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! Continue reading

The Day I Met Jane Goodall

By Maria

As the long line of people slowly moved towards our destination, I could feel my hands start to tremble with nervous excitement. I clutched my worn book more tightly. In my head, I rehearsed a speech that included my admiration and my aspirations—I want to be just like you someday. I want to make a difference for conservation like you someday. I was only fifteen; plenty of time for dreaming of the future.  Continue reading

Top Ten Citizen Science Projects That You Can Join In

cit·i·zen sci·ence


noun: citizen science

  1. the collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists.

When I was a kid, I had a burning desire to see how much electricity was in a bolt of lightning. I didn’t understand watts, volts, amps, or Ohms yet. All I wanted to know was if those bright streaks that crashed to the ground were strong enough to power a light bulb. Continue reading

More Summer Time Happenings

Earlier this week, I posted a tidbit on how to keep your family’s summer full of science. One other way to add a splash of learning fun to your kids’ summer is to look into the day camps offered in your area. Since I live in Pittsburgh (and I must say, we are spoiled with the resources we have in this city!), my suggested camps are a bit biased to the general Western PA area.  However, some quick searching online will most likely reveal some exciting opportunities no matter you are. Start with your local museums and even universities. They often partner with organizations for fun educational camps.

If camp costs are in issue, which they most certainly can be, check to see if scholarships are offered before going another direction. Many of the camps listed below have funding ready to help families with the cost, especially if multiple kids are involved. And if that doesn’t work out, I will say this: Don’t Underestimate Your Local Library. Besides Vacation Bible School, I only went to camps a few times as a kid myself, but we took part my local library’s activities on a very regular basis. In Pittsburgh, we have the fantastic Carnegie Library that offers classes and programs for all ages—toddlers, kids, teens, and adults. Take advantage of that! Even if you go to camp!

Pittsburgh Camps with A Science or Nature Theme

Pittsburgh Park Conservancy— Go outside! Get muddy! Learn about the habitats of western Pennsylvania! It will be glorious J Their camps run for 3 years olds up to kids just finishing 7th grade.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History—I’ll admit, I love animals and I love the outdoors, but the museum has a lot of local institutions beat when it comes to variety. Offering different-themed camps almost every week—plus nature camps out at their field station, Powdermill Nature Reserve in the Laurel Highlands—I would be willing to bet my Wonder Woman mug that there is something for everyone through the museums camps.

Carnegie Science Center—Like the natural history museum, the science center features a variety of different camps focusing on anything from Mars to robotics to the chemistry of the kitchen. There are different topics every week for the different age groups (ages 4-12+), and they do a fantastic job of showing how science is mixed into so many tiny corners of our everyday lives! And they do it with games and snacks. Really hard to go wrong with snacks.

Animal Friends— A creative approach to teaching children the responsibility of taking care of animals, the Animal Friends shelter offers a day camp that invites children ages 4-17 to learn about the care and training of companion animals. Mixed in with crafts, games, and age-appropriate activities, the camps sell out quickly, but, I’ll be honest, sound awesome!

National Aviary—As the only bird-focused zoo in the country, the aviary’s camps have a strong focus on avian conservation with a good dose of adventure mixed in! The camps are built beginning with 4 year olds who will learn what makes a bird a bird, and continue up to 18 year olds who will go in-depth with avian veterinary science and hands-on bird care.

iD Tech Camp (CMU)—This goes a little out of my comfort zone, but if you have a budding young computer scientist, and she just can’t get enough of programming, the iD Tech Camps at CMU would be worth looking into. A part of a network of universities catching the future generation of computer scientists, the camp is an intensive program on CMU’s campus. The notable drawback is the tuition, which probably very limiting for families. However, I do believe they offer scholarships.

Phipps Conservatory— Campers age 2-13 will learn all about caring for plants, uses for plants, conservation, and sustainability at the day camps of the Conservatory. Ok, well, the toddlers probably aren’t quite going for sustainability yet, but they will love playing with dirt and bugs 🙂

Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium—If your kids love animals and maybe already have that little spark of passion for conservation, try zoo camp! Every day they’ll meet new animals, play games, sing songs, and learn about how they can help protect wildlife. Older campers will get to go behind the scenes at some of the animal exhibits and meet with keepers to learn about what it’s like to work with animal ambassadors.

Summer Science at Home

Summer is almost here! If the school year was a sundae, we’d be scooping up the last of the melted ice cream and swirls of chocolate fudge from the bottom of a soda shop glass. What does summer mean for kids and families? Technically, it probably means that the schedule is already jam-packed with soccer camp, band camp, family vacation, gymnastics class, volunteering, internships, and mowing the yard.

