There is a chorus, nay a din, within the academic community telling students and principle investigators that they must engage in outreach. The argument is that some research appears esoteric when not placed in a broader context, and that communication and outreach can synthesize ideas and increase public understanding of science. Additionally, many argue that as the public funds science, the results in proper context should be accessible; this idea has been notably encompassed in NSF’s required Broader Impacts section of grant proposals.
There are many ways which scientists engage in outreach, including:
• Presentations to adult civic groups
• Presentations or in-classroom teaching to school age children, notably NSF’s GK-12 program
• Hands-on demonstrations at nature centers, zoos, observatories, or museums
• Manning science themed booths at festivals
• Writing science articles for newspapers or magazines
• Blogs, video blogs, and Twitter
Outreach has been added to the milieu of skills scientists must master. Luckily, some institutions hire dedicated staff to assist scientists in their outreach efforts. However, there is still a degree of initiative required to do outreach, let alone do it consistently and/or well. My colleagues exude excitement as they plan and execute their outreach activities; but as an introvert, I imagine the same activities would be rather draining for me. (Note- I’m using introvert in the context of energy and not as a synonym for shy.) That said I know it’s time to learn how to do outreach (with the goal of working up to effective outreach).
When planning my first foray into outreach I kept two things in mind, my time constraints and not wearing myself out (ie- my introversion). I study the population genetics and phylogeography of the American black bear, which I believe is sufficiently esoteric to the public. When I talk about my work to non-scientists everyone gets excited about the bears, so I decided to focus my outreach on facts about bears. I also decided a Twitter blitz of bear facts met my time and energy criteria. This doubly worked for me because I did not have to organize an audience for my outreach; the tweets would go out and either be read or ignored (again I’m working up to effective outreach). Plus, I was excited to dig up fun facts so I could learn more about bears as well. My Twitter blitz lasted five days with each day focused on a different topic. I sent out 103 tweets, several of which were retweeted or favorited, gained new followers, and enjoyed three twitter conversations about bears. Self-assessment: not too shabby for a first try.
But, did I meet my criteria of honoring my time and energy? For the most part yes, but it was both more time and effort than I imagined. Maybe that is just a property of outreach, whether part of your day job or on top of, outreach requires time and attention. Knowing what I know now, I would have written my tweets ahead of time, then copied and pasted; this may have allowed me to do more while also maintaining my regular work load.
What are some other outreach ideas that may be well suited for introverted scientists? Our list is below, but feel free to leave your own ideas in the comments.
• Create science based materials for K-12 schools to use (lesson plans, nonfiction reading, activities based on your research).
• Organize a group of colleagues to do an outreach activity, that way the work is divided between people and will hopefully draw on each other’s strengths.
• Skype into K-12 science classrooms for a live Q&A.
• Organize a field or lab demonstration with local Girl or Boy Scouts. The groups are usually smaller and come with chaperones.
• On Twitter, participate in #scistuchat – run by science teacher @2footgiraffe. This one is easy. They choose a topic and a time and students tweet questions and you answer. Really great way to contribute.
• On Twitter, attach your tweets to a TV show or a week (ex- #sharkweek or #bigcatweek).
• Blog! Your content at your pace.