Impact Beyond the Lab

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Science outreach promotes understanding and awareness of current research by the public and has become essential for scientists and the broader research community. Government-funded grant programs require explicit plans to benefit the public via broader impacts, including outreach, and scientists are evaluated based on these impacts throughout their careers. While Penn State places a strong emphasis on promoting community engagement by researchers, new graduate students lack training in developing successful outreach programs.

To address this need, Biology graduate students Chris Thawley, Zach Fuller, and Allison Lewis approached the Department of Biology with the idea to create a course to give students the skills and experience to communicate science effectively and design meaningful outreach activities based around students’ own research interests.

With support from the biology department and the Eberly College of Science, BIOL 497F: Science Outreach and Communication launched in fall 2015 as a one-credit course with thirteen graduate and undergraduate students enrolled. This new course focused on giving students a jump-start into outreach at Penn State and brought in experts from the college’s Outreach Office, the college’s Office of Media Relations and Public Information, and The Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence to address key topics such as outreach planning, communication, and curriculum design.

The first part of the class focused on building a solid foundation of teaching skills, including how to design effective outreach around key concepts and how to tailor activities to different ages and audiences. Using those skills, teams of students designed, planned, practiced, and revised their own projects in preparation for two core outreach activities. The first was held at Exploration-U Community Science Night, hosted by Penn State’s Eberly College of Science Outreach Office at the Bellefonte Area High School. The second project was independently organized by students and ranged from an interdisciplinary lecture on photography and ecology at a local high school to an engaging Q&A discussion about ant biology with elementary school students in Philadelphia.

Learning how to effectively communicate their research to the public excited the students in the course, who benefited from both its content and format.

One entomology graduate student described this by noting, “in the beginning of this seminar I had a difficult time brainstorming ideas to develop an outreach activity that would directly relate to my research topic, chemical ecology. After designing and implementing two activities, I gained the confidence that I needed to discuss several different areas related to entomology in an effective way.”

The course also offered students the opportunity to recognize the impact that their scientific work has beyond the lab.

“Working with high school students was nothing like what I had expected, and ended up being one of the most formative events of my fall semester.  It forced me to reflect on the broad importance of my work, and articulate that work in a way that is relatable and exciting to an audience that isn’t necessarily present out of pure interest.”—graduate student in biology
Thawley, Fuller, and Lewis are very grateful for the support they have received for the course. They plan to offer the course again in fall 2016 and hope to leave “Science Outreach and Communication” as a sustainable and permanent offering in the future.