14 April 2011

A crash course in science education and outreach

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Guest post by Phoebe Cohen, Education and Outreach Lead & Postdoctoral Fellow, MIT NASA Astrobiology Team.

I confess that when I started my current position, I had no idea what I was doing. Well, not much. I had some experience doing outreach, took two relevant courses in graduate school, and worked at the wonderful Museum of the Earth for two years after college. But still, I felt very much fish-outa-water, despite all my enthusiasm. What were the most useful projects for me to be engaged in? Who was my audience and what was the best way to reach them? How could I tell if anything I was doing was actually working?

So I decided to treat my new role like I would any other new project – Googling my way to knowledge. Lo and behold, I discovered an entire universe of journals, books, websites, blogs, tweeters, and podcasts all devoted to how people learn, how to improve science education, and how to make outreach activities effective. Through the same magic of the search engine, I also discovered amazing contacts right on MIT’s campus, and scheduled a still-ongoing series of coffee dates with those who know more than I do. This led to present and future collaborations with COPUS, the Youth Astronomy Apprentices, and the Edgerton Center.

Over the last 8 months, I have given myself something of a crash course in science education and outreach. True, it’s no replacement for a master’s degree or a doctorate, but considering I just finished one Ph.D., I’m not eager to start another. I also believe that while getting an advanced degree in education, museum studies, or science communication is a wonderful opportunity, it’s not the only path towards making a difference. I think the majority of the folks reading this blog simply want better ways to communicate and reach out to those around them, not another couple of letters after their names (but, if you think I’m wrong about that, go here).

Not everyone is going to turn into the next Sagan or Gould (what a world THAT would be…) but everyone can learn new skills to enable him or her to more effectively fulfill broader impacts and outreach initiatives. So where does one get these elusive skills? If you are affiliated with a University, a growing number now offer courses in communicating science. These courses tend to focus on science writing and dealing with the media and less on, say, how to talk to a 4th grader about geomorphology. For that, the resources are sparser. One program I have come across is the ReSciPE group out of UC Boulder, who, for a fee, will travel to your group or department and run a workshop specifically focused on K-12 outreach.

On a smaller scale, we ran the first of what I hope are many teacher-scientist partnership workshops a few months ago, and are hoping to turn the program into something that can easily be replicated nationwide. At least one scientist who informed me that outreach was “a soporific waste of everyone’s time” changed his tune after attending the workshop (during which his eyelids remained droop-free for 4 hours).  For the workshop, I compiled a short list of resources for scientists venturing into a K-12 classroom for the first time that I’ve found to be helpful; these and similar articles and websites, just a search away, can be motivating and informative on their own. The NSF also maintains a site devoted to scientific communication, which features occasional webinars and workshops.

Like in all others areas of life, outreach requires practice. The first time you try to explain your research to a group of 40 third graders or a gang of science festival goers, you (justifiably) may feel terrified. The fourth time you do it, you’ll (hopefully) feel relaxed and realize that it’s actually fun. For me, talking about science to the public is often what got me out of my thesis-research doldrums. To step back and remember that what you do is REALLY COOL is a precious thing. You don’t have to get it right the first time, but to improve the chances that you will, don’t take off your (perhaps metaphorical) lab coat when it comes time to plan and evaluate an outreach activity – there are resources out there waiting to be taken advantage of.  Armed with knowledge and a little training, even 60 third graders are a piece of cake.

(OK, maybe not even then.)

Phoebe Cohen lives in “our fair city”, Cambridge MA, where she informally educates, studies tiny fossils, and takes photos of things.