Making Science Outreach Inclusive: Beyond Standard Paradigms

Sept. 15, 2020

Ever since I delivered my first science outreach activity, I have been delighted by the 2-way flow of information between presenters and participants. However, the “feel good” nature of outreach activities does not, and should not, preclude us from conceptualizing and designing our programs with a critical lens. For example, if the goal of an outreach program is to build stronger connections between activities on campus and community members, it is essential to consider how the location, structure, design, delivery and marketing influence the accessibility of your program to community members. Do the participants truly reflect the community in which your university is embedded and into which it is hopefully integrated? If not, could your program actually be widening disparities or gaps?  The design of inclusive outreach programs is a long-term endeavor, as opposed to a brief process.

How to Make Science Outreach Activities on Campus More Accessible to the Community

On-campus outreach programs are a great way to welcome community members to a university (research center, museum, etc.), but individuals may lack awareness of, or transportation to, campus events. To be more inclusive, consider the following: 
  • Include information about bus lines and other forms of public transportation and interpretation/language translation at events. Partnerships with community centers, daycares, community clubs or living facilities might facilitate opportunities for group transportation to campus. 
  • Seek longer-term partnerships with venues, organizations and leaders throughout the community. Set up outreach events that contribute to existing initiatives, like outreach booths at community festivals or engagement of participants walking through the community center lobby.  
  • Engage with existing cultural events as opposed to inviting community members to new, university-created events only.
  • Regularly reflect and assess progress in attracting new audience segments.  
  • Use existing social media channels and programs within the community to get the word out instead of creating new websites and posting on university sites.
  • Use different venues and times of day and provide options for family members of different ages to interact with an activity. For example, while youth extract DNA from wheat germ, parents or grandparents could assist in the manipulations and/or discuss posters or visual aids about recent science research projects.

Think Beyond K-12 for Broader Audiences

Many scientists new to science outreach assume that the term is synonymous with K-12 activities or school-based visits. While these are, of course, excellent opportunities, think more broadly about the type of audiences that can be reached through programming.  

For example, adults 50 years of age or older connect with educational programs at the university-based Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes across the country. Reach out to alumni associations, retirement centers, campus community education programs, Cooperative Extension Service entities or community service organizations for connections to adult education opportunities. For example, a colleague and I worked together to develop an educational day trip about beer and cheese production for retired adults.  

You can also try to connect outreach programs to a career development focus to reach new audiences.  For example, Correa Zeigler reviews how discussion of STEM career options and a focus on “educational merit” in informal science education settings can aid in parent engagement.

The Cooperative Extension field gives you new audiences for public engagement. The Journal of Extension is a peer-reviewed journal featuring public engagement scholarship. There are many lessons from work with 4-H, Master Gardener and other Extension programs that can be applied in your own outreach setting. For example, Gonzalez et al. (2020) present recommendations for inclusive 4-H youth programming that can be applied more broadly, such as designing activities in the context of entire family structures and using inclusive language options on surveys and forms.   

Include Diverse Voices in Science Outreach Programs

When inviting speakers for public lecture series and/or science cafes, consider speaker diversity across many dimensions (racial, gender, age, career stage, national origin, sexual orientation and more).  

Resist the tendency to consider only senior, nationally known scholars. Incorporate interested graduate students and postdoctoral scholars by asking them to help with design and delivery of outreach activities. This can occur formally—through service learning courses—or informally, through volunteer opportunities for individuals or student groups. Numerous resources exist for the design of science outreach-based service learning courses, which should be designed in the context of learning gains for students and with community and partnering organizations in mind.  

Take time to read resources concerning racial equity and social justice as a part of your science outreach journey, and make racial equity a priority in program design and goals. Also, dismantle structures that may impede diverse voices on campus from participating in outreach programs, and help a graduate student mentor, department chair or tenure committee member understand the value of science outreach as important service work. 

Explore ways to increase the level of community engagement, as defined on the Community Engagement Continuum.  As you move up the continuum, the level of community communication, involvement, decision-making and impact increase. Here are some ideas to get you started:
  • Obtain feedback from the community on desired presentation topics.
  • Cooperate with community organizations to design educational activities.
  • Develop community installations (e.g., teaching garden) as partnerships with community members.
  • Engage community members in citizen science initiatives that collect and analyze data. 
  • Form citizen advisory committees to provide feedback on outreach concepts. 

Apply Universal Design and Inclusive Language 

Concepts of universal design are not just for the college classroom! Use the universal design principles as a starting point for reflection when designing a new activity or program. Some recommendations that are particularly relevant to outreach program design include the following: 
  • Promoting an understanding across languages.
  • Clarifying vocabulary. 
  • Optimizing individual choice and autonomy.  
  • Making activities safe.
  • Providing tools that are appropriate for individuals with different physical capabilities. 
Take a moment to reflect on the language you use to interact with visitors or participants. For example, Smith-Borne provides suggestions for the creation of welcoming environments for transgender or gender-fluid library patrons that can be applied to science outreach settings. These include avoiding assumptions about participant gender or about preferred pronouns.

As we continue forward in the uncertain times of COVID-19, issues with inclusivity are magnified. Individuals with existing university connections will more readily learn about virtual initiatives, and disparities in internet access, internet quality and access to other physical resources will only further gaps. Hands-on outreach work and in-person science festivals have been canceled, and the demands of at-home work and/or childcare and homeschooling are likely to negatively influence the time and resources available for participation. While the impact on public science outreach is severe, the potential for activities like citizen science and engagement through video-based tools remains. The innovations developed during this time may provide new ideas for longer-term opportunities to reach participants through digital resources.  

Additional Resources

Author: Catherine Vrentas, Ph.D.

Catherine Vrentas, Ph.D.
Catherine Vrentas, Ph.D., is a microbiologist and molecular biologist currently working as a R&D scientist in industry.