What is outreach? Part 1

In my last post, I introduced myself and mentioned that I’m at the ASLC to work on outreach. But that begs the question:

What exactly is “outreach” and why should we care?

No one can agree on a single, “official” definition of outreach (and if you go searching, you will in fact find many different and even contradicting definitions), but I think it’s important to have some sort of definition in place before we jump in. Summing up all of the various descriptions and definitions I found, I came up with the following:

Outreach is the melding of science communication and education, used to educate those outside of the scientific community and to generate public interest, appreciation, and understanding of science.” 

That definition feels broad, but it’s supposed to! Outreach isn’t just one thing: it’s teaching a class at a local school, delivering a public lecture, holding a demonstration, organizing a citizen science initiative, writing a blog post or op-ed, creating a website, or sharing on social media. Outreach is a diverse collection of activities and strategies that scientists and educators can utilize to communicate with their communities.

ASLC scientists discussing their research with the public.

There is increasing recognition that outreach and public engagement is an important component of the research process. Funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, are looking for outreach components in proposals (take a look at NSF’s “Broader Impacts” criterion for a good example) and there’s growing evidence that outreach (in the form of education and teaching) has direct and tangible benefits on researchers themselves. For example, graduate students who engage in teaching and outreach activities perform better on tests of their analytical and research skills than students who do not participate in outside activities. Outreach in the form of education can also help dispel stereotypes about scientists themselves by providing students with examples of real-life scientists.

table1laursen et al 2017
92% of grad students and 88% of teachers involved in a science outreach initiative targeting K-12 classrooms reported “enhanced interest and engagement in science” (Laursen et al., 2017).

Unfortunately, both outreach and public education have a bit of a bad reputation in the academic community. In a survey by the Royal Society on factors affecting science communication, some respondents said that outreach was “light,” “fluffy,” “less,” and “reinforcing negative stereotypes for women involved in such activity.” It’s also no secret that many academics view research as their highest priority, something that has started numerous debates and discussions about the work-life balance of faculty and grad students.

As we can see, outreach is broad. It comes with its own rewards and unique challenges. In part 2, we’ll explore some of those challenges in more detail and the steps we can take toward overcoming them. 

Further reading:


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