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What We Learned Around Inclusive Engagement

Science is simultaneously reliable and tentative, and centered on often lengthy processes that rely on failure and iteration. Furthermore, scientific information is typically first presented using field-specific jargon. This can be challenging for science outreach given the diversity in audiences, strategies, and intended impact. Often, the goals of science outreach are to humanize the process of science, instill trust in science and scientists, and demonstrate how science is relevant to everyday life. At SciOut18 we spent time discussing how to be more inclusive in our engagement. 

Examples of Strategies to Broaden Participation

We began this session by hearing some perspectives from a few SciOut18 attendees, as a means to get the wheels turning for meaningful conversation. In her Flash Talk, Lynda Kennedy hit the nail on the head, stating that “truth is difficult to build as facts rub up against political or religious beliefs which are ingrained in a person’s identity.” However, through a strategy that involves “Conscious Targeted Outreach,” she and her team have been able to develop strategies — informed by pedagogy — that leverage indigenous knowledge, and help to develop scientific identity in those who are interacting with science on a daily basis, but do not acknowledge it as such. Adding to this were Jonathan Frederick and Crystal Harden who, in their Flash Talk, who stressed the importance of context. More specifically, they offered examples in which the co-creation of science outreach programming has helped to improve racial and ethnic representation in their staff, which has, in turn, helped to engage more diverse audiences around STEM. Building even further, Kyle Marian Viterbo described a story from her prior research experience through which she learned that the communication of science through an empathetic lens can help empower people in the community who feel that science is encroaching on their culture and history. 

It is worth noting that when it comes to scientific engagement, it is not all doom and gloom. In her Flash Talk, Caitlin Weber reminded us that, in general, non-scientists do have a large amount of reverence and trust in scientists and the process of science. She argues that this sheer fact places scientists in an ideal position, however, it is essential that scientists are not just thrown into engagement without adequate training. More specifically, she encourages scientists to let go of objectives that center on scientific literacy, and challenges them to leverage their identities outside of science. For Christine Marizzi, this meant stripping science from her engagement work altogether! By getting out of her comfort zone, Christine was able to connect with broad audiences using art as a medium, which she claimed was extremely effective at removing the intimidation factor around science. 

Core Themes for Inclusive Engagement

Based on what we captured at SciOut18, it seems that there is a push and pull between general best practices and highly tailored, audience-specific protocols around engagement. Informed by SciOut18 preparatory work, table level discussions, and general conversation, we were able to identify a few key core themes when approaching science outreach in culturally responsive ways:

Narrative is the most powerful tool in our tool kit. 

This is not new information. It is no secret that humans connect through stories, and the more narratives we can craft around science —  through the lens of human experience — we can make more genuine and meaningful connections with outward stakeholders (with the caveat that the narratives need to be good so people pay attention!). This was the central theme from The Evolving Culture of Scientific Engagement meeting, which took place in 2013, and is consistently highlighted by super science communicator, and SciOut18 attendee, Maryam Zaringhalam (see her Undark piece for more). 

SciOut18 attendees shared a diversity of considerations when building a successful narrative around science. Of course being genuine and sincere in your storytelling is key, and letting go of “learning as an outcome” mantras can be incredibly helpful. Other storytelling tips from attendees included: 

  • Moving away from the straightforward delivery of facts, and instead detailing the hardships and joys of conducting science
  • Framing science in ways that are both accessible to your outward target audiences, and relate to their everyday lives
  • Putting science in emotional terms to help inspire people to want to find scientific information on their own

Transparent, process-focused science outreach is critical. 

It is tricky to strike a balance between cultivating trust in the process of science while also acknowledging the persistent uncertainty of scientific knowledge. In many ways, it is less about learning facts or findings, and more about providing comfort in failure, and the benefits of being able to iterate and encourage inquiry. There are some major disconnects in terms of how non-scientists perceive scientific funding, the process of drug discovery (including the clinical trial pipeline), the goals and limitations of laboratory work, scientific training (i.e. PhD programs), etc. As such, there is a perpetuation of  “scientists have cures but waiting for top bidder” type of ideas, particularly in the context of not knowing that conducting science is VERY expensive. We think that by being more transparent on the general operation of the scientific enterprise, as well as deeper conversation about failure and iteration, will help move the needle toward more inclusive engagement.

Absolutely MUST acknowledge historical injustices facilitated in the name of science.

