Outreach fellow Sandy Phillips-Long takes NCSE camping

Sandy Phillips-Long is South Carolina personified. And she uses her knowledge to develop locally relevant science outreach activities to meet South Carolinians where they're at in the summer: campgrounds.

Setting up science outreach at a campground.

In the 10 feet I’ve walked from the car to the education department, I’ve broken a sweat. South Carolina in July has an oppressive humidity that permeates even the classroom where NCSE’s Nature of Science workshop is taking place. By 3 p.m., the skies will erupt into a dramatic summer thunderstorm. But for now the atmosphere over the Clemson campus hangs heavy and still.

Sandy Phillips-LongFor Sandy Phillips-Long, a Clemson Ph.D. student and 2019 NCSE Graduate Student Outreach Fellow, the humidity doesn’t seem to register. She grew up in South Carolina and has raised a family here, working as a nurse and a high school teacher before deciding to pursue her doctorate in healthcare genetics.

“In our state, the primary way of getting a raise was to earn another degree or take another graduate course, plus teaching hours. As I was taking courses in biology, I started focusing on genetics—I love genetics.” Phillips-Long’s love of learning has led her to join our July workshop with Teacher Ambassadors from across the country That gave us a chance to chat with her about her background and her work in evolution education.

Phillips-Long is South Carolina personified, from her warm Southern drawl to her unending patience with the world around her. Surprisingly, despite growing up Southern Baptist in the Deep South, she didn’t encounter pushback about evolution until later in life. “I can remember growing up in the church—evolution was not an issue. This was way before creationism became popular, and I had no clue what that was.” That all changed when she started teaching in the early 2000s. She was unprepared for the amount of resistance she would face. “Kids would tune out, turn off. I would give them a test, and they would write that ‘fakes were created’ when talking about fossils, ‘because Jesus said so.’ It was always something.”

Talking to Phillips-Long reveals her great depth of caring for her students, even those who tried to make her teaching difficult. After she describes some particularly frustrating encounters with creationist beliefs in her students, she immediately reflects, “I noticed a lot of times that they would write down these answers because they didn’t know the correct answer.” She often dealt with this by separating their religious beliefs from evidence-based science, giving students the freedom to express their beliefs while gently insisting that they learn the facts. “I would tell them that it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you put the right answer down.” This approach can be effective with students that might feel guilt over learning evolution by giving them an out to learn the evidence without feeling like they are betraying their religion. However, she adds that South Carolina policies make some of her preferred practices difficult. “The kids would always ask me questions—I would tell them, I’m not allowed to discuss religion, but whatever you believe, there’s room for both your religious beliefs and science.”

Campgrounds in the South are usually where you find people that are grassroots.

Outreach seemed a natural extension to her classroom teaching, and NCSE was excited for Phillips-Long to join the first cohort of Science Outreach Fellows in 2019. While many graduate students are eager to get to know the community they are engaging with during their Fellowship, Phillips-Long’s in-depth knowledge of her community allowed her to quickly form bonds with everyone she’s interacted with during her outreach activities. “I’ve never met a stranger,” she confesses several times during our conversations. Talking to people formed the basis for her Climate Change in My Community project on effective mosquito abatement techniques in South Carolina. She was able to use her high school students to beta-test the project, then presented it at several spring carnival events. However, she realized that summer was around the corner, so her options would need to expand.

It was during a family camping trip that she had an idea to set up science outreach at campgrounds, where she was likely to find an audience less friendly to science. “Campgrounds in the South are usually where you find people that are grassroots—more likely to be less educated or deeply rooted in the church. Still, I grew up in campgrounds, and I know how they’re always doing outreach and figuring out activities for the kids who are staying all over the campsites to do. So my husband and I went and set up NCSE outreach activities.”

In addition to presenting her Climate Change in My Community activity about mosquito abatement, Phillips-Long also presented several NCSE evolution activities. “There were lights, and kids could color. People would come up and they’d get curious. It started some conversations, and I got some weird looks at first. My husband would sit outside with the cats, and our 2 boxers were out there, so we just had everything drawing them in! I’d let the kids start out by drawing whatever they wanted, and then we’d talk about science—it worked!”

Phillips-Long ended up doing outreach in four different campsites across North and South Carolina, reaching many people who wouldn’t typically attend a science outreach event, and receiving almost no pushback. “The park rangers, who check in on everyone in the evenings, would slow down and take a look, but they never stopped—they just looked over.” She takes signs like this and others as an indication of growing acceptance of evolution in her community. “In the classroom, more of the students are becoming curious about evolution. I don’t see a lot of creationist beliefs these days. If anything, they are more curious about adaptation.”

Still, Phillips-Long says that she hopes that evolution education, particularly around genetics, will continue to grow in her state. “We are way behind in South Carolina in our genetics standards—we teach simple Mendelian inheritance and that’s it. We don’t teach epigenetics, we don’t teach evolution associated with genetics and diseases, and we’re doing an injustice to these students. Genetics shouldn’t still be Punnett Square and then we move on. We’ve got to bring it into the classrooms, and find a way to think outside of the box.”

NCSE is grateful to work with a diverse cohort of Fellows that bring different community perspectives to inform and develop NCSE’s Breaking Down Barriers program. Learn more about Phillips-Long’s work.

Kate Carter
Short Bio

Kate Carter is Director of Community Science Education at NCSE.

NCSE Program Coordinator Emma Doctors
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Emma Doctors is Program Coordinator at NCSE.