Doing Science Outreach: The Basics

The following series is based off The Rockefeller University Science Outreach Program’spresentation at the annual AAAS meeting, presented in San Jose, CA byJeanne Garbarino, Elizabeth Waters, and Ali Cohen. The goals for this presentation and blog post series are to introduce science outreach, how to get started in science outreach, and how to leverage science outreach for professional development.


Jeanne Garbarino working with NYC's Camp G.O.A.L.S. for Girls group
Jeanne Garbarino working with NYC’s Camp G.O.A.L.S. for Girls group

Aligning yourself to make a productive impact is the preferred goal when it comes to engaging with non-scientific audiences. To do this, it is important to have a plan – think about what points you want to make, the type of language you should use, how the message will be delivered, etc… Putting yourself out there can be stressful, but a little prep work beforehand can take you a long way. Regardless of whether you are joining established science outreach activities, or are interested in creating new science outreach content, there are several points to keep in mind that will help keep you on track.

Identify your message

Science is BIG. Practically everything and everyone can be explained in some sort of scientific terms. But trying to present the entire breadth of science in one fell swoop is, well, overwhelming. When participating in science outreach activities, think about what you are trying to say. If you could strip away as much as possible, and deliver your message in 1 sentence, what would that sentence be? Identify the core element(s) driving your engagement, and go from there.

Identify your goals

Related to identifying your message, a sound strategy is to also identify the goals of engagement. Are you looking to raise awareness about something? Do you want to educate on a specific topic or set of topics? Are you trying to dispel inaccuracies or pseudoscientific beliefs? Are you simply interested in engaging on a general level? Knowing your goals will help to tweak the message so it is clear, and to the point. More importantly, having your goals clearly mapped will set you up for success, and make the process enjoyable.

Identify your audience

A five year old is different from a twelve year old is different from an adult. People of all ages are certainly interested in science; however, different language is required for different demographics. While age is an obvious factor when creating a targeted message, equally important is topic relevancy for your specific population. For instance, if you are speaking to a bunch of kids from an urban community, talking about trees or traditional ecology as commonplace can result in immediate loss of attention. Both the audience and their context should drive how you put together your science outreach package.

Identify your resources

Pulling off a science outreach activity or event definitely involves some level of resource coordination. The first and foremost factor that dictates the type of event you can do is, you guessed it, money. For the record, science outreach efforts can be designed such that they are no or low cost endeavors, though having a budget does allow you to get more elaborate. However, it is worth noting that an increase in dollars spent is does not necessarily equate to better quality outreach — really, it’s more about how you engage, not how much you spend.

While definitely important, money isn’t the only resource you should consider when thinking about science outreach. It is also important to think about space — where do you want to pull it off? Will you be bringing people to you, or will you be going out to the people? And speaking of people: will you be doing this on your own, or do you have a science outreach posse? The number of people working with you also dictates what you can do, and who you can serve. Lastly, it is prudent to consider time. As the old saying goes, time is money, often making it the most valuable and/or scarce resource. But as I’ve mentioned before, you can make it work — just be realistic about it!

Identify Your Frequency

The frequency with which you contribute to science outreach should be planned out in advance, as much as possible. This is especially relevant if you will be the one that is in charge of the effort. Whether you will do this weekly, monthly, or even once, having a solid plan will keep you on track.

Identify Mechanisms for Sustainability

Sustainability is very much related to the above point on identifying resources, and can be viewed from multiple angles. For instance, if you are trying to be involved in science outreach on a regular basis, what type of investments are you making to ensure that the time will be there? In the RockEdu lab, we allow graduate students and postdocs to come in when they have the time, and there is one particular student who plans his work in advance so that he can stably contribute once per month.

Alternatively, if you are the one who is looking to launch or take on organizational efforts for science outreach, sustainability can be viewed in terms of funding levels and/or person-power. As I mentioned here and elsewhere, science outreach does not require a lot of funding. However, funding can help provide the ability to sustain the efforts. Finding funding might be as simple as requesting a stipend from your Dean’s Office or (Under) Graduate Student Council, or even getting a small seed grant from your professional organization (such as this from ASBMB). Similarly, having a team or volunteer network who can share in the efforts will allow for greater sustainability, since it won’t have to always fall on a single person.

Science outreach can be really fun, and certainly has the ability to make powerful impacts. Having a game plan ahead of time will help to maximize how much you can get out of it!

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