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Let's not reinvent the outreach wheel

Two wagon wheels

During the summer of 2019, one of our Graduate Student Outreach Fellows planned to lead a no-conflict training with the "Graduate Outreach Club" at her university. A few days before this was scheduled, I got an email from the president of the "Share Your Science" organization at that same university and department requesting a phone call. What followed was one of the more confusing conversations I have had in my life. The president had no knowledge of the fellow or the training and was only calling because one of his professors had mentioned NCSE in class. It turns out that "Share Your Science" and the "Graduate Outreach Club" were two independently operating organizations that were only slightly aware of the other's existence. When I commented that it was weird that there were two completely separate graduate outreach clubs within the same university department, he laughed and said he actually thought there were four.

While working with our fellows across the country, I've gotten acquainted with the ins and outs of informal science efforts at myriad universities. It's great to see that both graduate student motivation and departmental support for effective informal science outreach is at an all-time high. However, one thing that keeps emerging from conversations with all of our university partners is just how siloed these efforts become. It seems like everyone who has the idea to share their love of science broadly has to create a new mechanism to accomplish that goal. We continue to reinvent the wheel, over and over.

Ultimately, I hope to work with the Graduate Student Outreach Fellows to reframe their mindset from "How can I share my science?" to "What does my community want to know about science?"

Allowing students to share science in a personally resonant way certainly benefits both the students and the community served by their outreach. However, when everyone is operating independently, it's hard to analyze outcomes and understand which groups are getting left out of the conversation. Lack of access to science is a systemic barrier and mitigating this involves understanding the whole landscape and developing a bird's-eye view of which populations aren’t currently being reached.

To be maximally effective, scientists need to identify partners, particularly in the community, whose goals align with theirs but who have insights about effectively reaching diverse groups. We are all guilty of looking through the academy's windows to our target populations while being blind to the amazing efforts already in place to engage these groups. Many potential partners also have training in pedagogy, diversity, and community mobilization that are often not covered in a science graduate program. As scientists, we use evidence to support our research claims and should similarly be beholden to the ample evidence relevant to making informal science effective. Working alone makes it harder to learn best practices, making outreach less effective.

I've said "we" throughout this article because I've been guilty of "working alone" during my own graduate study and even during my tenure at NCSE. For 2020, however, I am dedicated to helping the Graduate Student Outreach Fellows be more than "just another outreach thing" at their universities. The most recent cohort will start during its first semester by building an understanding of what outreach is already happening both internally at, and externally to, their universities. They will then develop a strategy to identify underserved populations, cultivate relevant partners, and begin to evaluate the impact their work is having. Accomplishing this requires the ability to listen constantly and actively to community members engaging in science outside the community, and we have created assignments that challenge them to develop this skill. Ultimately, I hope to work with the Graduate Student Outreach Fellows to reframe their mindset from "How can I share my science?" to "What does my community want to know about science?" This change has the potential to be transformative, and can help minimize reinvention of the wheel.

Still, in many ways, an outpouring of outreach is a great problem to have. It is so inspiring to see the concern for engaging the broader population in science activities and the creative solutions that are devised. I am awed by the amazing work being done by graduate students across the country to break down the barriers between scientists and non-scientists. There is so much enthusiasm powering this outreach engine. We first just have to make sure that all the wheels are going in the same direction.

Kate Carter
Short Bio

Kate Carter is Director of Community Science Education at NCSE.
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