What is scientific outreach? Why do it? According to Varner (2014), this is “an umbrella term for a variety of activities by research institutes, universities and institutions such as science museums aimed at promoting public awareness (and understanding) of science and making informal contributions to science education.
Outreach popped up as the first topic of the semester in a student-led physics pedagogy graduate seminar that I mm teaching this semester. We spent the first hour of the session compiling an impressive list of outreach activities at University of British Columbia. These ranged from typical (family demonstration events, science fairs, physics exam competitions, etc) to exotic. For example, a collaboration between the Quantum Matter Institute and the Museum of Anthropology that explored the interplay between art and science in a late night event, complete with beer and wine. It included modern dance inspired by quantum entanglement, a projection sculpture exploring the journey of light through psychedelic visuals and sounds and spoken word tackling the baffling topic of love through a quantum lens. UBC offers more extended mentorship programs and summer camps. I learned about Science 101, a 4 month series of lectures and field trips designed as a barrier free course for inner city residents, many of whom have been homeless at one point or another.
Personal Impact of Outreach
We discussed goals and motivation for outreach, who attends and who participates in presenting. It was not until the last 15 minutes of the session that I asked the question we were supposed to contemplate prior to the session: “What pieces of science outreach have been more influential for you? What physics outreach might have influenced your decision to pursue physics?” Surprisingly, that question led to science. None of the three graduate students or two instructors could think of an outreach experience that significantly fueled their desire to pursue science. I sleeping under the shadow of a dinosaur at a Girl Scout Overnight at Science Museum but I wasn’t naive enough to believe that’s a typical scientific evening. Even when I brought my gifted and talented Nuclear Science students to a radiology and oncology wing of a local hospital, what stood out to them was the massive footwide doors and the dangerous spinny chair with a handwritten sign “wild rides for 25 cents”. While the door width is a powerful reminder about the strength orf radiation, no one asked me what classes they had to take to become a medical physicist.
Arguably, inspiring the young to pursue scientific careers is only one reason for outreach and not often a primary motivator (Kapon, Ganiel, Eylon, 2009). However, with outreach becoming more formalized as an increasingly important part of scientific activities, with National Science Foundation funding requiring Broader Impact activities and NASA requiring an outreach component to all of its activities. However, I found our collective inability to name outreach activities that influenced us personally concerning.
accidental outreach: My “bug job”
After further reflection, two experiences came to mind as furthering my decision to pursue science, one which could fall under “outreach” but the most impactful was a summer job. As far as successful outreach, my Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) successfully demystified both research and graduate school and gave me the information I needed to apply successfully. However, considering my nicely constrained ready-to-go project, I hesitate to call that “research”.
Prior to my REU, I spent two summers with a relatively unique summer job as a “research assistant” to an entomologist. Here, “research assistant” is also a generous term. We were tasked with all the grunt labor of collecting samples and counting things, without a sophisticated view of how things fit together. This authentic and unglamorous experience of the dirty day to day of an entomologist at the Connecticut Agriculture Research Station wasn’t designed as a recruiting tool but somehow, I got hooked anyway. We spent much of the summer traveling to golf courses and Christmas tree farms around the state, collecting samples and taking them back to the lab for endless counting how many insects whichever treatment successfully killed.
Much of this grunt work was repetitive, not particularly stimulating and even temporarily tramatizing. After taste testing 300 experimental strawberries, I couldn’t even look at berries for years. I remember closing my eyes to sleep some nights after work with a haunting vision of flipping scales over on helmocks to count the proportion that were alive or dead. Even the smell of Christmas trees used to bring back bad memories of spending hours pulverizing samples in coffee grinders, as the first step of analysis.
