Part of the Self-Reflection; series by and for early-career researchers
Outreach is defined as “any scientific communication that engages an audience outside of academia” (Varner J., BioScience, 2014). Most scientists and scientists-in-training are aware of outreach as something that is included in most grant proposals. However, outreach is more than just a few lines in a grant application. Outreach is talking to local groups, going online to discuss science with school children or doing demonstrations in the classroom for university students. Outreach is essential for your career as a scientist and is essential for connecting people to science. It helps to delivers factual information and minimizes the gaps in communication between scientists and the public. Moreover, outreach provides an idea of how science and scientists work, which is quite different from the ‘science’ shown in many TV shows and movies.
Communication, collaboration and leadership are important for a good outreach program and are important skills for a great scientist. Outreach forces you to communicate to diverse audiences, a useful skill when discussing your work with new colleagues or with scientists outside of your field. Collaborations with teachers, growers, administrators and other outreach scientists provide experiences that are useful for starting and sustaining scientific collaborations. Leadership, through starting your own outreach program or wrangling a classroom full of students, is essential as well. These skills will aid you in managing people in a lab or in an office. Additionally, outreach allows you to meet people from different careers and backgrounds. This helps to broaden your network to people outside of science or academic fields.
Outreach is also essential for science. Many graduate students, postdoctoral scientists and faculty consider outreach to be part of their jobs, as most are supported by federal tax dollars. Discussing the results of their research with the public is an essential part of giving their knowledge back to the taxpayers. The discussion of science with the press and politicians allows for wide communication of the research and helps to inform policy decisions. Many scientists also enjoy sharing their passion for science with others through outreach. Outreach programs introduce young students to science and make them excited to learn more. For older students, outreach fills gaps in their education and gives them a chance to talk to real scientists about their careers. Outreach is important for keeping the general public engaged and informed on scientific ideas and current research. Scientific knowledge is not useful if only a few academics know it. Science needs to be communicated so the public can understand it and so it can be used to make society better.
There are many skills needed to be successful in outreach. Many of these skills you already have, due to your experiences collaborating with other scientists, teaching classes and writing papers. This partial list was complied with help of some Plantae Fellows.
1. Be able to organize, work with, and motivate others, including your audience and other scientists
2. Be able to communicate at a level that is accessible to your audience (i.e. primary school children, university students or the general public)
3. Be able to listen to the questions and concerns of the audience
4. Keep your audience engaged and excited
5. Have social media skills as many outreach programs are now online, and social media allows you to reach large numbers of people
The Plantae Fellows also gave some great tips for people who are doing outreach.
1. Don’t be afraid to make it personal and show your passion for science
2. Think about the priorities of your audience to better connect with them
3. Pick themes/examples the audience can relate to (i.e. for primary school students, use blocks to demonstrate the genetics of bread wheat)
4. Avoid too much technical jargon and terms
5. Outreach starts with conversations. You can “practice” by explaining your research to non-scientists
6. Social media, such as Twitter, is a great way to do outreach. Learn how to use them well
7. Build your outreach program by finding others who are also interested in outreach. Ask them about their experiences and see if there is something you can do with those unique perspectives
Below are a few resources to help build your outreach skills and to find outreach opportunities. Additionally, most universities (and many companies) have outreach programs that need passionate scientists and will train you to do great outreach.
A example of outreach from 2012 – Fascination of Plants Day (credit Mary Williams)
Julia Miller is a PhD candidate in the Plant Biology Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University. She is studying the structure, function and regulation of plant transporter proteins under the mentorship of Dr. Miguel Pineros, with the support of a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Plant Biology and Genomics & Molecular Genetics from Michigan State University, and did research there under Dr. Cornelius Barry and Dr. Jennifer Lau. She is active in her department, and enjoys teaching elementary and high school students about plants.