Alexa Soares walks us through how a student-run university outreach programme adapts to a pandemic
By forging connections between scientists and the surrounding community, outreach serves two overarching goals: expanding access to science and scientific careers and increasing the general public’s trust in science. Science has long been an old (white) boys’ club. Amidst stories like those of Rosalind Franklin and Henrietta Lacks, it’s easy to see how this field excludes the participation of minorities, and why minoritised groups do not inherently trust the ideas espoused by scientists. When approached through a lens of social justice and guided by respect for the communities we engage with, outreach can be a powerful tool to make science more inclusive and impactful.
For an outreach initiative to successfully serve minoritised communities, every decision made in its development must prioritise the audience. In order to achieve this, one must first select an audience. This seems like a fairly obvious starting point, but this decision will dictate the content and the format by which it can be conveyed. What engages an audience of college-educated adults will not work for students in an under-resourced elementary school.
What engages an audience of college-educated adults will not work for students in an under-resourced elementary school
Exploring Science, the outreach initiative that I have been involved in organising this year, is a weekly event geared towards middle- and high-school students in New Haven, Connecticut. This initiative was developed this past spring as a joint effort between two graduate student groups at Yale University, Open Labs and the Flipped Science Fair, which both aim to make Yale science more accessible to the surrounding community. Everyone involved in this initiative, including the organizers and speakers, are Yale scientists (mostly graduate students) volunteering to share our passion for science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) with the public. Before the pandemic, when in-person events were still possible, we focused on bringing science, in the form of engaging demonstrations, to community events throughout New Haven, the city where Yale is located. Many college-based outreach programs are hosted on campus itself, which, amidst town versus gown disparities, forces participants to enter an often unwelcoming or intimidating environment. To remove this barrier, we have been guided by the principle of meeting students where they are: for example, by presenting at local farmer’s markets, fairs, and school events.
When that was no longer possible with the outbreak of Covid-19, we took our programme online. In order to develop our virtual programme in a way that prioritised the students’ needs, we relied on longstanding relationships with members of the community, particularly the Pathways to Science organisation, who were able to advise us. We worked with our community partners and school administrators to determine a time that would not conflict with class schedules and a format that would be technologically accessible to our audience. We realised that no matter how excited the students are to attend our events, their ability to participate depends on our ability to communicate with their parents, many of whom do not have extensive experience with Zoom.
no matter how excited the students are to attend our events, their ability to participate depends on our ability to communicate with their parents, many of whom do not have extensive experience with Zoom
Furthermore, New Haven has a significant Latinx community, so many of our students’ parents are not native English speakers. In order to make our program as inclusive as possible, we developed tutorials for navigating Zoom and made all of our promotional materials and registration forms available in both Spanish and English. We also started advertising directly through the New Haven Public School (NHPS) text blasts, in order to reach as many local students as possible. These changes have been successful in increasing our audience size: our first event had 21 students, and we now see an average of 88 per week, with the vast majority from the NHPS district. These logistical concerns are not the first things that come to mind when thinking about scientific outreach, but they are a crucial step in ensuring that we actually reach our target audience. And had we not made these changes, we would have left out the people who would benefit the most from outreach – young, first-generation students of color. Making science more inclusive and accessible cannot be achieved through outreach initiatives that are not, themselves, inclusive and accessible.
Once the logistical issues have been solved, one can turn to content. We began, in the spring, by presenting science in the formats that we were most accustomed to: talks and posters. Of course, we worked with all of our speakers to ensure that their tone and language were geared towards the age of our audience. And while the feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive, so we know the students enjoyed the presentations; many of them still referred to the events as “class.” This was fine for spring, when classes were asynchronous and limited in time, and summer, when students weren’t in school. But the local school system began full, synchronous class schedules in September and it no longer made sense to be providing an additional hour of “class.” So we adapted, once again, to the changing needs of our audience, and came up with more engaging formats. We have now incorporated `battles’ between scientists, complete with a referee and (light-hearted) trash-talking, as well as virtual activities and career panels, which make our goal of improving access to STEM careers more explicit. We aim to highlight diversity in terms of both the backgrounds of the speakers we feature, as well as their paths into graduate school.
Making science more inclusive and accessible cannot be achieved through outreach initiatives that are not, themselves, inclusive and accessible
A common theme throughout all of the content we produce is to shed light on the scientific process and what it really means to be a scientist. Whether the topic is quantum computing or the neurobiology of consciousness, we find ways to incorporate discussions about the scientific method, developing questions, and finding passion in science. We encourage our students to ask questions and propose new ideas, and we ask them what they enjoy and dislike about the presentations. For example, we’ve found that the astronomy talks are the most popular, so we’ve been working to recruit more astronomy students as speakers. Constantly seeking feedback from our students allows us to ensure that we prioritise their needs and continually adapt to meet them. By incorporating these philosophies, outreach initiatives can serve to break down the barriers between scientists and the general public, and foster an environment in which historically excluded groups are empowered to pursue their passions and contribute to scientific progress.
Disclaimer: This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.
Image credit: Richard Crouse