Have you ever taken part in a science outreach event? Three years ago, I heard the expression “science outreach” for the first time. A friend of mine asked me to participate in a science outreach event called the Flipped Science Fair. I had no clue what science outreach meant or what a “Flipped Science Fair” was, but participating in this turned out to be one of the most impactful experiences of my life.
Science outreach, or public engagement, includes those events and activities whose goal is to provide opportunities for interactions between scientists and members of the public.
The activities are aimed at:
- Increasing the accessibility of scientific information to a lay audience
- Fostering a greater understanding of science and the scientific method
- Providing the public with greater insights about science-related issues through direct interaction with experts in a specific field
These events come in different flavors including museum exhibitions and film screenings, discussion of scientific topics at community breakfasts or in local cafes, as well as direct involvement of the community in scientific projects and science fairs.
The Flipped Science Fair is a science outreach event in which the traditional science fair format is inverted. Middle-school students are not evaluated after their development of a research project, but instead, they are asked to assume the role of “judges” for graduate students’ and postdocs’ research projects presented in a poster format. The Flipped Science Fair has two main goals. First, it creates opportunities for middle-school students to discuss science in an informal setting in order to expose them to science early enough in their education to encourage them to consider pursuing science majors in college. Second, it aims to formally train graduate students and postdocs in science communication to a lay audience. This training consists of three workshops before the event where the presenters are taught how to effectively explain their research to a general audience and to graphically represent the content of their science in an intuitive manner.
I first participated as a presenter. I greatly benefited from the science communication training. All of my lab mates immediately noticed an improvement in the clarity and quality of my oral and visual presentations. I gained more confidence in public speaking and in presenting my elevator pitch in front of my poster at scientific conferences. In addition, I enjoyed the interactions with the curious and inquisitive middle-schoolers so much that I subsequently became more engaged in science outreach and contributed to the organization of the Flipped Science Fair the following year.
Organizing a science outreach event can be challenging, but with the right resources, it is surprisingly manageable to navigate every step of this experience and coordinate a successful public engagement event.
My personal experience taught me some key ingredients required for the successful organization of a science outreach event:
- Have clear goals and develop a plan. When the goals of the event are clear, it is easier to draw a timeline and plan all the necessary steps to organize the event, including the recruitment and training of participants, selection of a suitable venue, and design of a marketing campaign. Moreover, clear goals make it easier to identify the best methods to assess the effectiveness of the event.
- Know your audience. Science outreach events can be targeted to very different types of audiences. Every audience has a different background, skillset, and set of experiences that can influence science communication and engagement. Use vocabulary that is accessible to the target audience, and include graphics, metaphors, and practical examples that are accessible to that audience.
- Collect pre- and post-event evaluations and participant feedback. It is important to track how well the event goals have been achieved in order to know what to improve during the next iteration of the event. Ask for feedback from all of the persons involved: organizers, participants, and volunteers, ideally crafting different evaluation forms tailored to each group. It is critical to identify what can be improved for all of the different facets of the event. Gather demographic data, assess efficacy by collecting participants’ feedback at the end of the event, and prepare pre- and post-event surveys, especially if one of the goals of the event is to improve knowledge of a scientific topic or training in specific skills. Be aware that funding agencies may require specific types of assessments and these metrics should be determined well in advance of the event.
- Track the long-term impact of the event. One of the most sensitive aspects of science outreach programs is the evaluation of the long-term impact of the event on the participants. In our case, we partnered with Pathways to Science, Yale’s coordinated STEM outreach infrastructure, to measure the Flipped Science Fair effectiveness in the long term. The Pathways program maintains an extensive, longitudinal database of their students that tracks their academic status through their college education. Organizers without such support systems can begin by keeping the participant contact information and passing it on if event organizers change. This will position future leaders to follow up.
- Obtain funding. Science outreach events can be expensive. Initiatives typically need economic support to be effective. The Flipped Science Fair has been supported by training grants and programs across Yale University and by community partners. In 2018, the Flipped Science Fair was awarded an ASCB Public Engagement Grant supported by Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation.
- Have fun! The key ingredient for effective science communication is passion and enthusiasm about science. If you can transmit your excitement to the public, the success of your event is guaranteed!
It is important to understand that the organization of or the participation in a science outreach program can be demanding. It requires an investment of time, resources, and innovative thinking. I was surprised, however, at all of the positive ways my participation enriched both my science and my life. I have become a better and more effective science communicator. Importantly for me, when I see the amazement and enchantment of children viewing the beauty of scientific discoveries, I remember why I decided to become a scientist in the first place. Moreover, the questions raised by the general public remind me of the issues that are relevant to society. These experiences help me reframe the questions I seek to answer when I go back to the lab.
General concepts of science outreach
Center for Public Engagement with Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Theory of Change for Public Engagement with Science”.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2017).
Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education, “What is Informal Science?”)
Examples of science outreach events
Direct involvement of the community in scientific projects
The Moss-in-Prison Project: Disseminating Science beyond Academia; Nalini M. Nadkarni; Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Vol. 4, No. 8 (Oct. 2006), pp. 442-443.
Ramirez-Andreotta MD, Brody JG, Lothrop N, Loh M, Beamer PI, Brown P. 2016. Improving Environmental Health Literacy and Justice through Environmental Exposure Results Communication. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 8;13(7):690-717. PMID: 27399755.
Friedman, D.P. (2008) Public outreach: a scientific imperative. J Neurosci 28:11743-11745.
Mervis, J. (2010). Let’s Have the Kids Judge. Science. Vol. 329, Issue 5989, pp. 270.DOI: 10.1126/science.329.5989.270-e.
Mernoff, B., Aldous A.R., Wasio N.A., Kritzer, J.A., Sykes, E.C.H. and O’Hagan K. (2017). A reverse science fair that connects high school students with university researchers. J. Chem. Educ.2017942171-176
DeClue, M. E., Johnson, K., Hendrickson, H., Keck, P. (2000) Stimulate High School Science Fair Participation by Connecting with a Nearby College. J. Chem. Educ. 77 (5), 608−609.
de Lacalle, S., Petruso, A. (2012). The Value of Partnerships in Science Education: A Win-Win Situation. J. Undergrad. Neurosci. Educ. 11 (1), A97−A105.
Fink, R. D. (2009). It’s Elementary: Science Buddies Bring Biology to Life. PLoS Biol. 7 (8), 1−3.
Other useful resources
American Academy of Arts and Science. “Encountering Science in America. A report from the public face of science initiative”. 2019
American Academy of Arts and Science. “Perceptions of Science in America. A report from the public face of science initiative”. 2019ip
About the Author:
Lorena Benedetti grew up in a small village in Trentino, the butterfly-shaped province of Northeast Italy located in the heart of the Alps and Europe. She attended the University of Milan, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degree in Medical Biotechnology and Translational Medicine. During her studies, she fell in love with the beauty and complexity of the nervous system and she decided to join the laboratory of Dr. Pietro De Camilli at Yale University as a postdoc. There she received extensive training in live cell imaging technologies in cell biology and became intrigued by the possibility to manipulate, and not only image, biological processes with light. She currently works at HHMI Janelia Research Campus on a collaborative project in Tim Ryan’s and Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz’s labs focused on the study of the role of the endoplasmic reticulum at the nerve terminal. She is active in undergraduate and graduate student training and in science outreach initiatives. She is a member of the Public Information Committee (PIC) of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) which supports activities to promote science engagement with the general public. She was awarded with the ASCB Public Engagement Grant in 2018, an initiative of the Simons Foundation funded by Science Sandbox.