“So what do you study?” Jerry, a custodian and newfound friend of mine, asked me on the elevator down to the first floor of my apartment building.
“Astronomy!” I answered with a smile and more than a few Astronomy fun facts ready in my back pocket.
“Astronomy!” He enthusiastically replied. “I’m a Pisces, what does that mean?”
For decades, poster sessions and conference talks have prepared young astronomers, and scientists in general, on how to explain their research to audiences within their subfield and beyond. But what about learning how to communicate your research to the general public? What about kids? After spending countless years studying the effects of how ‘the spin-flip energy level of Hydrogen can impact the radiation received from the quasar number 4983240’, it can be difficult to know how to talk about your research in a fun and engaging way to those who may know nothing about your field at all. The skills that astronomers learn in academia to communicate their research may not be the same skills that are needed to be effective in public outreach. But not to worry, you already have the skills needed to be a great scientific communicator! All you need to do is be a human being.
And that’s exactly what I realized on a bright Saturday morning at the University of Chicago. With tents and booths scattered all around campus, families with kids of all ages came out to enjoy the first annual South Side Science Festival. Scientists from a wide range of disciplines showcased demonstrations of everything from how to extract DNA from strawberries to how to handle butterflies. But as a writer for Astrobites, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the Astronomy booths, which were organized by Juliet Crowell, UChicago’s Education and Public Outreach Director for CMB experiments. I was excited about the prospect of learning something new, but I had no idea how much was in store.
How to Be A Human Being
Lesson 1: Be Creative!
Find unique ways to attract your audience’s attention
My first stop was one of the booths hosted by the South Pole Telescope (SPT) group. These astronomers study the cosmic microwave background (CMB), which is light that’s nearly as old as the Universe itself. At the first table, I watched as children put their hands in ziplock bags insulated with lard, feathers, or cotton, before submerging them in a bucket of ice water. All the while, graduate students Wei Quan and Paul Chichura told kids about the conditions at the South Pole and what kinds of animals lived there. Well that hardly seems like Astronomy. I thought. Shouldn’t we save talk about animals to the wildlife biologists instead? Where’s the science?
“Some of the sciences can be a bit esoteric and non-tactile. If I’m talking to you and just holding something up that you don’t get to touch, don’t get to hold, it’s really hard to keep someone’s interest and engagement.” Juliet told me in a one-on-one conversation about public outreach. “[Scientists] may want to focus on talking about their research, and adding an activity to draw the public in to show them how exciting space is can be just as important. You want to inspire them to want to listen to you and be excited about science.”
That was the first lesson I learned about public outreach: you have to give people a reason to want to learn about your science before you actually talk about it! Coming from a background of presenting my research at meetings, I naively believe that the most important aspect of scientific outreach was communicating as much scientific information as possible to my audience. After all, I already had a captive audience of scientific enthusiasts – why would I need to convince them that science is fun?
But, in public outreach, learning how to talk about your science isn’t the whole story. Embrace your natural creativity and show your audience why space is cool! Let your audience play with the wafers you make in your labs, let them draw their own scientifically accurate black hole, or show them all the beautiful astronomical images you spend days reducing in ds9. Those experiences will be just as memorable as the science you teach them.
Lesson 2: Be Yourself
Don’t be afraid to show off your personality!
The next SPT booth I visited was a photo op. Kids and teens were invited to don the specialized extreme weather parkas that scientists wear at the South Pole when working on SPT. Once wrapped up, they stood in front of a beautiful backdrop of the South Pole, a stunning aurora painting the sky over the telescope. Standing by was research scientist Tom Crawford, a lead scientist of the SPT group raring to answer any and all questions curious passersby may have about the South Pole and the science conducted there. It was easy to understand why this booth would have an experienced scientific communicator like Tom on standby, but I couldn’t help but eye the photo booth. It was creative enough to draw people in, but what could a photo op teach the public if it wasn’t science? Once you inspire your audience, how do you begin to make an impact?
Plainly and simply, “it’s about letting kids see themselves as scientists,” Juliet explained. “The idea is that you get to talk to a scientist with the South Pole. You get to put on that clothing. You get to be the scientist. A lot of the time what happens is that I’m the scientist, and you’re the general public. But it should be: how do I draw you in? How do I get you to imagine yourself as a scientist?”
This was the second lesson I learned about public outreach: once you have captivated your audience, you should try and build genuine connections. Oftentimes when I’m presenting my research, I get in the habit of putting on my ‘scientist persona’. I explain my research calmly and professionally, almost like I’m in a job interview; it’s how I believe I should talk about science. But, sometimes, this might not always be the most effective way to navigate public outreach. Sometimes, it can be far more impactful to just be yourself. You are just as cool as the science you do!
Lesson 3: Be Passionate
Share your excitement about science with others!
My final stop was a table hosted by a group of exoplanet experts. At their table was a load of different activities, which included making your own comet out of tin foil, foam balls, and ribbons, or scratch-arting your own alien. I could never pass up the opportunity to make an alien! As I scratched away, I talked with graduate student Louise Gagnon about why she was volunteering at the festival, and how she got into public outreach in general.
“There was one observatory that I went to when I was younger, the JJ McCarthy Observatory. They would have open observatory nights that the public could attend, and it was such a cool experience to have growing up. It was the thing that inspired me to pursue Astronomy, and why I love doing outreach.”
As Louise spoke, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Juliet’s words: “I sailed as an educator on a Geoscience research vessel for sixty days, and the chief engineer of that ship was from New Zealand. He used to collect sand dollars and different things from the beach and line them up along his bathtub when he was a kid. It is all about finding that first spark. Even if people don’t understand all the science, or are interested in other science fields/ careers, they can feel your passion.”
And just like that, the entire picture of public outreach clicked into place. Every researcher had their first spark that inspired them to pursue science. It could be as simple as thinking that the night sky looks cool, or as philosophical as wondering what our place in the universe is. Whatever the case may be, the true impact of public outreach comes from harnessing your own passion to give others their first spark toward science. While it sometimes might feel like you’re not making a big difference in someone else’s life, sometimes, all it takes to make an impact is a few seashells.
The Final Lesson: Everyone Can Do Outreach!
Though I returned home from the South Side Science festival with my very own comet and alien in hand, what I really came back richer in was knowledge. I learned that being an effective scientific communicator may be easier than someone might think. All you need is a little creativity, a little personality, and a little passion – things that we all already have in us.
At the end of the day, outreach isn’t about learning the best way to explain all the complexities of the CMB like academic communication might teach us. It’s really about people talking to people. It’s about just being human. Because although we all come from different walks of life, there is one thing we all have in common: we can all become great scientists.
So, I encourage you, no matter who you are, undergraduate or graduate, professor or science hobbyist, to get involved in public outreach if you’re interested in it. It’s not scary! There will always be people like Juliet by your side to help you every step of the way. No matter if you’re a Pieces or a Leo, you already have all the passion, personality, and creativity you need to make a big impact in someone’s life.
Edited by: Sasha Warren
Featured image credits: The University of Chicago