What Is Outreach and Why Do It?
Outreach, or public engagement, is the nexus between science education, communication, and policy. The common element of all outreach is engaging the general public in the world of science. Outreach can take many forms, from working with elementary school kids in science fairs, to art exhibitions on science, to hosting monthly science discussions in cafes for the general public.
There are many reasons to do to outreach. Outreach by scientists can increase public support and awareness of science in general and can help increase public understanding of specific issues, which can lead to more informed choices. Participating in outreach activities can also be stimulating for scientists and enhance their creativity and motivation.
How to Get Started
Determine your goals. Do you want to: tell the world everything about your field of research? Contribute to public debate about scientific issues? Inspire a new generation of scientists? Improve the science capital of specific social groups? Help reduce the attainment gap for disadvantaged students? Involve the public in your research?
Determine your audience. Consider what sector of the general public you want to engage, such as families with young children, teenagers, interested adults, patient groups, community organizations, school children of different ages, or policy makers.
Develop a Plan.
- What is the most efficient and cost-effective way to achieve your main goal?
- What are your strengths and experience?
- Do you need training (e.g., training in recording/editing or social media communications before starting a blog/podcast)?
- Consider forming an advisory group to help with different aspects of planning and delivery (e.g., school teachers, science communicators, press officers, etc.).
- Do you need to conduct a risk assessment? In the UK, for example, working with groups of vulnerable adults or with children requires specific paperwork and disclosures.
- Develop a good evaluation system and use the feedback to improve your activity.
Work with a Community Partner.
A partner can extend your reach. You may be able to find a partner within your organization or external to it. Some examples of internal partners include Outreach/Public engagement team; Widening participation/broader impacts teams; Press Office; Marketing/PR department; Other scientists involved in public engagement. Partners external to your organization may include Science festivals; Local schools/science teachers; STEM network (UK); Local museum(s) and science centers; Local coffee shops/pubs (Café Scientifique, etc.); Community groups/organizations/centers; and libraries.
Wherever they may be found, partners can:
- Facilitate your activity by providing resources/space/audience (e.g., science museums)
- Give you a different perspective and/or complement your activity (art-science collaborations)
- Open your activity to a new audience (community groups).
- Provide expertise to develop your activity (e.g., working with school teachers in curriculum development)
- Provide the training you need for your activity (e.g., media training, etc.).
You may have a great outreach idea, but unless you obtain funding it will never be realized. Some examples of funding sources include your institution, civic organizations such as the Rotary Club, or libraries, museums, and zoos. See resource list for more ideas.
Develop Feedback, Evaluation, and Sustainability.
Evaluating your activity allows you to analyze your program and improve it. Many funders require assessment so plan ahead about how you will solicit evaluations or feedback. Consider getting feedback not just from participants, but also from volunteers, organizers, and other stakeholders. It often takes time for an outreach program to get off the ground, and usually takes several iterations to get the kinks out of the program. Use the feedback to improve the program. It is a good idea to conduct various types of evaluations. These include pre- and post- event surveys to assess changes in specific content knowledge or attitudes; collecting demographic data; reflective feedback and Interviews.
Podcasting to the general public (skills needed: recording/editing/interviews):
- @StarTalkRadio hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson
- @themonkeycage The infinite monkey cage (BBC) hosted by Prof Brian Cox and Robin Ince
- 60-Second Science hosted by Scientific American Team
Blogging to the general public (skills needed: blogging/social media):
Science festivals (skills needed: communications and event design):
Workshops/talks in public spaces like malls, parks, etc.:
School outreach (skills needed: verbal communication):
- STEM ecosystems
- Career fairs for high school (skills needed: verbal communication)
- UK: Routes into Employment events
- Career fairs normally held at high schools but also big regional events
- Career event “speed-dating” scientists
School curriculum development for teachers (skills needed: knowledge of the school curriculum areas relevant to your research area):
- NIH Curriculum supplements
- STEM Education outreach events
- Building with Biology
- DNA Day
- NC DNA day has specific resources and activities
- What are the cultural norms of STEM and why do they matter?
Organizing Public Engagement Events:
- Beltane Public Engagement Network
- TED talks:
- Nancy Duarte uncovers common structure of greatest communicators:
- Melissa Marshall: “Talk Nerdy to me”
- Tyler Dewitt (aimed at teachers, but could be useful)
- Café Scientifique
- Pint of Science
- Science Cafes
- Bright club (UK): Stand up comedy performed by scientists
- Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas (UK): Organized during the Edinburgh International Festival. A scientist takes on a controversial topic and then there is a Q&A/open debate session.
- Museums at Night events (UK): Evenings in which the museum is open only for adults; there is live music and bars open and lots of stalls for public engagement with science. There is normally a theme to the night.
- What does working with and not for our communities look like?
Potential Funding Sources
- National Science Foundation
- Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation
- Simons Foundation: Science Sandbox
- Sloan Foundation: Public Understanding of Science, Technology & Economics
- Rita Allen Foundation
- ASCB COMPASS Outreach Grants
- The Royal Society, Partnership Grants
- MRC Public Engagement in Science Activities Seed Fund
- Medical Research Foundation (MRF) Alexander Fleming Dissemination Scheme
- Royal Biological Society Outreach and Engagement Grants
- Microbiology Society Education and outreach grants
- Wellcome Trust