thanks to the internet and social media. Twitter is a neat way to put small bites of science out there for the public, take part in a community of other scientists, and stay on top of what issues are being talked about in science. I learned more about Twitter through these slides by Jeremiah Osborne-Gowey and this paper by Holly Bik and Miriam Goldstein. 

Once you get past the "whoa, I don't understand this" phase of using Twitter, you can quickly learn how to do cool things, like chat with high school students about their science questions and take part in impromptu scientific peer review

Twitter is just one example of how scientists are using the internet to reach out. Blogs (like this one!) are important tools for scientists to connect with the public, along with comics, videos, and podcasts. Please do yourself a favor and check out those links for diverse, fantastic video interviews from some of the most influential folks in these areas. 

3. There are a lot of people who care. And they care a lot.

The biggest thing I took away from the outreach course was the number of amazing scientists and educators that I met in the process. Sometimes the most inspiring experience you can have is connecting with others who share your passions. I've learned that there are enthusiastic grad students, tenured university faculty, and K-12 teachers all around the world who are always thinking about how to communicate more effectively. Just knowing that other people are out there making a difference is a huge boost to my desire to do the same.

Google hangouts with scientists and educators, like Elaine Brewer, make practicing science outreach easy.

4. If you want to get started, then get started.

In my scientific career, I am almost always careful and slow. I plan experiments carefully, write and rewrite papers until I am satisfied, and read dozens of papers before I am comfortable weighing in on a topic. This usually makes for good science, but I don't think this approach always makes for good outreach. 

Everyone's time is limited, but if you care about something strongly enough, you make time. Grad students' weekends in the lab, professors' late nights perfecting classroom presentations, and teachers' many hours of preparing demonstrations are all testaments to making time for the things that you love. 

So if you care about sharing science, go for it. 

Start a blog. Tweet it up. Go to a school. Give a presentation. Don't be embarrassed of what you do and certainly don't be embarrassed of wanting to share your passion. 

I'm more than willing to look silly if front of a colleague if I can put this look on someone's face:

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