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Learn From Your Audience

By Jeanne Garbarino

Once you’ve identified your personal and professional goals for science outreach, you will need to learn about the interests and values held by the community you wish to engage through these efforts.

The scientific enterprise is hallmarked by objective interpretation of highly controlled experimental trials, and the building of foundational knowledge centered on failure and iteration. When research findings are being presented to a scientific audience, the accepted culture among scientists is to engage in scholarly debates around the interpretations of datasets, experimental approach, and/or proposed future directions. However, scientists make up less than 5% of the American population, and the regular engagement that takes place in academic settings looks nothing like regular engagement that happens outside of academic settings. Thus, taking an academic approach in a public setting will likely get you nowhere.

We live in a society where science has a different meaning to different people, who are nested in different communities, which are further nested in different societies. And this is assuming that science has any meaning to a person, community, or society at all. By and large, the interpretation of scientific information among non-scientist members of our communities stems from a set of “perceived truths” sharpened by unique personal experiences and contexts (a great example of this can be heard in the Saigon, 1965 episode of the Revisionist History podcast). Factors like schools, social and economic stratification, and diverse worldviews can impact the access and interpretation of information, making it near impossible to come up with a unifying set of best practices for audience engagement through science outreach.  

Even if a piece of scientific information is unequivocally true, presenting it in ways that are insensitive to the values and cultural context of your audience will only deepen the chasm that exists between science and society. As scientists are in no position to alienate members of the public, particularly in these strange political times (yes, science is political), it is important to enter into any science outreach endeavor with an open and accepting mind. While perfection around engagement is a myth, there are some key points and strategies to consider as you work to learn from your audience.

Talk to people who are representative of the audience you wish to serve

As I mentioned in “Find Your Goals for Science Outreach,” the 2010 failed attempt of Mark Zuckerberg and colleagues to reform Newark, NJ school system is perhaps the best case study in “what not to do.” To summarize: huge performance gaps exist between the Newark, NJ public school system and the national average for public school metrics. Together with then NJ Governor, Chris Christie, and then Newark mayor, Cory Booker, Zuckerberg set up a $100 million fund, Newark’s Future, which was then matched by additional philanthropists, bringing the total fund to $200 million. Despite having the best intentions, all of the decisions on how to spend this enormous amount of cash was made by the executives of the Newark’s Future foundation, with zero input or counsel from the community it wished to serve. The result of this attempt did not even come close to the projected large-scale educational and community improvements. In essence, they made the classic science outreach mistake of not taking the time to see if the “theory” around implementing new/changed initiatives could actually play out in practice, particularly given the specific context of the Newark public school community.

While none of us (presumably) are working with a $100 million fund, in doing science outreach we are contributing resources in the form of money and time — time for both the science outreach practitioner as well as the target audience. It is important to make it all count.

So how do you find people who are representative of the audience you wish to serve? While there is no single protocol for this, it does not have to be a significant challenge. For example, if you would like to do science outreach for K-12, call your local school and ask to speak to the science teacher, science department chair, or even principal. If you are doing more general community science outreach, try to get a sense of where and how this target audience gathers — if this is a place of worship, request to speak with one or more religious leaders within that group, and/or a few practitioners (perhaps even attend a service!). Alternatively, you might wish to engage with a senior community, or even the local nightlife scene. A little effort in this regard will go a long way.

Try to learn if/how this audience currently engages with science

As scientists, our intimate relationship with science is undeniable. However, many groups and communities may have limited or no access to scientific information and opportunity, or perhaps they aren’t interested in seeking out science related activities or discussions. Additionally, there are many groups who are skeptical of science and scientists, often as a direct result of historical disenfranchisement. In all of these contextual examples, the key will be to earn the trust of your target audience. Try to gain insights around the interest and values of this community. Gently and respectfully approach discussions around how science intersects with their lives.

In my discussions with seasoned practitioners of science outreach, all unanimously suggest that entering into new community contexts should be done from a place of ignorance. It is important to remove the “scientist” hat, and exchange it for the hat of a learner. Borrowing from a widely held philosophy in medicine, the practice of cultural humility —  “a lifelong process of self-reflection and self-critique whereby the individual not only learns about another’s culture, but one starts with an examination of her/his own beliefs and cultural identities” — can be useful in raising awareness around our own biases and responses to beliefs and cultures that differ from our own. This is hugely important since much of the perceptions around science can be very different from how we are experiencing science “from the inside,” and can help manage how we are responding to ideas that may be more emotional than scientific.  

Discuss ways in which you can co-design science outreach efforts

The most effective and efficient approach to science outreach is to design your strategy in collaboration with a member of the community you wish to serve. Not only does this help you tailor the science outreach effort your target audience, it can allow for deep community engagement and establishing trust.

Drawing from our work at RockEDU, we are interested in building research frameworks that provides enough support for students to conduct original research in school or in their home (under the guidance of a teacher). While we know how to design and conduct experiments in a laboratory setting, we have little understanding of how these principles might play out in a classroom or home kitchen (as two examples). However, improving access to research opportunity is one of the key elements for democratizing science research, and it is important, for many reasons, for us to get it right. To ensure we are being practical in our approach, we partnered with teachers to create “Corner Store Science.” We learned from teachers that they are limited in their time, funding, and other general resources, so we co-designed research frameworks that depend on materials that can be purchased from the corner store, and do not require significant space or other types of resources.

The above example is only one type of way you can implement co-design for science outreach. As mentioned in many places throughout this Guide to Science Outreach, there is no “right” way to engage in this practice. Feel free to be innovative, and do feel encouraged to share your examples!

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