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SMART Goals, Smart Strategy

By Jeanne Garbarino
Photograph by SCOTT RUDD

As described in “Find Your Goals for Science Outreach,” identifying your science outreach goal or set of goals that considers all contextual aspects (such as career aspirations and needs of target audience) is key. But how do you turn this into an actionable plan? A simple way to ensure you are on the right track is to employ SMART — specific, measurable,  attainable, relevant, and timely — methodology. Below is a general list of considerations for using a SMART strategy, along with how we have used this method to plan out a laboratory-based educational curriculum for high school students. Keep in mind that the SMART approach can be interpreted in many ways. You may be thinking about science outreach goals for a very different audience, venue, and/or topic/purpose. 

Be painstakingly specific. What are the steps you will take to reach your goal? What types of tools and support will you need? Who are the people involved, and how will they be brought together?

Drawing from my fascination with biochemistry and food, I set the following science outreach goal: to provide high school students with an opportunity to learn about intermolecular forces through food. To be more specific, I answered the following prompts:

Who: This lesson will be tailored to high school students, and will be delivered by members of the RockEDU team.

Where: The science outreach experience will take place in a laboratory setting, and students will travel (with their teacher) to the RockEDU lab for a school field trip.

What: I will use an egg as the basis of the lesson. We will specifically highlight the properties of lipids in egg yolk, and the properties of proteins in egg whites. We will also need some standard laboratory equipment and disposables (all reasonably found in our lab).

How: Students will separate the different lipids in the egg yolk using thin layer chromatography, and will explore protein denaturation in egg whites using acids and bases.  

Are the steps in your action plan measurable? Have an idea if something is working, or perhaps even easier, if something is not working.

You don’t necessarily need to generate mathematical equations and triplicate data to assess if the steps you are taking will bring you success in meeting your goal. Our approach to present intermolecular forces through an egg was in fact measurable, though these measurements did not spit out a set of numbers. Instead, the students could visualize a physical change, first by seeing how the different egg yolk lipid species traveled on the chromatography plate, then by watching the clear-ish egg whites transform into what resembled “cooked” egg whites. These hands-on activities helped to solidify the abstract concept of “intermolecular forces,” and provided a tangible example to enhance their understanding. For the latter, we spoke with students to see how their understanding around intermolecular forces had shifted during the lesson, which suggested we were meeting our goal for the science outreach experience.

How attainable are the steps in your action plan? Do you have the expertise and resources to carry out the steps you’ve suggested? Do your steps align with the capacity, interest, and need of your target audience?

The steps used for our intermolecular forces action plan were attainable, both in terms of our ability (we have the expertise, staff, space, and general infrastructure), and did not require advanced skills — the protocols for conducting TLC and protein denaturation are easy to follow, and with the proper guidance, will provide students with results that align with the science outreach goals for this activity.

Are the steps you plan to take relevant to meeting your goal? Be sure to continually reflect on your approach, and edit to get rid of anything “extra.”

We can sometimes get carried away if there is excitement around a particular science outreach topic. But, it is important to keep on track, and refine your action plan to include a set of relevant steps that will bring you directly toward your goal. Continuing with our example on intermolecular forces and food, our primary subject matter was an egg, which is a food product quite familiar to every student participating in the activity. Furthermore, the concept of “intermolecular forces” is a big topic on the New York State Regents exam in chemistry, making it relevant in the context of their chemistry curriciulum.

Can these steps be accomplished in the allocated timeframe?  Make sure that you can reasonably accomplish the steps you’ve laid out in the time you have to do them.

If we all had unlimited time and resources, thinking about time wouldn’t be so central. However, we live in a busy reality, so it is important that your action plan fit into a timeframe that makes sense for you, your audience, and exists in the context of your science outreach goals. Going back to our intermolecular forces using an egg — the approach we took was timely in that the students could conduct these procedures in the course of a single day, during their class field trip, which worked for everyone. Sometimes it is helpful to set deadlines for accomplishing steps related to your outreach goals, especially if you are working on a team.

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