Public outreach is an essential piece of the scientific endeavor. Federal funding is a critical driving force for cell biology, and that funding must have taxpayer support. Without a basic understanding of the scientific process, this public support is likely to decline. Recently, the scientific community has watched with growing concern an increasingly vocal public distrust of science and academia.
The good news is that there have been increased efforts among scientists to actively engage with their communities through public outreach. As Ann Lavanway of Dartmouth College states, “Demystifying science [through outreach] is the first step in getting the public to appreciate the importance of science in their everyday lives.” Among the most visible of these efforts was the March for Science event and associated initiatives, the second of which was held in April. In addition to the March for Science in Washington, DC, many smaller communities held rallies and/or marches to communicate non-partisan support for the scientific endeavor. At my local marches in New Haven, CT, in both 2017 and 2018, public attendees of all ages and backgrounds were engaged by hands-on activities and scientists sharing their personal stories.
I frequently hear colleagues express an interest in getting involved in community outreach, but too often this is followed up with “I don’t even know where to start.” I hope to illuminate those first few steps and that this piece can serve as a basic roadmap of how to get involved in activities already taking place and to give you ideas to initiate your own outreach events.
Get the lay of the land and identify potential allies
Just as your experimental design relies upon the advancements others have made before you, it is best to utilize pre-existing programs and resources available for outreach at your institution. There may be dedicated “outreach” groups you can contact. Even if there are not, multiple institutional offices and groups will be able to give you information on who is doing outreach and what programs and community affiliations are already established (see table below).
Determine the groups that are being served by established outreach efforts and how well any of these align with your goals and expertise. Are the programs for an adult audience, for school children, or for under-represented minorities? What do these programs focus on? Biomedical advances? Basic research? The scientific method? If there is an ongoing event that fits your desired target audience and subject material, get involved with that program instead of duplicating efforts and dividing the target audience.
|Resource – Institution||Details|
|Office of Grants and Projects||NSF grants have had a specific “Broader Impacts” section since 1997. What do NSF-funded investigators do to fulfill these obligations?|
|Office of Community Interaction/Public Communications||This office will likely have information on pre-existing programs as well as contacts for community resources.|
|Office of the Provost – Fundraising||This office may have specific “engagement” or “outreach” officers who can provide information on community contacts, funding opportunities, and preexisting efforts.|
|Office of the Education Department||Find local teachers with established connections to the institution through student teacher programs. This office will also have information on special training required to work with young people.|
|Graduate Student/Postdoctoral groups||Some institutions have dedicated student/postdoc groups for outreach. If present at your institution, these will already have programs you can get involved in.|
|Resource – Community|
|Libraries||Libraries are community hubs and often hold public programs. The librarians will be able to give you information on previous events and contacts for potential allies in the community.|
|Museums||As with libraries, these may serve as venues for your activity and can provide contact information for interested parties.|
|Young people’s groups: 4H, Boys & Girls Clubs/After School Alliance, Girl/Boy Scouts||These groups provide a ready list of potential attendees for your event, can advertise to their communities, and have information on the legal requirements for working with minors.|
Determine your activity
If you decide to initiate your own program, identify an unfulfilled need that flows logically with preexisting programs and has a reasonable budget given your resources. Perhaps there are activities for young children and for adults but nothing for young adults. Maybe graduate students visit local classrooms to discuss the scientific method, but there are no follow-up programs for students to engage in hands-on experimentation. Prioritize active learning techniques (See https://ctl.yale.edu/ActiveLearning for resources on this topic) and limit the amount of content you want to share. Having extra discussion time for interaction between attendees and facilitators is preferable to squeezing in extra content. People will better remember a few, well-communicated points than a deluge of facts.
When determining the specific activity, consider the intersection between the specialties of interested allies and the target audience. Early on, investigate any special considerations necessitated by your target audience, such as required training for working with minors. This may complicate the planning process and affect which target audience(s) you work with. As early as possible, work on a budget and identify appropriate funding sources, because this will also impose limitations on what activities can be planned.
