Science outreach is becoming hip

ResearchBlogging.orgThe world of academia used to be a place where professors and students stayed shuttered away in their research labs and offices, doing their research for the benefit of one another, with no desire to engage in the public eye. Cynics may chuckle and comment that this stereotype is still largely true today. But more and more, institutions and granting agencies are looking favorably, instead of suspiciously, at scientists who step out of the ivory tower and engage the public.

In a Fresh Perspectives column in this month’s issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (subscription required), we hear from Olivia Messinger and Scott Schuette, two graduate students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale who outline the many merits (and pleasures) of engaging in public school outreach during their graduate careers. They make the case that graduate students’ knowledge combined with the resources of the university – in ecology, such resources as insect collections will always thrill school students – is a vast, untapped resource that can help to rectify the fact that most American adults lack a solid foundation in scientific concepts.  Outreach, they say, is becoming increasingly favored by academic reviewers. Such “synergistic activities” are losing the stigma of having only detrimental effects on time spent on research.

In a response, Janet Hodder and Alan Shanks, professors at the University of Oregon and co-PIs on an NSF GK-12 grant, say that in their experience, public school outreach makes students better able to explain their work:

“Most notably, we have seen a considerable increase in the ability of our students to successfully explain their research to diverse audiences. Students are able to gauge the information suitable for each audience, and they understand how to present their research findings in an organized and clear manner.”

Hodder and  Shanks acknowledge that participation in outreach takes time, they’ve noticed that although students supported on GK-12 grants spend 15 hours a week teaching and preparing for their classes, they are no slower to finish their dissertations than other students.

It’s a great development that agencies like NSF are encouraging this behavior – scientists and the public alike can only stand to benefit.

Messinger, O., Schuette, S., Hodder, J., & Shanks, A. (2009). Bridging the gap: spanning the distance between high school and college education Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 7 (4), 221-222 DOI: 10.1890/1540-9295-7.4.221

Author: Christine Buckley

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