The culture of the modern scientific enterprise is aligned with those who have occupied the majority of scientific positions in recent history. It is no secret that women and people of color have had different experiences with science compared to white male counterparts, which is often manifested through diminished representation (particularly in leadership positions), and issues pertaining to trust in the motivations behind scientific endeavors. To help heal these relationships, science outreach can raise awareness around these issues, and demonstrate how institutions of science are starting to acknowledge and change course for the better. Sweeping these issues under the rug is not the right strategy if we are going to rebuild the relationships that people can have with science.

If you don’t learn from your audience, you are not working inside of a science outreach framework

Perhaps most importantly, everything listed above needs to fit into a model where there is audience-centered customization, which is at the heart of the science outreach framework. There is essentially no limit to the types of audiences people may have when practicing science outreach, but reciprocal learning is the common denominator.

Inclusive Engagement in Practice

Several SciOut18 attendees shared some excellent perspectives and strategies around understanding the goals of outward stakeholder groups. A few selected passages are included below. 

Chidi Paige, Columbia University Neuroscience Outreach Program

Often we (scientists or experts in any field) get carried away by our enthusiasm for the subject or their expertise in it, which can be problematic for inclusive engagement. Solutions that we use in our programming include:  

  • Working to anticipate the needs of our audience through conversation and feedback
  • Considering the baseline comfort level with science among our participants
  • Helping our scientists communicate the benefits of their research to members of the outward community
  • Identifying what scientists want to get out of their engagement with outward communities
  • Developing a communication strategy that aligns with how the outward audience can connect with this work

Emily Therese Cloyd, AAAS

Science outreach must be tailored to the community – which means we need to spend time observing and learning from the community before developing new activities or modifying existing activities. Acknowledge that each of the participants brings their own experiences, expertise, and values to engagement and allow for time to share that background and for the audience to guide the conversation. Ideally, as practitioners and facilitators of outreach, we would strive to find scientists who are similar to the audiences we are trying to reach, but we also need to be cognizant of the additional requests to engage that scientists from under-represented communities may receive.

Andrea Acevedo, PhD Student

It is essential to deliver information that is clear, and maintain an open mind that minimizes unconscious bias (and associated judgement). Furthermore, if you are excited in what you wish to share, this can help create excitement from others. Other effective tactics include allowing yourself to be vulnerable by sharing personal elements, perhaps even sharing your journey into science. We have to avoid circumstances when science outreach challenges audiences — if coming from a background where education was not traditionally “successful,” it can feel like knowledge is being tested. How can this interaction be overcome? Many communities want to know how they can connect with scientist as a human prior to giving them their time. Who are these people and why do they want to talk to me about science? Laying this all out ahead of time will create more opportunities for meaningful engagement.

Caitlin Weber, University of Utah

The STEM Ambassador Program (STEMAP) is a research and public engagement program funded by the National Science Foundation. STEMAP aims to create opportunities to build relationships for open-minded exchange between the public and scientists. We provide engagement training to scientists (referred to as “STEM Ambassadors”) seeking to engage with the public outside traditional venues (e.g., outside of museums, schools, science centers). This allows the Ambassador to engage with those who might not seek out science or who are not served by traditional science outreach efforts.

STEMAP encourages Ambassadors to link their experiences and interests (research or personal) to those of a particular focal group (i.e., a group gathered around a shared interest, experience, characteristic, or circumstance that resonates with the scientist). By drawing on common ground, the Ambassador aims to humanize science, build trust with the group members, and demonstrate the relevance of science (examples below). 

  • A STEM Ambassador and microbiologist who has several science-themed tattoos facilitated an engagement event at a local coffee shop with artists from the neighboring tattoo parlor. She was able to humanize scientists and build an authentic connection with participants by revealing a shared personal interest in tattoos.
  • The STEMAP Director and forest ecologist engaged religious congregations in a discussion about trees and spirituality. She built trust with different congregations by drawing on references to trees in their texts, as opposed to only drawing on scientific references.
  • A STEM Ambassador and mathematician participated in a cross country ski trip where he demonstrated the relevance of math to everyday life by discussing the math behind ski design.

Other Considerations Around Knowing Your Audience

At SciOut18 we incorporated space for organic conversation, and our entire group decided that it would be beneficial to profile specific audiences to figure out how to connect beyond the science inclined. By no means is our summary an extensive list of all audiences, these conversations addressed some of the challenges and limitations currently facing engagement with very specific groups, including adults, seniors, K-8, teachers, rural communities, LGBTQ+ communities, communities with disabilities, families, etc. The bullet points from these conversations have been compiled in this Google Doc. 

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