ComSciCon-UVA Hosts Science Outreach Panel

This image shows the logo of a science outreach program called Science Delivered, those words on a dark blue background with a bubbling flask to the left.
Science Delivered! is just one of the science outreach programs represented by the ComSciCon-UVA panelists. Image from Science Delivered! website.

Women scientists recently got together for a panel discussion on science outreach at the University of Virginia’s first-ever ComSciCon to discuss ways to improve science outreach and bring science to life, making STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) topics accessible to the communities they serve.

Graduate students at UVA visited Blacksburg in February to attend ComSciCon-VA Tech to participate, observe, and collect and discuss ideas with the VT planning committee as plans were being made for a similar set of workshops at UVA. The UVA event was postponed from May until mid-August by the pandemic and moved to an online format, in which members of the VT graduate student planning committee participated. The collaboration between the graduate student planning committees at Virginia Tech and UVA was supported by a 4-VA grant.

The ComSciCon-UVA outreach panelists had useful lessons for anyone who wants to engage in science outreach.

Dr. Taylor Welsh, a UVA alum and regional director for the non-profit Science Delivered, which boosts science education at local schools, underlined the importance of knowing your audience.

“What is your audience looking to get from you?” Welsh asked.

Science communication is all about knowing people and their interests, she said. Welsh’s job often puts her in front of a crowd of elementary school students, and she knows that they want to have fun while learning, so she creates programming to be as hands-on and engaging as possible.

Another component of crafting outreach programming involves inclusivity. Dr. Dione Rossiter, the executive director of UC Berkeley’s Science at Cal, emphasized the need for empathy and diversity.

Rossiter stated, “Emphasizing a safe space, where all of the individuals within that community can engage [is important]; they are seen; they are respected; they are heard; they are valued for their unique perspective.”

Efforts to make science more inclusive will involve acknowledging that science has not always been for everyone, she said, and that scientists need to recognize their responsibility to address social issues in academia and outreach.

Dr. Karlisa Callwood, director for the Community Conservation Education & Action Program at the Perry Institute for Marine Science, talked about looking inwardly as part of the process of becoming better at science outreach

“Think about your expert ‘blank spot,’” she said. “What do you forget as someone who has now been trained as a scientist?”

A lot of poor science communication is linked to getting wrapped up in science lingo and expert-level research, the panelists said.

Rossiter added, “COVID is a great example. We’ve done a lot wrong. Science communication has gone awry in numerous ways in the same way [as] science communication in the climate change field or vaccine education. . .We’ve learned a lot of lessons.”

The ComSciCon moderators asked what virtual programming due to COVID-19 has looked like for the panelists.

Rossiter has found that turnout has increased substantially since going virtual, with 100 to 150 people attending meetings and workshops held over platforms like Zoom. But she also finds that there is a level of engagement missing.

“When we go back to in-person, there will always be that online component. . .It’s more inclusive in that way,” said Rossiter.

Both in-person and online programming can be exclusive, and Rossiter is making it a mission to decrease barriers, whether through lack of transportation or access to a working computer and Wi-Fi, so that anyone interested in science can attend events.

Besides barriers to virtual outreach, Julie Laudenschlager, a PhD student in the chemistry department at UVA and president of Learning through Experimentation Awareness and Demonstration (L.E.A.D.), found that the biggest continuing challenge is reaching poorer and rural communities farther from a metropolitan area like Charlottesville.

L.E.A.D. works with schools in the Charlottesville area through classroom visits and on-Grounds chemistry visits to university classrooms and labs. Led by graduate students, the program faces challenges with financial and time constraints.

“It’s hard to ask grad students to drive two hours to a school,” said Laudenschlager.

Despite the challenges, the panelists agreed that outreach is valuable.

“Doing outreach makes you a better scientist because being a scientist is about being a communicator,” said Welsh. “You’re not a scientist because you’re just building up this knowledge base that then sits in a book somewhere. You’re a scientist because you’re trying to make the world a better place, and that means you need to connect with people.”

ComSciCon, a conference planned by graduate students for graduate students, is designed to empower early career researchers to communicate complex and technical concepts to broad and diverse audiences. Originally organized and hosted in 2014 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the “flagship” ComSciCon now serves students from across the United States and around the world and has extended its reach by allowing locally franchised workshops. The August event was the first ComSciCon for the University of Virginia; Virginia Tech held its first in March 2019 and second in February 2020.

By Catherine Watling, Center for Communicating Science student intern

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