Outreach is about more than about the perfect presentation (or even the perfect hands-on tank experiment!)

In most of my blog posts on outreach I focus on how to run the _perfect_ experiment. And while I still think that’s awesome, I recently read an article by Johanna Varner (“Scientific Outreach: Toward Effective Public Engagement with Biological Science”, 2014) that made a lot of points that I have definitely not stressed enough on my blog, and probably not even considered enough.
Outreach is often modeled on scientific communication and intuition. Of course, since that is what we’ve learned over the years and gotten good at, and what we are most comfortable with. But when we are trying to engage the “general public”, those are mostly people who have a very different background from us. Speaking of backgrounds — there is a problem with the concept of “the general public”, as there is no _one_ general public. The general public is very very diverse, and it is important to consider each audience individually. And there is the next thing: “Audience” then often implies that a scientist talks and “the general public” listens, which is not the best model. One-way communication that we often use in outreach, more often than not using simplified, sensationalized stories, is just not effective. For retention of facts as well as for building enthusiasm and for engaging in deep thinking, the public needs to be actively engaged, not talked to.
To also consider is that the reliability of a source is not judged by how many PhDs a speaker has, but by how well it supports the listener’s preconceptions. Any new information is interpreted in such a way that it supports existing ideas. And even if ideas could be “objectively transferred”: new knowledge does not change attitudes or behaviour. And even the intention to act is a poor predictor of future behaviour!
So what can we do?
The article provides a structure for planning outreach activities which is basically backward design: Start with what you want people to learn, then think about what you would take as evidence that they actually learned it, and then plan the activity. Check out the article if you are not familiar with the concept, it’s a really nice introduction. And it is always important to remember that effectiveness of any activity depends on an explicit definition of the goals.
Then, there are a couple of design elements we can use. All of those come from the article originally, but I give my own interpretation and examples.
  • Use “trusted resources” to help us share our message. Instead of doing our outreach activity as a self-organized event, use local churches, artists, any institution or person whom the community trusts to invite you and set the stage for you, this will make it much more likely that people will not only listen to, but actually consider taking on your message.
  • Know your audience. This is super difficult! But since you will want to create personal relevance for your audience (since personal relevance is essential for engagement), you need to know about what your audience’s knowledge, attitudes, values are. And it goes without saying that every outreach activity needs to be tailored to each audience specifically.
  • Establish common ground with your audience, this makes your message more likely to be accepted. Don’t be the scientist who nobody can relate to, be the person who lives in the same neighbourhood, who supports the same sports team, who likes the same kind of music, whatever is applicable in your case.
  • Use appropriate language! Don’t alienate by speaking to science-y, and also beware that words carry a very different meaning in science than in everyday language sometimes (And if you have never seen those tables that tell you that the term “alcohol”, vor example, means “booze” to the general public, when you use it to mean “solvent”, definitely check out examples of such tables here or here!)
  • Get into dialogue instead of just “preaching” in a one-way manner. Ask for questions and feedback, offer to follow-up by email, engage with the people there!
  • Frame your science in a storyline. It makes it much easier to follow and to digest as well as to remember.

    wasserflaschen copy
    Click to enlarge
  • Use “vivid hooks”, i.e. present your research question as an actual question or puzzle to solve, ask people to brainstorm hypotheses, show them the real data, let them get actively involved! Experiential learning and personal experience influence attitudes and beliefs strongly. This might be easiest if you had animals to show, but even just a good question works. Sometimes it’s actually surprising to see what works: The other day I had a blog post showing an empty bottle and one filled with water and asked whether people knew which one was which. And I got so many private messages with people’s answers, asking me to confirm they were correct! I had never thought that this particular blog post would raise such interest.
  • Emphasize benefits of action rather than risks of inaction. Fear appeals can backfire, since they lead to feelings of helplessness, which then lead to denial, apathy, resignation. And all of those prevent engagement.
  • Provide action resources. Enthusiasm and active engagement don’t stay up for very long after you are done with your outreach experiment if you don’t do something to keep them up. Therefore, provide action resources! Let people know when your next event will be, or the schedule of public events at your institution. Hand out take-home activities. Provide online resources or lists of other people’s online resources. Make sure that those who would like to stay engaged have a very low threshold to do so!

And now, go read the original research where all of these ideas came from:

Varner (2014) “Scientific Outreach: Toward Effective Public Engagement with Biological Science”

The importance of playing in outreach activities.

