The why and how of science outreach (part I)

Over the past decade as a grad student and postdoc I’ve spent a fair chunk of time thinking about how to do science outreach. By “science outreach” all I mean is efforts by academic parties (institutions or people) to communicate about science outside of academia. This could be events like a “Reptiles Day” at the local museum, an academic writing science articles for lay audiences, or a graduate student visiting classrooms to teach about pollination.

I thought it might be useful to reflect on my involvement with outreach endeavors, which have ranged from curriculum development to branding to finding funding for new outreach initiatives. As with anything, there are better and worse ways to do outreach, and the only way we figure out better ways is to think about what worked and what didn’t. Because I’m long-winded, I’ve split the post into two parts — the second part will be posted shortly.

Why do outreach?

First it’s useful to think about why we do science outreach. There are lots of answers to that question. For me, it comes down to two connected observations, one rooted in aesthetics, one in ethics. First, the scientific method, and the knowledge resulting from it, are simply beautiful parts of our world. Remember the awe you felt the first time you saw a goose flock flying in formation, or learned how photosynthesis works? Remember the joy of answering a biological question with an experiment you designed yourself? These are sublime experiences. And this leads naturally to the second reason I do outreach — to the vast majority of the world, the wonders of science, the potential to be a scientist, to participate in this endeavor of understanding the world, are almost wholly inaccessible. It’s akin to why we have art museums — everyone should have the opportunity to experience, and be inspired by, the collective works of humanity.

There is often an argument that we need to increase diversity in science because diversity leads to better science, in the sense of novelty or productivity. And this is likely true! But it’s not necessary to justify DEI initiatives. A much more basic supposition to hang our hat on is that having opportunities for individuals to engage with science be so constrained is fundamentally unethical — just as restricted access to fresh water, or education, or artistic expression, is restriction of basic human rights. (The fact that our science is almost wholly funded by a public that gets almost no say in the process or exposure to the results is a related moral failing.)

Thus I feel a strong need to share science with the world, in no small part due to the fact that I had little exposure to it myself growing up. If someone in as privileged a position as I am can come this close to not even realizing a career as an ecologist was a possible career path, imagine the barriers in place for groups truly disadvantaged. For me, addressing those barriers comes down to a dual-pronged approach of 1) what we can do within academia itself (mentoring, increasing representation and retention, removing financial barriers, etc.) and 2) engaging in the wonderful endeavor of science with our surrounding communities via outreach.

So that’s the philosophical basis of my outreach efforts. Though I’ve done various smaller, more ephemeral activities like Science Olympiad, here I’ll focus on three projects that differ in interesting / useful ways. One large, diffuse effort; one targeted classroom effort; one long-term, more intensive effort.

Market Science

A large and diverse group of scientists engaging with their communities at many informal public venues

In 2014, Mohamed (Mo) Yakub, Jessica Biever, and Alyson Center (UMN PMB graduate students) received a UMN IonE grant to pilot a program called Market Science (MS). The idea was to bring science outreach from the university directly to informal public spaces, like farmers markets, based on the observation that scientists don’t interact with the public very much. Groups (usually, but not always, lab groups) would go to a local farmers market, set up a booth with engaging activities and infographics, and lead sessions on some topic in the natural sciences. I got involved during the first year of the program, contributing to sessions on pollination, botany, and the like. Both the public and the participating scientists really enjoyed the program, and Mo was able to secure more funding from IonE and CBS. I joined him and two other UMN scientists (Ryan Briscoe Runquist and Beth Fallon) on the inaugural MS board.

I focused mainly on recruitment and logistics, and building a sustainable outreach framework that could persist after we were gone. By the time I left, Market Science was involving more than one hundred scientists presenting dozens of unique curricula reaching more than 5,000 visitors per year. I’m sure these stats have gone up since I left. That’s a pretty incredible outreach effort! And it was super diverse, with sessions covering everything from pollination to neurobiology to geology to genetics. Mo and Ryan were successful in convincing the college to provide institutional support for the program, and Market Science is now one of the largest outreach arms of CBS, with paid leadership and graduate student positions.

What worked / key takeaways

Basically, I think every university should have a program akin to Market Science. As we saw with MS, labs want to share their science! They just usually have very few opportunities to do so, or have no idea how to go about it. Here’s what I think really made MS work well:

