21 March 2022
By Kelli Mullane & Shailja Gangrade
Have you ever been hugged by a sea urchin? Watching a young kid apprehensively place their finger between the spines of a sea urchin, then light up with excitement when the spines gently squeeze them is just one thing that motivates us to dedicate so much time to outreach. While we have the attention of that student, we can explain that photoreceptor (or light-sensing) cells on the tips of the urchin spines allow them to sense shadows and move their spines towards predators as a defense mechanism. This informal scientific outreach is one way we connect researchers and the public. As graduate students at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, we conduct this outreach through the Scripps Community Outreach for Public Education (SCOPE) program.
SCOPE is a student-run, volunteer-driven program that, for the last two decades, has been working to educate the public about research conducted at Scripps. We (Kelli and Shailja) are two of the graduate student coordinators that organize events, engage volunteers, and design outreach content. Our volunteer base, largely composed of Scripps graduate students, is the key to our successful program. Through SCOPE, our volunteers lead tours of Scripps facilities, such as the Hubbs Experimental Aquarium and the Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier (the landmark feature of our campus). Both facilities host numerous research experiments and are launching sites for some of the ground-breaking science that occurs at Scripps. SCOPE also brings groups along Scripps Beach, providing immersive learning opportunities discussing local tide pool ecology and coastal geology, as well as offering tours of the world-famous collections housed here at Scripps.
The impact of this type of outreach is directly observable. From post-event feedback survey results summarized in a recent publication, we’ve found that, for 15% of our visitors, visiting Scripps through SCOPE was their first time seeing the ocean. We have also been able to reach broad groups, often from underserved communities: 30% of our visitors have been first-generation college students, and over 40% have come from a low-income background. By engaging with the public community – particularly younger student groups – we can demystify what science is and what a scientist may look like, striving towards increasing diversity within STEM fields. In this way, we hope SCOPE serves as a tractable model of a sustainable, engaging, and effective outreach program for other institutions. After all, everyone could always use a sea urchin hug!
Kelli Mullane is a PhD Candidate in Marine Biology, and Shailja Gangrade is a PhD Student in Biological Oceanography, both at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. If you want to learn more about the SCOPE program, or want to replicate this type of outreach at your own institution, check out our recent publication, website, or email us at scope.sio at gmail dot com.