Public Outreach in Science: The What, Why and How

Feb. 14, 2017

In today's world, direct engagement with those outside of science is critical not only to communicating what we've discovered, but also to promoting an atmosphere of trust between scientists and the public. Direct engagement can mean many things, but for me, public outreach is a powerful and immediate means of bridging the gap.

What Does "Public Outreach" Mean?

Everyone comes at this question from a slightly different perspective. In science, public outreach is at a nexus with science education, science communication, and even science policy. If you develop curriculums or design professional development workshops for teachers, you're in science education. If you write press releases or tweet news from a big conference, you are in science communication. If you spend your days visiting legislators, you're working in science policy.

Public outreach in science is somewhere in the middle of science education, science communication, and science policy. It includes running programs, such as ASM's Agar Art contest, putting on events, and creating online content for nonscientists. Those nonscientists could be high school students or senior citizens. Engaging in public outreach could mean doing an experiment with passersby at your local farmer's market or hosting a public dialogue on the ethics of genetically modified organisms.

Why Do Outreach as a Practicing Microbiologist?

The most powerful voice for science will always be practicing scientists themselves. There are many reasons why engaging in outreach is important, even if you never see yourself leaving the bench. Some motivations are altruistic, and others are self-serving. I think the top two reasons for engaging in outreach are to:

  1. Buck stereotypes about scientists
  2. Get out of your scientific comfort zone

No matter what race, ethnicity, or gender you identify with, one of the most powerful messages you can convey through public outreach is that you are a scientist - but you are also a person, with human qualities like fallibility, finite knowledge, and interests outside of the lab. There's a pre/post assessment called "Draw a Scientist" that's commonly used when a scientist visits a classroom. Typically, the pre-visit drawings look like some version of Einstein — crazy hair, lab coat, glasses, bubbling things in tubes and beakers. If that's what kids think a scientist looks like, you can be sure that those stereotypes linger in many adults. By simply being yourself when you engage in public outreach, you help humanize scientists as a whole.

Getting out of your scientific comfort zone has benefits for your own outlook. As scientists, we spend a lot of time developing and refining expertise in a very specific, niche area and it is easy to forget where that expertise fits in the wider world. Doing outreach activities, especially ones that require you to explain what you are studying and why, makes you think about the bigger picture. What does your audience care about? Where does your work fit in?

One of my most memorable outreach experiences occurred during a visit to a third-grade classroom. At the time, I was studying RNA splicing patterns in P. falciparum and I asked the students if they had ever heard of malaria, expecting blank stares. But a kid near the middle shot up his hand and said that malaria was why his family had to sleep under nets when they visited relatives in China. I was astonished. I returned to the lab reenergized and motivated to make my seemingly esoteric experiments count. Maybe one day, they would lay the foundation for advances making mosquito nets unnecessary.

How Do You Pursue a Career in Public Outreach?

Sitting in my inbox right now is an email from a 2nd-year postdoc with the subject "Transitioning from academe to outreach." I get these emails periodically and I know before even reading it that this person wants to know my story, and how I got into public outreach.  

To be frank, I plunged in head first, knowing that there is no "career path" for those of us who leave research to pursue science outreach. The only universal pieces of advice I can offer are to volunteer in science outreach programs early and often (i.e., NOT right before your next career transition) and to grab that critical, foot-in-the-door first job, which may not be a perfect fit and may be tangential to your ultimate goal. My first job involved helping school districts create strategic plans to overhaul their entire science programs. It was definitely not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but it was a baby step away from the bench and toward public outreach.

How Do You Find Outreach Opportunities?

There are opportunities all over the place to participate in science outreach. You can do it online via blogs, your Twitter account, videos, or plugging into Reddit's Ask Me Anything series.  If you're looking for face-to-face opportunities, start by searching online for "science outreach at [your institution]." There might be a student group or a Center for Science Education you're not currently aware of that offers outreach opportunities. If that doesn't work, consider the following:

Or, if you really want to impress, create your own science outreach program. Science cafes in particular are not that difficult to set up-you need a venue, a speaker, and a way to get the word out to the community.

How Can ASM Help You Get Involved in Public Outreach?

As an ASM member, you will receive emails to volunteer in the biennial USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC and vetted, third-party opportunities in specific locations throughout the year. If you aren't a member, join now.  

In addition, we provide resources to help you be successful in your outreach endeavors. ASM hosts a collection of different classroom activities that can be used as-is or easily adapted for other settings.

We also offer an in-person professional development workshop on how to effectively communicate with public audiences. The workshop content is applicable whether speaking at a coffee shop or with a group of politicians. Email us to host the "Communicating Science to the Crowd" workshop at your local branch, student chapter, or with another group of ASM members.

Author: Katherine Lontok, Ph.D.

Katherine Lontok, Ph.D.
Dr. Katherine Lontok joined the American Society for Microbiology as the Public Outreach Manager in January 2016, and transitioned to the Scientific and Digital Editor in Feb. 2020.