For better or for worse, the message that science was messy, time consuming, monotous and studies often did not go as planned (due to environmental conditions, etc.) came across loud and clear. But at the same time, I loved that we were able to spend time outside, visiting different parts of the state, meeting the farmers we were helping, and that doing science occasionally involved creative (and ridiculous) “hacks”. For example, we reverse-engineered a leaf blower so we had a giant “bug sucker” that we’d use to try to find annual blue grass weevils to bring back to the lab to kill. We’d get strange looks at the country club when we would plunge hundreds of hole-sized cores as soil samples. I noticed how Dr. Cowles could pursue projects that he was passionate about. For example, he convinced the state to allow him to grow a field of experimental strawberries, under the claim he was trying to discover a pest-resistant strain, while conveniently providing an endless supply of ingredients for strawberry shortcake. Another day, he found some cockroach-looking bug on the stairwell and animately announced, “once these bugs grab ahold of something, they never let go!” He promptly stuck his index finger over the insect’s abdomen and sure enough, for the rest of the day, the bug was stubbornly attached. But that didn’t faze him and he cheerfully announced, “my wife is going to love this!” (she photographs insects apparently).
Overall, the job was interesting enough to convince me to sign up for a second summer and I convinced my childhood best friend to join me. Andy wanted to be an entomologist from a young age, and we spent our pre-kindergarden years rummaging through his backyard looking for insects, which he would collect, catagorize and perserve in collector’s boxes. While I never specifically discussed how the job affected his career trajectory, I do know he abandoned entomology and picked up an interest in business. He ended up getting a PhD in biochemistry, but he works on the consulting side of BioTech.
Outreach and authentic scientific experiences
While flashy, fun outreach demonstrations are engaging, I wonder how much the messages we send about science correspond to daily reality of troubleshooting, fixing things and wallowing in amiguity. Bell et al. (2002) describes a eight week scientific apprenticeship program with high achieving 10-11th graders. The mentors believed they deliever an authentic experience of research, where students could see
“There is no real right or wrong, which can make this [research] look like a series of mistakes. The students learn that the truth is not out there. Science is not just a march towards goals; the process is more like an adventure. You never really know where you are headed.”
However, students mostly discussed developing data collection skills, learning about lab safety and the importance of record keeping. The study found that these high achieving student’s beliefs about the nature of science were virtually unchanged over the eight weeks. By the end of the program, students still believed that science followed a single (mostly linear) scientific method, that data interpretation should be objective and that data is the sole determinant of scientific ideas. Thinking back to my REU, essentially I was handed a neatly defined project that involved re-analyzing a decade of gender gap data to integrate a few more semesters of data. While it was a project that led me to produce results for the poster session and learn data analysis techniques along the way, it completely bypassed the most difficult parts of scientific research: coming up with a realisticly ambitious research question, deciding what data to collect and how to collect it, etc. I fear that when we strip some of the more subjective, messy parts out, students may fail to see where they can contribute to this living body of knowledge where many things are still not known.
Overall, the discussion and these memories sent my head spinning. Especially in the current political climate and considering that science requires funders’ dollars, I believe we have a duty to share our findings with the public. Of course, it is tempting to celebrate successes and the “shinier” parts of our profession. But ultimately, science is an adventure, and we need people who are not phased by scenic detours, roadblocks, re-routes and an occasional lack of direction. Honestly, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I love traveling because it presents opportunities to find my way out of challenging situations. But that same creative problem solving is inherent in the scientific enterprise. How can we communicate that reality alongside the occasional but extraordinary moments of triumph and insight when we remember why we do what we do?
Bell, R.L., Blair, L., Crawford, B., & Lederman, N. G. (2003). Just do it? The impact of a science apprenticeship program on high school students’ understandings of the nature of science and scientific inquiry. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 40, 487-509.
Kapon, S., Ganiel, U., & Eylon, B. (2009). Goals and design of public physics lectures: Perspectives of high-school students, physics teachers and lecturers. Physics Education, 44(5), 528.
Varner, Johanna (2014). “Scientific outreach: toward effective public engagement with biological science”. BioScience. 64 (4): 333–340. doi:10.1093/biosci/biu021.