My Tips for Running Science Outreach Events

12 Jan
wordle

I asked my workshop participants what science means to them

Earlier today I gave a workshop on science outreach. I figured that I would use this opportunity to write up some tips for running science outreach events to share here. Many of our outreach events are free of charge, so often times I try to stretch my resources – you will see below.

(for my workshop participants, here is the link to my Prezi presentation)

1-3 are about promotion, 4 is about collaboration, 5-6 are about the content of your events, 7-10 are on logistics, and 11 is about going beyond.

1. Promote your event through all the free channels

I put together a list of ~20 local event listings/calendars in Vancouver. Whenever I need to promote a public outreach event, I spend an hour or two posting the event through all these lists. Figure out their deadlines and don’t miss them. Also, find out who are responsible for communications at your academic institution, for your faculty, and for other science departments. They usually have event listings or newsletters in which they can share news about your event.

2. Be part of a bigger celebration

Find out if there are other major science celebrations happening. Being part of such celebrations usually means more visibility for your event. There might also be funding/free advertising available.

3. Put together a newsletter

If you have many events happening throughout the year, and you know that some people would be interested enough to want to receive updates, then you might want to consider putting together a newsletter and getting people to sign up. Do remember that people hate getting too many emails – so use the list cautiously. I really like using mailchimp for sending out email newsletters (free unless you send more than 12,000 emails/month and have more than 2,000 subscribers).

4. Work with other outreach groups

Make connections, talk to others also running science outreach activities, involve them in your planning – is there a possibility for a bigger event? Can they help with recruiting volunteers? Perhaps they have interesting demonstrations to show as well? There is so much to learn from others!

5. Know your audience

I cannot stress this enough. I once went to an outreach event where a graduate student started talking about the central dogma of molecular biology – to a group of confused-looking grade 4 kids. I stopped him and asked “does anyone know what a protein is?” and they shook their heads. Know your audience, avoid terms that your audience likely don’t understand, and if you are not sure what they already know – ask. Analogies and examples from everyday life are extremely useful in connecting your audience to abstract ideas in science.

Here is a summary on “The Little Manual on Science Communications” by Cássio Leite Vieira. While this is mostly on written communications, many of the points apply to how you can better prepare your talk/presentation.

Invite audience members to participate, encourage the audience to help you find the answer to a question, make the audience part of your show/demonstration!

If the activity is for the general public (age 18 or above), they likely can sit in a lecture theatre for 90 minutes listening to a lecture. The same doesn’t apply to a group of 8 years old kids. Know your audience, figure out their optimal attention span, and plan accordingly.

6. Include your personal story

While scientific discoveries are interesting – sometimes it is the stories behind the discoveries that amaze people. We really don’t do enough of this in science. Share your story, tell people how you got involved and why you love science. For examples of great science  story telling, check out the Story Collider podcasts.

7. Practice practice practice!

Don’t show up at an outreach event without testing out your demonstrations and practicing what you are going to do beforehand. Nothing is more embarrassing than a failing piece of demonstration in front of exciting kids  (and it is not really inspirational…). If it is an equipment that is known to, eh, not work all the time – have a back up plan.

8. And since we are on the topic of back up plans…

If you are running several activities throughout the day, have a few back up activities. It is sometimes hard to tell whether an activity is going to wrap up earlier or later (in my case it is usually earlier). With the back up activities, you are guaranteed a full day.

9. Keep it safe – even if you think you know better

Remember that you are demonstrating science in front of people who might not have as much knowledge about science as you do. Even if you know something is pretty safe, take all the safety precautions. It is not just for your own safety, but also to make sure that the crowd (especially the kids) is aware of the safety requirements – in case by chance the kids get their hands on the demo…

10. Follow up

The end of an event doesn’t mean that it is all over. Ask your audience what they think, either in person or through online surveys (I used Survey Monkey). Estimate how many people show up at your event. Documented evaluation and concrete numbers will help you in the long run if you are to apply for funding, make fundraising efforts, or if you need to report to your funding agencies. Invite the audience to contact you after the event and stay in touch.

11. Can you do more good?

Many of our outreach events or activities are free of charge. But there is more you can do – involve a local charity group and start a food drive or a coin drive, for example, is a way to capitalize the good you can do with one outreach event. At my department’s Annual Faraday Show we ask people to bring non-perishable food items, and we got about 10-15 boxes of food every year.

That’s about all I can share for now. If you are interested in reading more, here is another great guide for running science outreach events: How to run a successful science outreach event by SciDev Net. Some points were already covered above, but this guide goes further into details about different types of events you can run.

Do you have any tips? Feel free to share it here!

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