This post is by UT Austin postdoc Tessa Solomon-Lane. Tessa is working with Hans Hofmann (UT), Travis Hagey (MSU), and Alexa Warwick (MSU) on public engagement at BEACON.
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Tessa Solomon-Lane engaging students at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History annual Science at Hand Day 2012
Public engagement. As someone in or pursuing a scientific career, chances are that you’ve engaged with the public about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), whether it was in an official capacity as a researcher or casually around the dinner table. We want to make public engagement skills and experience a standard part of the scientific training curriculum. Public engagement takes many forms that serve a wide range of goals. It can be generally defined as communication between STEM professionals and the non-STEM public about STEM topics, which are often at the intersection of science and society. You may know these efforts better as ‘outreach’; however, organizations such as the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology use ‘engagement.’ Engagement recognizes that these conversations are largely multi-directional, whereas outreach implies that the professional serves the public, with no value gained in return. Towards achieving our goal, we have begun to build an evidence-based framework within (and supported by) BEACON that aims to motivate, recruit, and train BEACONites and pair them with engagement opportunities to put their training into action.
A BEACONite engaging the public in a wicked guitar solo
There is no single best way to engage with the public about STEM, and BEACONites exemplify the diversity of approaches. Engagement can occur with many different audiences, from K-12 students to teachers to elected officials, and across numerous platforms that support such dialogue. Some BEACONites choose to engage face-to-face at events in schools, science festivals, museums, bars, community meetings, or in their research labs. Others use radio broadcasts and podcasts; write or give interviews for blogs, articles, and books; make videos and films; and more. There are even BEACONites whose job description includes facilitating engagement opportunities for others!
Travis Hagey engaging students at a local elementary science night in Moscow, Idaho
Why focus on public engagement at BEACON? Public engagement serves many different goals. One of the most commonly cited reasons is to increase scientific understanding. While this is a virtuous goal, it is a bit lofty and difficult to evaluate. For example, a classroom visit can have a lasting impact on students, but it cannot (and isn’t meant to) compensate for a less-than-rigorous science curriculum or lack of education funding. Others cite eligibility for funding opportunities, including to satisfy NSF’s Broader Impact requirements, increasing interest in STEM and related careers, building trust, demonstrating transparency, promoting diversity, and more. Engaging with the public can also be incredibly fun and rewarding!
Although these are all positive and valid reasons to engage, they are not specific to BEACON. BEACON should strive to be a trailblazer in public engagement because it is an NSF Center dedicated to training the very best scientists. Research shows that public engagement builds skills that are fundamental to professional success. When scientists communicate, consult, and participate with the public, it enhances their communication, teaching, and leadership skills. The process of preparing for and engaging with the public can also enrich scientists’ understanding of their own research and how it fits into a broader scientific context. You should already recognize this suite of benefits because they are the standard goals of professional development training. Yet the best practices for public engagement are rarely taught in graduate programs. In fact, engagement may even be discouraged because some see it as a waste of time.
2015 SACNAS field trip to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum co-organized by Alexa Warwick
Taking action. Our first steps towards the long-term goal of integrating public engagement skills and experience into the standard scientific training curriculum were to lead two sandboxes dedicated to public engagement at the 2016 BEACON Congress. The first sandbox brought together experts and novices to discuss the current state of public engagement at BEACON and to strategically plan for its future. Participants generated an incredibly comprehensive list of ‘ways to engage’, including activities at community health events; policy discussions; adapting scientific experiences for individuals with disabilities; engaging with school boards, parent teacher associations, and the home school community; and many more. From this list, it was clear that BEACONites already engage the public in unique and innovative ways, but these efforts are largely independent of one another, and it seems only a relatively small group of students, postdocs, and faulty consistently engage.
Tessa Solomon-Lane, with Hans Hofmann (far left) and Travis Hagey (left), at the 2016 BEACON Congress public engagement sandbox discussion
So how do we build a culture of engagement that serves BEACONites, the public, and BEACON’s legacy? Ideas for organizing and expanding public engagement tended to either work within the current university and funding systems or push for systemic change. Ultimately, both kinds of initiatives are needed.
To start, the language used to discuss public engagement can change immediately: it is necessary, not just a hobby. In addition to graduate teaching and research assistantships, public engagement assistantships could provide funding for trainees who want to specialize in this area. BEACON already funds public engagement postdoctoral fellowships, as well as education and diversity budget requests. Interdepartmental collaborations, between STEM and English, Advertising, Business, or Public Relations trainees, can also be mutually beneficial. For example, graduate students gain experience communicating across fields and the end product (e.g., a popular science article) can contribute to the scientist’s CV and the journalist’s portfolio. Faculty in these fields, who specialize in communicating with the public, are also valuable resources for engagement best practices. Finally, STEM faculty can publish on the value (and logistics) of public engagement. It may be particularly useful to make a case to universities using language from their own mission statements.
For systemic changes, the sandbox discussions focused on institutional and federal funding for public engagement training, research, and programs; shifting what is rewarded for tenure; and incorporating public engagement into search criteria and hiring committees. Support from senior faculty is especially critical for change at these levels.
The second sandbox was a hands-on workshop that guided participants in developing their own public engagement experience. Our approach involves directly adapting existing scientific materials, such as manuscripts, talks, posters, or grants, which can be further modified for different ages and audiences. This sandbox was a preview of our full day workshop, which will take place at UT Austin during the 2017 spring semester. The longer format will allow for practice, feedback, and local guest speaker Dr. Anthony Dudo, Assistant Professor of Advertising and Public Relations, who studies the science of STEM public engagement. Stay tuned for more information!
The feedback on our sandboxes was overwhelmingly positive! More than 96% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that the goals of the sandbox were met; 85% reported that their thinking about public engagement changed; and 54% made a new contact. We also received a number of comments that will help us improve future workshops. Download the notes from our sandboxes here.
Finally, we want to know about your public engagement! Let us know if and how you engage with the public about STEM topics and about your ideas for improving, organizing, or expanding public engagement at BEACON (and beyond). Fill out the survey HERE! Please respond before November 15th.
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