A Primer for Scientists on Passionate, Scientific Outreach
There are a lot of ways a scientist can do scientific outreach. This is how I've done my version; I hope it helps in finding your outreach niche!
Since 2012 I have done 13 science-oriented invited speaking presentations to non-scientists across the U.S. Each presentation averaged approximately 30 people for a total impact of 390 people. That's ~80 people a year.
Different Platforms, Scales, and Impact of Outreach: I am hardly an established scientific personality thus the scale of my outreach is not as grand as a Bill Nye or a Neil deGrasse Tyson. I also don't use the same platform for outreach that a Nye has access to or the passion for. Television as a platform for communication is wonderful for general [aesthetically pleasing] information. While I consider myself a good public speaker, I have identified ways outside of television to use those skills.
Think about the platform and its merits and limitations.
For another example, using Twitter as a platform for outreach: I can't just tweet an awesome fish fact and reach thousands, or tens, of people. I first need to amass followers or seek out people to interact with.
Dr. David Steen (@alongsidewild) does a great job of literal Twitter outreach - he seeks out tweets about snakes and tweets to that person the identification of the snake and maybe a fun fact. Because he REACHED OUT to the community he was able to connect with people on their level and encourage them to join his community of snake-lovers. Because of this [tedious] work, Dr. Steen is a regular Twitter personality and has saved innumerable numbers of snakes from being killed through misidentification and misunderstanding. Maybe Twitter outreach is for you. Maybe not. Think about the platform and be OK with starting on a small scale.
Small is not bad. A small scale allows the outreach to be much more personalized and experiential. Television, while a popular vehicle for outreach, is a dangerously inactive activity to promote. Why promote watching television if television watching keeps people from being actively involved in something? Just because you can reach millions doesn't mean you're helping them or your own outreach interest [i.e. science]. For more on television's impacts on American society, check out Tuning in, Tuning out: The strange disappearance of social capital in America; Putnam 1995.
So now you're aware that there are different platforms for communicating science and that not all of them will work for you or the information you want to share. My skill set, for example, is decidedly showcased best in person. My personality does not convey itself well across computer-based platforms; I do best meeting people and interacting with them. Play to your strengths.
Next- Find your 'True' Passion: The platform I decided to use is in-person presentations to enthusiasts of a science-oriented leisure activity. If you don't know what a scientific leisure activity is, I have a paper coming out soon (Introducing the science as leisure model; Marchio et al. 2017. In Review) or you can check out these blog posts now.
To find a passionate topic to talk with non-scientists about, this is what I did: I (1) identified all my leisure pursuits, (2) identified those that involve [explainable] scientific processes, (3) chose one leisure activity to focus on, and (4) REACHED OUT to connect with that community.
I identified that I was a passionate aquarium-keeper before I became an ichthyologist (fish-scientist). Tying science to something that people are already doing and enjoy doing is key. They're already predisposed to be interested in what you have to talk about! Do not underestimate the usefulness of your information.
I identified different scientific processes that occur in the aquarium-keeping experience; many REQUIRED to maintain an aquarium long-term. Thus aquarium keeping has attributes I can identify as scientific, important to the hobby, and explainable to others. Many aquarists understand these scientific attributes, but a large number of novices do not. Novice aquarium keepers can be thought of as novice scientists- they just need education.
There you go, a perfect audience for scientific outreach!
Do not forget: Education by one of their own community members and someone who they trust is important. Being able to identify a scientific leisure activity and explainable attributes is one aspect, joining the community is the other. Both must be present at some level for a good outreach outcome. No one will listen to an elitist who talks above them. Being a part of the community means speaking to people on their level, with words they are familiar with, and not being a dick about it. You started as a novice too; be kind.
By speaking above people you are maintaining the boundary between scientists and the public. Sthap.
It is evident there is some boundary maintenance being upheld. This happens between scientists and the public as well as between scientists. Scientists have the outreach platform or specific scientific knowledge may not want to 'share' that with others. Scientists are a territorial bunch, don't forget! We partition our research niches as well as our outreach niches. Check this paper out for more information on boundary-work and maintenance:
Sometimes you get to choose the scientific topic you want to talk about. For example, the aquarium hobby has a large number of science and conservation-related issues. Once I'm an accepted part of their community, I can talk about varied scientific topics (e.g. taxonomy of fish, lighting requirements of coral and why they need light, physics of water movement in an aquarium, etc.) or I can specialize in one aspect. Read the needs of the community you're working with.
Even if you communicate only one topic, you can always add a bit of science-spice. Some topics don't look science-y but remember science is not just a whole process, there are parts/steps. Not everyone completes the entire scientific process when they participate in science. Scientists rarely do either; at least not in a short time frame. A Ph.D. takes 5+ years of completing the steps to the scientific method. Novice scientists (i.e. the public) can take their time and complete the process (or not) in parts.
I believe this is one of the major takeaways from my work with scientific outreach to aquarists and my research on citizen science: The discrete steps of the scientific method count as doing science. Just because you aren't doing a whole experiment with a citizen, explaining a part of the scientific method (i.e. importance of observation, replication, communicating results, etc) can be just as important as explaining the entire scientific method. Plus much less boring.
- Science is a process of discrete scientific steps. Many leisure activities involve science. Identify a leisure activity you're passionate about and find the science.
- Find and join the community. Do not underestimate the importance of social capital in doing outreach. If they don't know you, go to them.
- Make the topic matter to the people you're communicating with. Identify their interests; play to them while playing to your strengths. Find the right match.
- Don't worry about scale as much as worrying about quality. Small outreach events are more personable and connect people better than global/general events. To be seen as a part of the community and not just an academic, connect to people.
- Not every platform is good for you. Find one that works with your strengths. Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, in person talks, seminars, and so on. Be creative.
- Out reach requires reaching out. Get off your duff and go to people.