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Haunting the community through science

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23 April 2018

Images from the Office of Science Outreach Haunted-U event.

At noon on October 29th, students began to file into 119 Osmond Laboratory, much as they do throughout the fall semester. Some of the braver individuals sat near the front of the room, in full view of the instructor, while others chose a seat closer to the back. The large lecture hall rang with chatter and laughter about the day’s events, but quickly fell silent once the instructor entered and started introducing the subject matter for the day. Everything was progressing smoothly until a ghost ran right through the room and out the back door. That’s when things got interesting.

Of course, this was not a normal Penn State lecture. This was the opening ceremony for Haunted-U, an annual Halloween-themed science event run by the Eberly College of Science’s Office of Science Outreach (OSO). Each year, ninety campers from kindergarten through fifth grade descend on campus to spend an afternoon participating in fun and educational science activities ranging from owl pellet dissections to the creation of “ghost bubbles” with dish soap and dry ice. Campers learn about basic scientific principles and practices in this magical environment and, hopefully, finish the day with some new knowledge and increased confidence in their ability to engage with science. After the main event, campers and their families moved to the first floor of Whitmore to witness spooky demonstrations put on by Penn State faculty and students. This portion of the event presents a unique opportunity for individuals at the cutting edge of science to excite members of the public about their work.

This is just one of many ways in which the OSO helps connect the passion and expertise of the Eberly College of Science’s faculty and students with the curiosity of the community. Along Haunting the community through science with science programs for K–12 youth, such as Haunted-U and the popular Science-U summer camps, the outreach team runs events that bring science to the general public. These include Exploration-U community science nights and Ask-a-Scientist booths at community events such as the Grange Fair. OSO also experiments with innovative ways to conduct science outreach. In the fall of 2017, the outreach team piloted a new student speaking competition called I AM STEM, during which Eberly College of Science undergraduate and graduate students gave “mini-keynote” talks about their science journeys to a panel of faculty judges. The winners of the competition will deliver full keynote speeches to 200 aspiring female scientists from across the state at the OSO’s 2018 STEM Career Day for Young Women.

The importance of science outreach is recognized by the college as well as scientific funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF). Faculty members who apply for NSF research grants must, in addition to outlining their planned scientific research, also describe how their work will impact society. Last year, OSO created an online Broader Impacts Resource Center (broaderimpacts.psu.edu) to assist faculty in the grant writing process, and outreach team members also have proactive conversations with faculty members to help them determine what programs and partnerships best fit their Broader Impacts goals and interests. By providing both programming infrastructure and expertise about Broader Impacts grant-writing and partnership options, the OSO aspires to be a one-stop shop for Eberly College of Science faculty members and students who want to maximize the impact they can have as scientists.

—Jessica Kim-Schmid