Outreach is an important part of research in order to engage the public in your work. It can take many forms depending on what your research looks like. Our research lab engages in several different types of outreach with a variety of types of audiences. Today we hosted our annual NanoDays Event. My advisor started this event based on her research many years ago and has now become a nationwide event.
This year we have bumped it up to two days to accommodate schools that traditionally come on the same day but had conflicting Spring Break schedules this year. Today’s students were part of a program called GEAR UP from App State. It helps students learn more about college so they are better prepared when they graduate. Here they are checking out the BookBot at NC State.
It’s very important for researchers of all types to engage in outreach, especially with youth. Some of these students had never been this far away from home before and got to go behind the scenes at an R1 school. They learned how nanofabrics are made, about iBionics, and even how to make nano ice cream using liquid nitrogen.
The head chaperone shared with us that she had a student who hadn’t shown any interest their entire trip (and that includes touring another university) until he got to help make Nano ice cream. She said he couldn’t stop smiling. It is awesome to have that kind of an impact on a student. It’s hard to predict what may trigger a student’s interest in a subject but if they are never given the opportunity it certainly won’t happen.
Outreach looks different for every type of research. Often we go into schools or take our research to science fairs and festivals. Today we had scientists giving lab tours while others came and did hands on demos about their work.
But outreach isn’t just good for students, it’s great for the researchers as well. It is very important that researchers learn how to communicate their findings to the public. It helps with public buy in and can improve general science literacy. With all the impending cuts to science funding, this is more important than ever.
Outreach also helps support teachers by supplementing the content they teach in the classroom. Scientists doing outreach in the formal classroom exposes students to real world applications and potential career choices. Research shows many kids have already decided on a career path by middle school and so if they aren’t exposed by then, then it is hard to redirect them. We are working so hard to increase interest in STEM and this is an important step.
How to get started doing outreach
So how do you get involved in outreach? First you need to think about your work what pieces of it has practical applications? Then figure out how to simplify it so the general public can understand it the science doesn’t have to be exact. If we’re honest, we know that no one will ever understand your work to the level of detail that you do and that’s ok! As long as you can share the general principles and the reasons why it’s important you’re in good shape!
Next you will need to think of interactive ways to share that information. What small pieces of your process might be appropriate for demos or interactive presentations? If you have a hard time figuring that out, I would recommend reaching out to an educator- an educational researcher, consultant, teacher, etc.
Once you have your activities planned, then you will want to decide how you want to engage the public. You can host your own event, partner with another event, or reach out to a school. It may be easier to partner with an existing program before developing your own. Then you can test your activities and timing before you are responsible for the whole event.
Here is an interesting editorial on the subject in Nature if you’re interested in learning more.
Do you do outreach? What does your outreach look like?
Until next time,