  • MS took care of the logistics. The most essential role MS played, in my eyes, is providing the logistical framework for labs to easily do outreach — we picked the venues, we set up the reservations and supplied equipment, we provided necessary support along the way. All you need to do is develop curricula, show up, and be excited about sharing science with your community.
  • MS helped with curriculum / content development. The MS team helped lab groups think of engaging curricula and activities for their lab sessions. And because many MS sessions overlapped somewhat in topic (e.g., botany and tropical forests), we often had relevant content ready for use in new sessions. In later years, the UMN Biology Teaching and Learning group helped us create content and host curriculum development workshops, which was stellar!
  • MS was scalable because it was modular. We experienced essentially exponential growth the first few years, in both volunteer participation and visitors reached. Though it was a lot of work, and we did slowly bring on more people to help, we were largely able to handle the growth because each event was a self-contained module. Every group (2-6 people) was leading one module at one venue, and we provided a box with all of the general supplies (plus any special supplies they needed for their session). As long as labs were interested in leading sessions, you could really do as many simultaneous events as you had supply boxes.
  • MS showcased diverse scientists and met diverse communities in their own spaces. A big part of MS’s mission was simply to show people who scientists are — it’s not just white dudes bending over microscopes in the bowel of a university building (though that is, regrettably, often me). There are all sorts of scientific and personal identities doing awesome science all over the world. We also focused on going to informal public spaces (importantly, those not usually associated with science) to engage with communities often underserved by academic outreach. Though farmers market attendees are admittedly not often thought of as an underserved STEM demographic, we especially tried to attend markets and fairs that drew underserved communities in the Twin Cities.
  • MS had good branding. I hate to say it, because I kind of despise the whole ad industry, but image and branding matters. It provides continuity with the public, and plus, volunteers love swag. It’s easy enough to mock up a logo (you can always make a better one later — I will get one made for you if you are at a loss!) and have T-shirts and a printed vinyl banner. You can hopefully find some small department funds for this.

This was one of the MS activities I designed that I think demonstrates a good balance of being fun while also being valuable / educational. The idea was to teach folks about mycorrhizal fungi and their relationships with plants. So I built a wooden “tree”, that had roots (the brown pipe cleaners), with velcro pads attached to them. There was a big bin of pink and blue balls (“nutrients” and “water”) that also had velcro pads attached. Kids had 10 seconds to “root” around in the bin to see how many balls they could grab with their tree roots. We recorded the data on a whiteboard (which also had all the other “replicates” of the kids before them). Then they attached the “mycorrhizal hyphae” (white pipe cleaners with velcro pads) to the roots, and dove into the bin for another 10 seconds. Then they compared the results for water/nutrient foraging with and without hyphae. Obviously, when you have hyphae on your roots, you can grab more nutrients and water! I focused on kids learning 1) the basic idea of this symbiosis (its structure and mechanism), 2) some new fungal vocabulary (“hyphae”), and 3) how data are collected and how you compare responses between “treatments”

Hurdles (some surmounted, some evergreen)

  • You can’t slack on quality control. Labs / groups had free reign to design whatever curricula they wanted for their session. Though we were available to help with curricula design, sometimes groups didn’t ask and they ended up with a somewhat less than titillating session. We got better at this as time went on, as we implemented regular “check-ins” leading up to the session date, but overall it’s just really important to make sure the groups have engaging, age-appropriate content for the session. The key thing you want is activities that are both fun and valuable — see the mycorrhizal activity in the photo above for one example.
  • Designing curricula for multiple age groups isn’t easy. Five-year-olds are interested in different things than 45-year-olds. And in the informal public venues where MS operates, you will get everyone from toddlers to senior citizens coming to your table. We usually tried to have a couple hands-on, fun activities available for kids, and more static / infographic-type materials available for adults to peruse (and they often just enjoyed talking to the MS volunteers about their research). Finding the right balance can be tricky, but is not impossible.
  • Consistent funding is hard to get. There are usually some small grants available that one could cobble together, but you do need some line of “institutional funding” to (sustainably) support the infrastructure of a huge outreach initiative like MS. We were very lucky to have someone like Mo Yakub, who was amazing at convincing the department / college to fund MS. But in general, I’d just argue that departments and colleges should be excited to do this! It’s a lot of bang for your buck, in terms of getting the institution’s name out there, showcasing research, and giving scientists valuable experience interacting with non-scientists.
  • Assessment is essential but difficult. There is a big difference between trying to do good and doing good, but it’s often pretty hard to know where your efforts are falling along that line. We didn’t try assessing MS until a few years in, and found it hard to get meaningful assessment data from these relatively quick, one-time interactions. We did have a lot of repeat visitors (mostly families that visited the farmers market every weekend), so there was an opportunity to get some longitudinal data, we just didn’t get around to implementing that. But there are many people thinking about how to do assessment well, so this is not an insurmountable obstacle.
  • Outreach done well requires a significant time investment. Growing a program like MS is a lot of work, there’s no doubt about it. And running sessions on the weekend definitely meant those hours weren’t spent writing our dissertations! We eventually got support via undergrad assistants, as well as modest stipends for session leaders, but in the early days, starting a program like this will require a good chunk of time. But it’s worth it! And there are lots of ways to increase efficiency so that it doesn’t slow down your research too much (I can chat specifics with you if you are starting up your own efforts).

The strengths of MS lie in its impressive reach and diversity of topics. But because MS operates in informal public venues, where folks are “dropping by” as they peruse the market or fair, interactions with the public are short, usually 10 minutes at most. Indeed, this is precisely why MS is able to reach thousands of kids and adults every year! But I started to wonder what complementary outreach avenues might be taken to engage the public longer-term. I wanted to see if I could develop a project that allowed kids a more immersive interaction with science, where there was enough time to start and complete a project that gave them a better sense of what the scientific process really looks like. So that’s what I’ll cover in part II — a classroom-based project at the middle school near my field sites in rural Southern California, and Backyard Science, a long-term urban ecology and natural history program I started in the Twin Cities.

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