Oh, but summer also can mean something very exciting…something that better get you hopping on the edge of your seat and reaching for a lab coat…summer can also mean…more time for science!! In the down time from school, you and your family are the lucky winners of some opportunities to keep those critical thinking skills sharp and your excitement for knowledge bouncing! Here are a few ways to keep science going at home over the summer. *Note, this post is intended for parents, but if you’re under 18 and you found it, great! Just be sure to check with a parent or guardian before trying any experiments at home.*

Make Little Bits of Your Summer Inquiry-Based

One way to keep learning minds fresh is to engage in the challenges and quests of inquiry-based learning. Inquiry-based learning means learning through experiences and probing for answers, rather than being given all the facts to memorize up front. It’s a hands-on approach. In a classroom, that could mean being presented with a case study or a scenario, and the students would need to reason through the case to eventually learn and understand the information after clarification from a teacher. The approach greatly helps with critical-thinking skills in addition to observational skills.

At home this summer, one of the things you can do as a family is try to plan for a few mini inquiry adventures. The best part of an inquiry-based or experiential learning approach is that the parents don’t need all the answers before get started. Start by picking a topic, maybe do a bit of background to give yourself a boost, and then start developing some questions that can be answered by observation or even experimentation.

For example, let’s say you want to take biology by the cornibus and visit a nature park, but you’re not quite a field naturalist yet. That is A-Ok. With an inquiry-based approach, you can arm yourselves with guide books and a field journal, and start asking questions. Try focusing on a particular aspect of the environment to keep yourself from being overwhelmed. A few question examples that don’t particularly require background knowledge but are fun to answer are below:

  • Are the kinds of plants near the stream the same or different as the kinds of plants near the meadow? Why might that be?
  • Can we hear more bird calls at the forest edge or in the forest interior? Why might that be?
  • Is there a fair bit of the scat on the ground (oh the fun with poop) or no? What kind of mammals might have been passing through?
  • What size pebbles are at the bottom of the creek? Are they big pebbles or small pebbles? Why might pebble size matter?

A key part of inquiry is to work through your questions; in many ways, that process is more important than the answer. As you reason through your question and observations, take some field notes, make sketches– just write as much down as you can. You’ll probably be impressed with what you take note of, and you will definitely be impressed with what your kids observe! And as a bonus, most parks have great naturalists you can pass on some of your questions to if you get super stumped with your guide books 🙂  It’s a great way to get more out of a hike.

Science at Home

Maybe exploring completely new territory isn’t your cup of iced coffee yet, and you want to start with a bit more guidance. Not a problem! If you’re up for a few good home-cooked adventures, here are some great resources below for easy experiments. There are instructions and explanations for the suggested projects, but I’d recommend familiarizing yourself with the concepts behind the experiments, either with a text book or a trusted source. Also, most of the projects can be done with common household items or something you can easily pick up at Target. (But beware—I ALWAYS tell myself I only need facewash and socks when I go in that store…but a new mop, two sweaters, light bulbs, throw pillows, and a box of granola bars later…)

Scientific American—Education, Bring Science  I love some of the projects on this page. Many of them seem geared for roughly fourth grade and up, but honestly, younger kids would probably like many of the activities too (they just may not understand all of the explanations.) What I really like about the directions page for each project are the question prompts. A key part of scientific inquiry is being able to reason through your methods and results, and the prompts will help work on those critical thinking skills.

University of Wisconsin—Science is Fun, Home Experiments  This page has a number of different experiments that you can conduct at home, plus the explanations for how and why the experiments work. Some of the activities are a bit advanced or involved, depending on what kind of resources you have around the house; but overall the page has quite a few great ideas!

Scholastic—Videos of Experiments  Maybe today just feels like a quiet afternoon. Maybe you have dinner guests coming and the kitchen needs to stay clean. No matter! Here is a list of some great videos of experiments that you can watch, and perhaps try yourself later. As a side note, some of these videos give great explanations of what’s happening, but some are going to require a little bit of research—hey that could be a good idea though!

Lab Safety

Even if you’re working with baking soda and vinegar, it is always important to keep safety in mind. The stereotype of a scientist in lab coat and goggles came about for a reason, and that reason is to protect yourself! Even at home. Before you get started on a project, what sort of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) will you need? For most of the projects here, old clothes and some sort of glasses or goggles are probably all that you really need, maybe even gloves if you want to be safe (and let’s be real here, you’ll look cooler anyway.) Amazon has some cost-effective starter gear, if you’re interested. And after every experiment, be sure to wash your hands!

Talking to Strangers

I’m an oddball, so I do odd things. Just keep that in mind as you read through this post!

