BEACON Researchers at Work: Effective Science Outreach

This week’s BEACON Researchers at Work post is by University of Texas at Austin graduate student Eben Gering.

What if, after years of work in the field or laboratory, every scientist had a chance to invite the public to dinner, and show them how discoveries are made? And what if the public came away from these events convinced that exciting and understandable research was being conducted by their neighbors, right in their own backyards? These are not hypothetical questions! Scientists, increasingly, are mandated to communicate our work with the public. If we get this right, we can ensure that the public remains informed about important issues affecting our health and environment, and understands the merits of basic research.

LOGO_by_VICKY_HUANGOne key challenge to effective outreach is that our professional training does not prepare us to communicate with non-scientific audiences. To help remedy this deficiency, the graduate students at The University of Texas at Austin formed Science Under the Stars in 2009. The program’s organizers have designed it to accomplish both outreach, and outreach training, simultaneously. The public gets to learn first hand about the exciting work being done by our speakers, while the organizers and speakers train ourselves in effective scientific outreach.  Over the course of 4+ years, we have learned a lot about producing successful outreach events. I would like to use this opportunity to share what makes Science Under the Stars work well, in hopes that some of it will be inspiring or useful to other scientists and educators.

1) Graduate students comprise a talented and tireless team. Our best resource has been the enthusiasm and diverse interests of integrative biology graduate students. Most of our speaker volunteers, and all of the organizers, came from this pool. For most of our speakers, the series provided a first opportunity to discuss their scientific interests with the public. Speakers were thus contagiously enthusiastic about their selected topics, and worked tirelessly to develop high quality presentations. For our organizers, the series offered a chance to develop and/or deploy skills of their choosing, from website development to creating educational activities. Our graphics, website, advertisements and programming were created by a dedicated and talented groups of organizers (whom you can meet on the program’s website).

LAURA_DUGAN_PHOTO_BY_IAN_WRIGHT2) Most scientists can benefit from coaching in outreach. One of the more important tasks undertaken by a subset of our organizers is preparing speakers to deliver accessible and engaging presentations. Academics are accustomed to giving hour-long technical presentations, and most of us require practice to avoid jargon while explaining scientific concepts. To keep talks accessible to non-scientists, Science Under the Stars organizers provided speakers with guidance and feedback on their selected themes and figures. We also quickly learned to keep presentations short (<30 minutes), and to allow plenty of time for questions. The audience invariably has questions, and is highly enthusiastic about interacting with speakers if sufficient time is given.

3) Location and atmosphere are important to the public. We were also strategic in selecting the venue for our events. Science Under the Stars is held outdoors (weather permitting) at The Brackenridge Laboratory of the University of Texas. This 80-acre field station lies in the heart of Austin. It provides both accessibility and a terrific ambience, complete with trees, butterfly-filled greenhouses, insect song and a fire pit.

3) Effective outreach doesn’t have to be expensive. In our first year, we ran Science Under the Stars on a shoestring budget, and borrowed most of our equipment from UT. With funding from BEACON (NSF) and Integrative Biology (UT), the program was later able to acquire dedicated equipment at the Brackenridge lab, including folding chairs, a PA system, and a large projection screen that makes for visually stunning presentations. Other items (e.g. our projector) were donated by UT’s College of Natural Sciences. Topics covered in past events range from an expedition to Antarctica to theoretical studies of pathogen evolution. At each event, organizers provide food, drink, and children’s activities themed around the topic of the evening. We have also held special events ad hoc including film competitions and field station tours. These low-cost activities have allowed us to keep our operating costs low as our audience grew in size.

My own involvement with Science Under the Stars concluded this spring, and was one of the most valuable and rewarding components of my graduate education. It left me with a strong drive to continue developing scientific outreach programs in the coming years. While I am not sure what form this will take, I think that programs resembling Science Under the Stars could be highly successful beyond Austin.

Over the years, Science Under the Stars began to accumulate a group of “regulars” of all ages and backgrounds. As our events were concluding, question and answer sessions often broadened into an open forum in which children, faculty, students and citizens traded thoughts, knowledge and questions about the topic of the evening.  It seemed to me that the organizers had, in these moments, created an effective and unusual form of outreach.

One of the things that sets the series apart is that it focuses on graduate student speakers, and thereby prepares young scientists to engage the public and media as opportunities arise. Another attractive feature of the format is that it engages adults as well children. By including adults in scientific outreach (which often targets only k-12 children) we can insure that today’s voters will make informed decisions, and instill enthusiasm for science in the home.

HAYLEY_GILLESPIE_PHOTO_BY_IAN_WRIGHT

To learn more about Science Under the Stars, including an overview of past talks and current and past organizers, please visit the program’s website (http://scienceunderthestars.org/). 

About Danielle Whittaker

Danielle J. Whittaker, Ph.D. Managing Director of BEACON
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