Five Outreach Tools Every Scientist Should Have in Their Back Pocket

by Maria

It’s no secret: I feel very strongly that scientists should be regularly involved in outreach. From a community standpoint, I would love to see scientists be recognizable individuals that local school children can reference. From a funding perspective, when scientists receive either private or federal funding, outreach should be a significant way to give back to those who have supported your work. On top of it all, science communication shouldn’t be limited to academic journals and conferences—exciting findings should be shared, and preferably by the scientists themselves!

This means that it doesn’t matter whether you study cancer treatments or slug parasites, you need to be prepared for outreach and intentionally seek out opportunities for it. If you are just starting to think about ways you can get involved in outreach, or even if you’re a seasoned outreach enthusiast, I have five suggestions for tools every scientist should have in their outreach bag.

1.) A Way to Explain Your Research to a Six Year Old
Einstein is attributed with a quote that says if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

The goal here is to be prepared with an explanation of your work for any audience. With experience or preferably training, you will learn to adapt your explanation for a variety of possible listeners (there is no such thing as the “general public.”) When in doubt about an audience, the rule of thumb is to present your research at a middle school level of depth when sharing your work with non-scientists or with scientists from another field. And please do not interpret that guidance incorrectly.  Recently, I was in a meeting with both an engineer whose specialty was wi-fi networks and a molecular biologist whose work focused on the evolution of genes. After the engineer finished sharing her work, the biologist and I were stunned that we apparently knew so little about electromagnetic waves. Later in the conversation, though, the engineer revealed the only thing she knew about mitochondria was that they are the “powerhouse of the cell,” but she wasn’t quite sure how they received that title. These two women were incredibly competent and knowledgeable in their own fields. We’re all experts in something –cake decorators are experts in delicious art, accountants are experts in financial magic. Be respectful and prepared to be flexible with your explanation depending on what situation you are in.

2.) A Tabling Display or Interpretive Kit
Let’s says a local museum or school is having a science day and invites a wide variety of local scientists to come “table,” or in other words create an exhibitor booth, to share their work. Or let’s say you are invited to join in a “Two Scientists at a Bar” event. What items would you bring with you to illustrate your work? If you’re creating a table display, how would you make that display eye-catching and engaging?

This angle of outreach is relying on a form of education called interpretation. Interpretation can be described as using objects to help illustrate and explain concepts.  Park rangers can use natural landscapes as their objects, museum interpreters can reference paintings and sculptures as their objects, and we as scientists can use a variety of props or (safe + sturdy) lab equipment to do the same thing with our work. I first began tabling when I was a sixteen-year-old volunteer at the Columbus Zoo, so I will say…I’m a pretty big fan of this form of outreach because it works. You have the opportunity to interact one-on-one with interested folks, and you get to make a personal connection with those you talk to. That’s huge!


Table display at Bear Creek Regional Park and Nature Center

I should also mention, if you’re in Pittsburgh, opportunities to table like this are everywhere! For example, twice a year, the Carnegie Science Center holds Sci-Tech Days, a three-day span where local scientists and industries are invited to table throughout the museum and share their work with school children. Phipps Conservatory holds Meet a Scientist Saturdays every month, and once a year, they host a huge event called BioBlitz on the front lawn, which scientists are invited to. I’ve also heard a number of Pitt labs table at farmers’ markets in the summer, and many graduate students have developed relationships with local schools in the area to meet with students. Once you have a table display, these kinds of events are quite simple to plan for!

3.) A Game or Activity that Demonstrates Your Work
We all learn best by doing; is there a way that you can create a game or activity out of some themes in your work? Do you have old data students can sort? Do you have old equipment students can use to take measurements?

For example, I once created a game for children to show them how I could identify individual birds from just a pile of feathers. I found a clipart picture of a feather and printed out a ton of them. Then I made up five or six different DNA sequence of 12 letters (but yes, for my own peace of mind, I made these pretend sequences all begin and end with start and stop codons.) I wrote these DNA sequences on the back of my clipart art feathers. For the activity, I hid the “feathers” all over a classroom, and after a brief introduction, the students had to search out the feathers and make a list of all the “secret codes” that they found on the back of the feathers. By tallying up the unique codes and associated feathers, the students could determine how many individual birds had left the feathers behind. I could use this as a springboard to explain my work in a bit more clarity, and note that a computer did a fair bit of what they had just done 😊


4.) A Single “Big Picture” Message with Three Key Points
This one I cannot emphasize enough. Let’s say you have a chance encounter with a journalist or blogger—or crikey, just an interested party—and they are fascinated by your work—do you have an off-the-top-of-your-head overall message you want them to take away about the significance of your work? If they remember nothing but the “big picture,” what is that big picture? Under that big picture message, what are three key points? We humans are weird about 3’s, we’re really good with 3’s (Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Three Blind Mice…we dig 3’s), so capitalize on that and plan out three key points that support your overall message. Once you have this prepared, you can use it for interviews, grant meetings, lightning talks—all sorts of things!

5.) Science Communication Training
I do have to admit that I am biased here. I coordinate science communication workshops at my own institution, and I am always blown away by the creativity and outreach abilities of scientists once they allow themselves the time. However, I do feel strongly that scientists should receive training to do all of the things that I mention here. (We as scientists are so entrenched in our fields, we often don’t even notice our jargon or expertise!) Science communication workshops and seminars are becoming increasingly more common, take one! But I also encourage practical experience. You can learn all the theory you want, but each presentation you give to a community group and each school that you visit will teach you something that a book or a webinar never will.

For science communication training opportunities in Pittsburgh, check out Phipps Conservatory, Pitt, and CMU. You can also explore online at the Alan Center for Communicating Science.

In closing…in addition to science outreach being important, it’s also fun! It builds your own communication skills, and it introduces new, young audiences to the wonders of our world. Give it a try!

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