I mentioned in my last post that there is often a bit of a disconnect between the scientific community and those who don’t necessarily spend a lot of time in the lab. This makes complete sense, of course. With different careers come different training and different levels of exposure to concepts and terminology. I wouldn’t know the first thing about running a business, designing dresses, performing a root canal, selling software, or fixing computers (good golly, I could not fix a computer to save my favorite burrito.) The problem, though, is that our everyday worlds are impacted by science—from medical situations to energy choices to what food we eat. That means communication gaps may not be the best thing ever.

I was curious about the idea of a disconnect in communication, though. Where does the break-down start? Where does confusion first come in to play? So I started at the very beginning, something basic: what is science? Is everyone on the same page there? Most scientists would probably be ok with my broadly defining science as “using the scientific method to understand the processes, interactions, constants, and dynamics of the world and universe around us.” In that sense, an understanding of the scientific method is fairly important as well. Thus, my goal for today was just to determine how folks outside of the scientific community define science and the scientific method.

I spent roughly two hours on Friday afternoon walking around downtown my mid-sized city and asking people on the street what they thought of when they heard the word “science” or the phrase “scientific method.” (Yup, I’m weird. But, hey, I like talking to people.) I explained to my recruits that I was writing a blog post on how science is viewed from outside the scientific community, and most folks seemed interested in the topic.

I will admit my sampling was not completely random. I selected participants who appeared generally friendly (as opposed to angry, cranky, scary, or mean), were not wearing ear buds, and did not appear to be in a hurry. Most of them were on smoke breaks outside of corporate high-rises, and I tried to pick out participants whose ages were approximately twenty-five years or older to make sure I wasn’t creeping out any kids. In the end, I had a sample size of sixteen individuals (ahem, n=16).

What is Science?
I had quite a variety of answers to the question “What is science, or what do you think of when you hear the word ‘science’?” They ranged from philosophical to silly, and they were sometimes a solo statement, or a group effort (when I caught the smoke-breakers). Their responses were:

“I hear ‘science’ and I think experiments and research.”

“Well, there’s all types of science. I guess I don’t know what I think of specifically.”

“Science is the universe, it’s everything. From the smallest thing to the largest thing. Science is what we are.”

“Science is a mysterious thing to me. I’d rather not know.”

“I think mermaids. Mermaids and tornadoes.”
“Don’t listen to him, he does not!”
“Yes I do! It’s Friday afternoon, my brain is mush, and I think science is mermaids and tornadoes.”

“It’s research, tangible things, and experiments.”

“I hear science and I think smart people. I think of smart people looking at the universe—looking at the sun, the stars, the moon, everything!”

“I don’t know. I guess I hear ‘science’ and I think beakers and test tubes. And chemicals. And maybe Frankenstein if you mean movies.”

“Science seems like difficult things. But I like microbiology.”

“Arriving at conclusions mathematically.”

“Science is research and discovering things.”

What is the Scientific Method?
There was less variety when I asked folks to describe the scientific method. Almost uniformly, people had not heard the phrase, though they often had some idea of what I meant. Their responses were:

“The scientific method? I don’t know, you research, dig, compare, mathematically answer questions.”

“I don’t know.”

“No clue.”

“What’s that what?”

“Is this a Scientology question?”

“No idea.”

“The scientific method…I don’t know the exact definition, but I know you have to devote a lot of time and energy to it.” (author’s note: darn right!)

“The scientific method…I don’t know.”

{Laughter accompanied by shrugs all around}

“I have no idea.”

“No idea.”

“The scientific method is when you follow all those steps, you know, starting with a hypothesis.” (outlier, her sister is working on her PhD in biology)

There is at least some element of truth to all of the answers I received (well, minus the mermaids, but I’ll be super excited if you ever find one). A lot of folks mentioned research, experiments, testing things, and “mathematically” determining an answer. Also, most folks touched on the idea that science deals with the natural or physical world.

For me, the biggest surprises were the answers about the scientific method. The concept has been a part of my daily life for the past decade. I’m certainly not a master of it, but I’m very familiar with it. For anyone reading who might still be a bit murky on the subject, the scientific method can be quickly summarized by this flow chart I found floating around ze interwebz.

sci method

What this flow chart is showing is a process—a way of systematically trying to reach an answer by testing ideas, refining hypotheses, trying experiments, ruling out when ideas don’t work, supporting ideas with evidence, and sometimes (it hurts!!) starting all over. This is essentially what science is all about. Seems very simple, but it’s a tremendous tool. The concept is used by folks who work with proteins, DNA, yeast, bacteria, plants, animals, chemicals, forces, quarks, nanoparticles, and all manner of crazy stuff.

I guess the take-home message I’m trying to convey is that science is a process. It’s a quest for knowledge. And if science is a quest, the scientific method is the treasure map. If we want to help bridge the communication gap between the scientific community and all of the other communities we work alongside, we need to help folks read the map!