Over the last few weeks, the graduate student listserv for our department has shared calls for volunteers for a variety of upcoming outreach events. These opportunities include teaching first graders about local wildlife, creating engaging activities for elementary school students at a summer STEM camp, and helping organize a on-campus fishing tournament for local anglers. These recent emails, along with the Communicating Science workshop during our recent class meeting, have got me thinking about how public outreach fits into academia and research.
On one hand, outreach and academia appear to have opposing goals. Public outreach aims to share basic information about a topic with a varied audience, typically outside of your field and with a wide range of interest and experience levels. The main objectives are to get people excited about your work and connect with the community. Outreach events rarely result in scientific publications, but may generate local press coverage.
Within academia, we aim to gain in-depth understanding of specific topics. We share our findings with other experts in our fields through conferences and journal articles, which typically only reach a limited audience that is already interested in our work. Rather than broadcasting the basics, our collective objective is to further our understanding of complex processes and answer very detailed questions.
This dilemma is very similar to the culture clash between museums and universities that Jennifer Kingsley described in her 2016 article for the Journal of Museum Education (linked here). This article, which I just read for a class that I’m taking on natural history collections and curations, actually inspired this blog post.
While some scientists believe that outreach is a crucial component of conducting and sharing meaningful work, others dismiss it as poor use of time that could be spent focusing on research, writing, etc. The use of social media for science outreach is particularly divisive, as evidenced by a recent Science article entitled “Why I don’t use Instagram for Science Outreach,” by Meghan Wright (https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2018/03/why-i-dont-use-instagram-science-outreach), and the resulting online response.
Given these opposing goals, why do we engage in outreach? For some scientists, outreach is closely tied to financial support their work, and is necessary to reach potential donors. For others, outreach is mandatory. Our department, for example, requires PhD students to give at least one non-technical presentation or write at least one non-technical article during their time at Virginia Tech. Some scientists, myself included, really enjoy outreach, and value the opportunities to connect with others over shared interests.
One major reason that we engage in outreach is that it’s necessary, if we want our work to reach beyond the “ivory tower.” Outreach is often emphasized as the most effective way to make your work “matter” outside of the academic realm. As the Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech points out, “public engagement is the key to solving wicked problems” (https://communicatingscience.isce.vt.edu/About/why-we-do-it.html).
Effective public engagement takes time and practice. It can be difficult, but also very rewarding. As I type this, I’m getting excited to take my pet tortoise to visit a local kindergarten classroom in a few weeks. I’m a little nervous about planning a short talk about turtles that will be understandable and interesting to kindergartners. However, these concerns are outweighed by the desire to help foster a sense of natural appreciation in the next generation. Here’s a picture of Sheldon, getting pumped and excited to go to kindergarten:
What do you all think? Does outreach get enough credit and recognition within academia? Is it an exciting opportunity, a necessary evil, or just a small part of academia that’s being way over-analyzed? Comment and share your thoughts below!