Education, Early Career, Outreach

Science Outreach in Action

Science outreach can mean different things to different people, but all outreach shares a goal: to promote the public awareness and understanding of science. For researchers, a secondary goal is often to fulfill the Broader Impacts requirements of their research grants. Participating in outreach events is a rewarding way to meet these goals. Outreach events allow you to interact with nonscientists face-to-face, and give you the opportunity to show a side of science that textbooks struggle to convey.

Depending on your goals and interests, some kinds of outreach might appeal to you over others. Find the outreach that suits your research, interests, and experience. If you’re a great public speaker but dislike working with children, giving a public lecture might be a good option for you. But if your research lends itself well to hands-on activities, working with a school or informal education center may be a better fit.

Mentoring undergraduate and graduate students is also an important component of science outreach, but is not covered within this guide. For some resources on mentoring, check out this article, and this online guide. Policy is another integral area of science outreach not covered here, but policy resources can be found here.

Choosing the Right Kind of Outreach

The outreach you do is limited only by your ideas and motivation. However, most outreach falls into 4 categories: public presentations, lab tours and open houses, informal education, and K-12 education. Take a look at the chart below and see how each varies in its requirements and audience.

Types of Outreach 

Public Presentations

Giving a presentation for the purpose of science outreach is not the same as giving a seminar in front of your colleagues. Your audience is different, what interests them is different, and therefore you should never reuse slides from an academic talk for outreach. Ideally, public lectures become a conversation between the scientist and the audience, with little to no jargon and emphasis on the aspects of the topic that appeal to the audience.

One way to get involved with public presentations and lectures is through Science Café, a global program which facilitates connecting scientists with the public in fun, accessible, environments such as coffee shops, restaurants, and bars. Other ways to give public lectures include giving a lecture through your institution, or by presenting at conferences, science festivals, and other science events. 

DO’S:

  • DO tailor your presentation for a nonscientist audience. General science communication tips and tricks are important here.
  • DO pick a topic that’s of interest to a general audience—don’t feel like you have to restrict your presentation to the new species of diatom your lab recently published a paper about. A timely topic that’s in the news, and is related to your general subject area, is a good bet. Topics dealing with issues from people’s everyday lives work well too. For example, instead of your new diatom species, you could discuss the science behind the algal blooms that caused a fish kill in a local river a month ago.
  • DO come up with a catchy title. Instead of “The Effects of Nutrient-loading on Estuarine HABs” try “How do Fertilizers Lead to Fish Kills?”
  • DO bring props, demonstrations, or other items that make your talk more hands-on and interactive for the audience. Even a vial of water containing phytoplankton can help make your research more concrete.
  • DO use stories, anecdotes, and analogies in your talk. Our hypothetical plankton researcher could talk about the experience of sampling on the river after the latest fish kill, for example.
  • DO give people “take home” statistics and recommendations—tell them how this issue applies to them and what they can do about it.
  • DO use humor and enthusiasm to grab people’s attention!

DON’TS:

  • DON’T rely on slides. The focus should be on you and your audience, not a block of text. Use interesting pictures and visuals in your presentation instead. Show pictures of your study site, the organisms you study, and of you and your lab group conducting research.
  • DON’T use too many graphs. If you want to use a graph, make sure to take the time to walk people through what it’s showing. An alternative is to simplify your data into conceptual diagrams that show the trends and take home messages.
  • DON’T talk down to your audience, or use jargon.

Lab Tours, Open Houses and Field Excursions

This involves inviting people to tour your lab or field site (which might work better for some people than others; we don’t recommend field excursions for those whose field sites are on the seafloor). These can be coordinated into department-wide events or involve your lab group alone. You can do these tours for the general public, for school groups, or in conjunction with another outreach event being held at your institution.

DO’S:

  • DO keep the tour appropriate for the education level and age of your audience. Strive not to be boring!
  • DO try to include a demonstration or a hands-on component. Let people (safely) handle some of the lab and field equipment you use everyday. Pipettes, plankton nets, and microscopes are all interesting to people who don’t use them routinely, particularly children.
  • DO plan your time. You’ll want to structure your tour differently depending on if there is one group, a series of groups, or an open house.
  • DO get permission from people to enter their labs if you’re giving tours of labs besides your own. Make sure to obtain any necessary keys or passcodes.

Informal and K-12 Education

While doing K-12 outreach usually involves visiting classrooms, outreach through informal education centers can happen almost anywhere. Informal education opportunities exist at museums, science centers, Girl or Boy Scout Troops, outdoor education centers, among other places.

You can use your institution’s outreach offices to find outreach opportunities at these venues. You can also contact these organizations directly to ask about opportunities for collaborating. What these events entail will vary—some organizations will want you to design and implement your own activity, while others are happy for you to show up and be a resource during an existing event. At schools, you may be asked to give a presentation, do an activity, or a combination of both.

DO’S:

  • DO use great visuals, demonstrations, and hands-on activities whenever possible.
  • DO figure out what you’ll be doing before you get there. Tailor your supplies and activities accordingly.
  • DO remember that kids of different ages act and learn differently. What’s fun for a 1st grader might bore an older student, and what’s challenging but interesting for a high school student may be overwhelming for a 5th grader.
  • DO ask if any children have special needs (deaf, ESL, autistic, etc.) and plan accordingly.
  • DO ask about any curriculum standards the teacher would like you to address during your event (particularly in a K-12 environment).
  • DO be patient, enthusiastic, and upbeat!

DON’TS

  • DON’T forget about safety. Never leave any unsafe materials unattended.
  • DON’T do the activity for the children. Whenever possible, let kids work out how to do things on their own and act as a facilitator for that exploration.
  • DON’T use long lectures or jargon. Don’t take yourself too seriously—have fun with the event and the kids will too!