Outreach in Unusual Places

I was lucky enough to be part of a series of sessions at ScienceOnline this January that discussed Science Outreach. It should tell you a little about how hectic my life has been lately that I’m just now writing up something that happened in January!  Finally I found time to sit down and put together a brief summary of what we talked about in our session.

From the SciOnline13 session description:

The perennial discussion about scientists ‘doing’ outreach intensified this year, with lots of opinion and some data about who’s doing it, who’s fault it is that so few do it, what the roadblocks are, and how to alleviate them. Rather than host yet another tiresome round of the blame game (e.g. Scientists should do more outreach! Scientists suck at outreach!), the goal of this track is to create a…resource for scientists hoping to do more and/or better outreach, or trying to drum up enthusiasm for outreach in their departments/institutions and for those hoping to recruit more scientists to do outreach.”

Emily and I moderated a session called “Outreach in Unusual Places” to focus on ways scientists can find new audiences. When many scientists talk about outreach, they mean a small subset of activities — blogging and formal education, for example. That has a pretty standard audience–people who are already interested in science, and that have the economic ability to connect online; students already enrolled in an educational program; folks with leisure time to consume a course in a topic they are already interested in.

Push communication model

What about the rest of the population?

Our session focused on how to go beyond traditional venues for science outreach.  One of the themes that I’ve written about over and over here at the Bug Blog is how we need to re-think our model of science education. A lot of science communication operates within a Push Model.

Experts produce information from their science, but it’s not easily accessible by the general public (and frankly, sometimes not by other scientists, it’s so dense).  Occasionally research is communicated as a press release and picked up as news, but for the most part scientists are just talking to themselves.  And that works fine for our existing audiences, that are already committed to learning about science.

But how do we GROW that audience?

Pull modelI think we need to change our outreach model to more of a two way-transfer of information. I create content here to draw an audience in and start a conversation; the audience will provide feedback.  My readers may say “that didn’t make sense” or “that’s cool, but that’s not what I’m interested in.  Here’s what I really need to know.”

It’s a conversation, not a lecture.

It isn’t just public outreach; it’s public engagement.  It’s not enough to write interesting stuff and toss it onto the internet waters.  You have to actually engage people in conversations.  You have to start talking with them, not at them.

An example of the Pull Model in action

One of the hardest parts of being a science communicator is finding an audience.  Cities can fill a stadium for a sports event; not so much for a scientist.  Basically, by partnering with groups that have already done the hard work of bringing people together, scientists can have a bigger impact.

Science Fiction Conventions are some of the largest and longest running meetings around. South by Southwest and Netroots Nations are some of the largest social media gatherings in the US.  In our session, we talked about how scientists and science educators can work with some of those audiences to broaden the scope of our outreach efforts.  All of these groups have to put together an engaging program for their attendees.   Scientists have interesting things to say and show. It’s a win-win!

DragonCon has a regular science track that Emily participates in yearly, and also hosts vaccine outreach efforts. DragonCon annual attendance is over 50,000 people.   I’ll be participating for my 4th year at ConVergence, a large midwest science fiction convention that usually has around 5,000 attendees.  I usually am on an “Ask a Scientist Anything” panel.  We offer panels on evolution, climate change, and other hot science topics.  For some panels we have up to 100 people in the audience, all engaged and asking questions.

Having a real live scientist answer your questions makes a difference. Having a real live scientist talk about spiders, or genetically modified organisms, or rumors of genetically modified spiders*, makes them slightly less scary.  It’s harder to see science as evil incarnate when it’s represented in person by a small, round, middle-aged woman with glasses.

on the bussIf you happen to be a small round woman in a fluffy green insect suit, that makes science much less threatening, and conversations much easier to start.  Here I am on a bus in my insect costume.  Just walking around dressed like this starts conversations.

I had great discussions with hotel maids, bus drivers, taxi drivers, Starbucks baristas, and a whole bunch of people at a real estate convention happening concurrently with the ScienceOnline conference.

It is personal connections that make change. Those personal connections can be virtual or IRL, but they have to happen for a conversation to occur.

It can be difficult to convince a department chair that you need to travel to what is, basically, a giant nerd party. With booze and costumes.  I have personally paid my way to all these events, rather than try to explain them to my boss.  But it is absolutely the highlight of my year, and is invaluable at letting me see into the minds of people that are not bug specialists, or biologists. It’s really easy for me as a specialist to forget that I know a lot of stuff that other people don’t.  And, also, that a lot of the stuff that I know is completely irrelevant to the rest of the population.

It isn’t something that you can easily assess, although you can indirectly get some measurements of impact with head counts, or how much literature you hand out.

Take your Science To The People (Examples)

Research!  There is a huge body of research about informal science.  Some examples:

Things to read from other SciOnline sessions:

What examples of unusual outreach can YOU add to the list?


*Because I know someone will ask, no there are no genetically modified spiders AFAIK.  Although some spider genes have gone into other animals.

2 thoughts on “Outreach in Unusual Places

  1. Well, there are actually (transiently) GM spiders, although no publication came out of it. yet :)

    As far as unusual crowds, I have found school kids to have the most open minds. every demonstration i have done started with screams of fear, and ended up with the kids bunching around the animals, be it snake, spider, scorpion or centipede.

  2. Can’t wait to really read this, and your other posts about outreach, in more detail. I love doing bug outreach and have several upcoming opportunities to participate in “touch a bug” programs at several local libraries. The “insect petting zoo” part is fun, but I’d love to incorporate more learning into my show.

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