Some time ago, I wrote two blog posts on the importance of playing in outreach activities for the EGU’s blog’s “educational corner” GeoEd. Both have now been published, check them out! Here is the link on EGU’s website (here) and in case that ever stops working, it is also available on my own website (here – including a lot of bonus materials that didn’t make the cut over at EGU)

What do you think? What makes for the best outreach activities?

Blogging as a tool for professional development

How I see blogging as helpful tool for my professional development.
Before I go into how blogging helps with my professional development, there is one very important fact that I want to state very clearly: This blog is first and foremost a hobby that I do in my free time for my own pleasure, because it is the greatest excuse of all to just play with water and dye and all the other things I want to play with.
But I have come to realize that blogging is a tool that can totally be used for professional purposes, even when done in a very low-key, non time-intensive way like this blog is.
So what are the advantages of blogging for me?
Blogging made me more aware of everyday examples of oceanographic processes that I could use in class. After I began blogging, I started noticing everyday concepts that can be related to oceanography a lot more consciously. Looking at puddles, I noticed how waves moved on them or ice formed. Looking at a spoon in a glass, I noticed refraction in different media. I would probably have noticed those things before, but only in passing, and I would have forgotten about them 10 seconds later. Now, I stop, take a picture with my phone, and spend a couple of minutes writing a text about them after I get home that night. This little extra effort helps me in two ways: Being aware that this specific example could be useful in future teaching, and actually having a documentation that I can build on in my class (i.e. my blog post and a couple of pictures). Plus I really enjoy noticing oceanography everywhere.
Another advantage of blogging is the community it provides. This sounds funny seeing that I write blog posts alone at home, but blogging has opened a new community that is interested in talking about teaching and/or oceanography (in many cases in both, but with different degrees of interest in either of the two). So many people read what I post, and talk to me on the corridor at work, via email, when I meet them in person, in all kinds of settings. Apart from occasionally sharing pictures of cool experiments on facebook or dragging friends down to the lab, I did not have that kind of community available to exchange ideas with before I started blogging.
In addition to giving me community in my peer group, blogging has made me a lot more visible to colleagues both at my institution and at other institutions as someone who is interested in teaching, and more importantly, in discussing teaching and striving to improve it. This has already now, a couple of months into blogging, lead to invited talks. And I am hoping this trend will continue!
And then blogging helps me to make time to reflect about topics tangentially related to my teaching that I want to spend time thinking about, but would not make time for if I was “just thinking” rather than sitting at my desk and writing down my thoughts in a semi coherent manner. Now I jot down topics in a designated spot as they pop up in my head, and make time for most of them the weekend after, or the one after that. Even just writing down random topics I want to think about would not happen if it wasn’t for my blog, so this point is one that I really enjoy about blogging.
As an addendum to the previous two points, blogging ensures I have thought about a topic at enough depth that the critical readers (yes, they are out there! and they are giving me feedback!) don’t find huge holes in my reasoning at the very first glance. Calling this peer-review is an overstatement, but at least it gives me some sort of feedback mechanism before I walk into a class and test new materials.
How about you? Are you blogging? Then please point me towards your blog! Are you not? But are you interested in a guest post here? Let me know and we can set something up!

Forskningsdagene are almost upon us

Preparations for experiments to be shown at the science fair “forskningsdagene” are under preparation.

Forskningsdagene, a cooperation between research institutes and schools, science centers and other educational places, will take place next month in Bergen. This year’s topic is ocean and water, and many interesting activities are being planned.

Today Kjersti, Martin and I met up to test which dyes and liquids are best suited for internal wave experiments. Since the target group on at least one of the days are school kids, conventional substances (like potassium permanganate as dye or white spirit as one of the liquids) might not be the best option. Instead, we went for food coloring and vegetable oils.

One of our tests – a four layer system with water (green), vegetable oil (turquoise), white spirit and air.

In the end, we came up with many different options and decided that we should probably bring all the bottles so people can play with them, too.  And we should found a company that sells these bottles as nerdy paper weights. I have had one on my desk for a year now and I’m still playing with it, as is pretty much everybody who comes to my office.

Our selection of different combination of colors and water and oils for internal wave experiments.

But of course the best option wasn’t mentioned until afterwards: Oil and balsamic vinegar! Thanks, Jenny!