Organize your event
In my experience, one of the biggest challenges for planning outreach programs is the same as for any event with multiple collaborators: keeping track of what needs to be done and who is doing it, and keeping in frequent contact with involved parties. Meetings either in person or via teleconferencing are often more effective than long email chains for getting everyone on the same page and making sure progress is being made at an acceptable rate. The more parties that are involved, the more complicated this part of the process will be. With that in mind, forge a small number of alliances with groups/departments/offices at your institution to help organize and run the event, as well as a community contact to help reach your target audience. Use these allies to determine and book an appropriate venue. Consider how the target audience and activities will affect this. A local bar may be a suitable place for holding a panel discussion for adults but is inappropriate for hands-on activities or young children.
When working with schools, it is best to work with your institution’s outreach or education office and use preexisting partnerships. This not only allows you to tap into any training programs that already exist but improves the sustainability of your program by enabling collaboration with multiple schools. Individual schools may not have the resources to support external visitors and programs, especially on an ongoing basis. Prior to the event, contact teachers to determine current topics and what you can expect students to already know.
Reach out for volunteer facilitators and speakers through targeted mailing lists (e.g., relevant departments, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and outreach groups) and implement a vetting process. Explicitly communicate expectations and remind volunteers that they will be serving as the face of their profession during the event. If there will be speakers, hold auditions and require rehearsals with non-experts to provide feedback from the perspective of a lay audience. Encourage volunteers to invite questions from attendees and listen carefully. These questions have the potential to give volunteers a better idea of the scientific background attendees have and what they are interested in.
Plan all the event details
- Plan the date and time of your event with your institution and community calendar in mind. Consider other events that you do not want to compete with for attendees and events that you could partner with or follow up on to encourage ongoing community engagement.
- How, where, and to whom will you advertise?
- Are RSVP’s or registrations required?
- How will you communicate logistical details to registrants prior to the event?
- Who will greet attendees at the door and provide logistical information/directions?
- Will people be hungry at the time of day you are planning your event? How will you feed them and how might this affect their attention?
- If students are being dropped off by parents, how will you monitor the pickup process at the end of your event?
- How will you monitor attendance?
- Where will you get any necessary materials, and how will these be paid for? ASCB’s COMPASS offers Outreach Grants to help defray expenses. Plan your event far enough in advance and with sufficient detail that you can provide a budget when applying for funding from this and other sources. What can you get donated? Look into venues that will allow you to use the space free of charge, and contact local companies to sponsor activities.
Make it sustainable
When planning your event, start small and aim for sustainability. How will you keep the program going in the long-term? Multiple unconnected events may seem useful at first glance, but Claudia Merson, the Director of Public School Partnerships at Yale University, describes this strategy as “1,000 flowers, but no garden.” Your focus should be on landscaping a garden, not collecting random flowers. How will you keep the material fresh for follow-up events? Ask speakers to reach out to their networks and recommend new speakers. They will have a good sense of others in their community who are interested in “sharing their gift” through public outreach.
Keep estimates of attendance, which is critical for securing funding for next events from granting agencies and support from your institution. If your institution has an outreach office with a mechanism for tracking attendance by school children (e.g., the Yale University Pathways program), plug into this resource. Advertise your event at other outreach programs and advertise for these at your event to encourage repeat attendance.
There are two essential components to running a successful outreach program: keep everything as organized as possible and enjoy yourself! Outreach events are an amazing opportunity to renew your excitement about science and investment in your research while working to increase scientific literacy in your community. These activities have the opportunity to benefit both sides and correct misconceptions that scientists and the public may have of each other. Additionally, your research can directly benefit from outreach work. Personally, if I do not engage with the broader community, I find it is easy to focus excessively on failed experiments and tedious optimization and lose sight of the big picture. The unbridled excitement in the face of a child who just saw something as mundane as an air bubble for the first time through a microscope reminds me just how amazing it is that my job is to push the bounds of human knowledge. With a bit of effort and enthusiasm, I can encourage that child to envision a future in STEM and help his or her parents understand why we spend their tax dollars on research.
Special thanks to Ann Lavanway, Maria Parente, Claudia Merson, Valerie Grover, and Daniel Goduti.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.