One Postdoc’s Adventures in Science Education Outreach

abby buchwalter

Abby Buchwalter, postdoc and founder of SciChats, a science outreach program in California.

Ask a scientist why they don’t engage with the public, and they are likely to tell you that they simply don’t have the time. Experiments are unpredictable and demanding; it can be difficult to carve out an afternoon for an educational event. So why should scientists devote time to outreach?

Because the general public doesn’t have an accurate perception of your average scientist, as Aliyah Weinstein describes in her January 9th essay. Government officials once saw scientific research as a tool for innovation and progress, but now frequently paint it as frivolous. Scientists must take this change in popular opinion seriously, as decreased public support for science will directly impact our careers.

Related to this is the dissonance between how science is done and how it is taught. It wasn’t until I began working in a research laboratory in college that I realized that science wasn’t a list of facts to learn, but a growing, living discipline that I could contribute to. That revelation marks the moment that I fell in love with science. For me, the focus of outreach is not on dispensing knowledge, but on sharing experiences. By showing people what scientists are like and how we do our work, we can give the public a glimpse at how science progresses.

That said, weak political support for science and stale science curricula are enormous problems to solve. Here’s why I personally make an effort to set aside time for outreach: I believe that it makes me a better scientist.

Explaining what I do makes me think about the broader implications of my work, what the research trends are in my field, and how I fit in. This perspective makes me a better communicator with diverse audiences, from my neighbors to my grant reviewers.

As a postdoc, I am one of many similarly overeducated, anxious people hoping for jobs. My hours in the lab will hopefully generate scientific ideas that will help me to launch my career. But what about skills beyond the lab bench – such as leadership or project management? These are valuable tools that one can hone by getting involved in science education and outreach.

 

Getting started

When the Education Outreach department at The Salk Institute (where I am a postdoc) held an open meeting to discuss building a new outreach program, I saw a chance to get involved. Along with Nancy Swanberg, a teacher at nearby Del Mar Hills Academy, and our education outreach gurus Dona Mapston, a former teacher, and Ellen Potter, a neurobiologist and founder of Education Outreach at Salk, I set out to put the pieces together.

The key pieces we had were: a pool of biology expertise at the Salk Institute, an excellent teacher partner, and a science classroom equipped with technology tools including netbooks for each student and a setup for in-class video chatting. The final piece that I brought was the spark of an idea based on a text chatting program in the U.K. called I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here!

 

Putting together the program

We named our program SciChats, and started up in spring of 2014. Here’s how it works.

Using Skype, we pair a group of elementary school students with a volunteer scientist for informal lunch-hour chats about what it’s like to be a scientist.

One week before each scheduled chat session, the participant scientist fills out a profile describing their research interests, including an interesting piece of media related to their work. For instance, neuroscientist Eran Mukamel shared a movie of neurons firing in the brain of a running mouse.

This profile is posted on the SciChats blog, where the students view the profile and decide whether to sign up. On the day of the chat, the scientist and the teacher start a Skype video call. The scientist gives a short presentation (~15 minutes) while the students eat lunch. The scientist discusses how she/he became interested in science, what she/he works on, and why it’s important. The scientist will often revisit the media that they included in their profile and talk about it in more depth. The remaining ~20 minutes of the students’ lunch period is devoted to a free-ranging question-and-answer session. Questions can range from probing: “What are you trying to accomplish with all your work?” to entertaining: “Is it true that sharks never get cancer?”

After each chat, the students rate how well the scientist explained what she/he does and how interested the students are to learn more. The scores are recorded and the scientist with the highest score wins. The winning scientist receives a prize and visits the school to give a seminar for the students, parents, and teachers. Structuring the program as a game accomplishes two things: (1) it keeps the students excited and engaged, because they enjoy a chance to call the shots and (2) it encourages the best content from the scientists, because everyone wants to win!

SciChats kicked off in Spring 2014 with seven chats each featuring a different Salk scientist. Avani Gadani, a computational neuroscientist, was the winner. She received a prize funded by a COMPASS Outreach Grant and came along with me to Del Mar Hills Academy to meet the students and give a talk. We are now in the midst of our second run of SciChats, this time with 12 participant scientists.

 

What’s next?

It has been a challenge to balance SciChats with my research. We make it work by dividing responsibilities. Nancy Swanberg, our teacher participant, recruits the kids for the chats each week, records the Q&A portion of each chat, and administers the surveys. I recruit participant scientists and help them through the process of preparing their profile and presentation. Dona and Ellen publicize the program and make contacts with other interested parents and teachers to help the program grow.

As with any volunteer endeavor, there is more we would like to achieve with additional resources and time.

We are lucky to work with a great classroom of kids who listen and ask insightful questions. But these kids have excellent resources at their disposal. We want to bring this program to schools with less, where we can hope to make a bigger difference in educational outcomes. An exciting thing about SciChats is its simplicity. Most schools have an overhead projector and at least one computer with a webcam and an Internet connection.

Another long-term goal is to record and edit the winning scientists’ presentations for use as free, “iBiology style” educational videos.

The experience of building and running this program is something I could not have gotten within the traditional bounds of a postdoc. I had to step out of the lab and seek out this experience, and am so glad that I did. SciChats has enriched my postdoc experience in ways that I described at the beginning of this post, but also in ways that I could not have predicted. For instance, through interacting with other participant scientists, I am now much more informed about research that my colleagues are doing in all areas of biology at Salk. The best part of this experience by far has been watching students realize that there are so many questions left to answer about how our world works.

Do you have an outreach idea? Make it happen! Apply for a COMPASS Outreach Grant, get some friends together, and get going. You won’t regret it.

About the Author:


Abby Buchwalter is a postdoctoral fellow in Martin Hetzer's laboratory at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, where she studies nuclear organization. Email her at abbybuch@gmail.com.

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