The first thing I do when approaching any new science outreach initiative is to take some time and think about my specific goals. Establishing your goals before developing your science outreach strategy adds clarity and efficiency to the effort. The basic premise is this: start at the end — through articulation of your desired results — then identify the appropriate strategies that will best help you achieve these results.
So what exactly is a goal?
Fundamentally, a goal is the desired broad primary outcome, or the general purpose of an effort. To craft your goal(s) for science outreach, it is essential to consider all expected players in your science outreach scheme. This means understanding both what you want from the science outreach effort as well as what the target audience (can be an individual or a group) wants from science outreach. The latter point is critical if you are to meet the “mutual learning” criterion for science outreach.
How do you determine your personal goal(s) for science outreach?
An easy way to determine your goals is to interview yourself (and/or the members of your science outreach team). Ask questions like: Are you looking to raise awareness about something? Do you want to educate on a specific topic or set of topics? Are you trying to dispel inaccuracies or pseudoscientific beliefs? Are you simply interested in engaging on a general level? Taking a moment to think about the purpose of this effort will be incredibly helpful as you work to articulate your goals.
You may also wish to participate in science outreach as a mechanism for career development. Because the concept of “science outreach” is incredibly broad, it is possible to craft a science outreach plan that can advance you along your career trajectory. For example, if you are interested in going into teaching or some form of education, it is probably a good idea to find experiences in a classroom or lecture hall setting, or to develop and/or adapt science curricula. However, if you are more interested in gaining science communication skills, you might try science blogging, social media engagement, podcasting, or some type of public speaking centered on science. You can also harness science outreach activities to grow program management and project leadership skills – liaising between groups or taking on some type of official responsibility for science outreach efforts does count as professional experience.
How do you design goals that actually serve your target audience?
This question does not always have a clear and simple answer, but does relate to learning from your audience. Despite best intentions, it is challenging to truly serve a community when there is no prior understanding or connection to said community. This concept is perfectly illustrated by Mark Zuckerberg’s failed attempt to revitalize the Newark, NJ public school system using a strategy of a pile of money and elite ideology, as opposed to understanding actual stakeholder need (this is beautifully documented in Dale Russakoff’s The Prize).
To learn about the needs of the community you hope to serve, all you have to do is ask — I say this while also fully acknowledging that asking is easier said than done! Despite perceived challenges around this, learning about the interests and values of your target audience will be incredibly informative. Sometimes this means seeking out a teacher, a religious leader, a small business owner, a parent, a supermarket clerk, your favorite barista, or any other member of a specific community and assessing their baseline relationship with science. You may ask questions like: What does science mean to you? How do you think science impacts everyday life? Do you know people who might like science but don’t know where or how to find it? Make the effort to discover what types of things are most relevant to members of the community, and how you might be able to leverage these interests as entry points for science outreach.
When launching RockEDU, I made a lot of mistakes around goal setting for my target audience. I was fresh from the lab bench, and began to craft science outreach goals that were lofty and impractical (i.e. improving science literacy for all!). I thought I knew what the K-12 community needed because I had read so much about the trials and tribulations of science education in America. This obviously did not work. Like Mark Zuckerberg, my biggest mistake was that I never really asked what the educators and students in New York City wanted from science outreach. Finally realizing this, I set up a meeting with administrators in the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE), which was easier than I had initially assumed. Science is a huge interest for nearly all education systems in the US, and I have found that teachers and administrators are really open to discussing potential collaborations with scientists. During our meeting, I learned that there was close to a 0% chance that a typical NYC public school student would ever meet a practicing scientist, and they saw this as an issue. After getting a bit more information, the RockEDU team worked together with colleagues from NYC DOE to produce a monthly teen-science cafe series (RockEDU Presents) that features accessible and fun talks, followed by networking sessions centered around science games and activities. This program is a huge hit with NYC high school students, and probably one of the easiest programs for us to produce. All it took was a conversation!
Rest assured that your efforts to learn about a particular community does not require setting up meetings with local departments of education (though this is something that is absolutely possible!). Sometimes all it really takes is a common, everyday interest. Go out and have conversations with people. Learn from their experiences. Not only might this prove to be really fun, it will allow you to tailor your science outreach to meet one or more needs of the community you wish to serve.
Go big, then zoom in
How do you determine if your goal is reasonable in the scope of your personal motivations and needs of target audience? Sure, we all want to see major improvements in science literacy and other big science outreach goals. But we cannot meet these goals in one fell swoop. Individual scientists can contribute to “the cause” by making small but intentional efforts. It’s ok to start with the big kahuna of goals, but zooming in and seeing how this goal can be made more practical based on your specific needs as well as the needs of your target audience is key.
As an example, let’s start with the holy grail of “improving science literacy for all.” I can’t even begin to think of a strategy that will allow me to meet this goal, so I will need to add some filters to narrow it down. Here is my process:
First, filter down to learn how this goal fits into your personal science framework, as well as how you might be most comfortable working toward this goal. For me, this means assessing how my scientific strengths converge with my personal interests. I primarily identify as a biochemist, so I am most comfortable sticking with this area of study. Also, I LOVE to cook, really enjoy being with kids, and have a deep interest in supporting teachers. As such, I would filter the “science literacy for all” goal down into something more like “developing ways for students and teachers to engage with biochemistry through food.”
Then, filter down to assess how this aligns with the needs of your target audience. I want to teach the biochemistry of food, but does this fit into what teachers and students need to teach and learn? As you may know, school curricula are centered on local and national educational standards. Furthermore, teachers are extremely limited in time and resources. How can I take my goal for incorporating the biochemistry of food and fitting them into frameworks that already exist? For this, I found it helpful to look at these educational standards and talk to teachers about how this can fit into normal curricula. This has allowed me to narrow down my goal to “provide students with an opportunity to learn about intermolecular forces through food” (see The Biochemical Deconstruction of an Egg Sandwich). Not only does this goal play off my scientific strengths and personal interests, it meets educational standards in my state.
This filter down tactic can be applied to any context, and is a simple way to help you create a set of practical goals that can be wholly meaningful and serve as a building block for supporting the bigger, loftier goals we all hope to achieve.