“So what are you studying?” Jerry, a caretaker and a new friend of mine, asked me in the elevator to the first floor of my building.
“Astronomy!” I replied with a smile and more than a few fun astronomy facts ready in my back pocket.
“Astronomy!” He responded enthusiastically. “I am Pisces, what does that mean? »
For decades, poster sessions and lectures have prepared young astronomers, and scientists in general, to explain their research to the public in their subfield and beyond. But how about learning how to communicate your research to the general public? And the children? After spending countless years studying the effects of how “the spin-flip energy level of hydrogen can impact the radiation received from quasar number 4983240”, it can be hard to know how to speak of your research in a fun and engaging way to those who may not know anything about your field. The skills that astronomers learn in academia to communicate their research may not be the same skills that are needed to be effective in public outreach. But don’t worry, you already have the skills to be an excellent science communicator! All you have to do is be a human.
And that’s exactly what I realized on a beautiful Saturday morning at the University of Chicago. With tents and booths dotted around campus, families with children of all ages came to enjoy the first annual South Side Science Festival. Scientists from a wide range of disciplines presented demonstrations of everything from how to extract DNA from strawberries to how to manipulate butterflies. But as a writer for Astrobites, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the astronomy booths, organized by Juliet Crowell, director of education and public outreach at UChicago for the CMB experiments. I was excited to learn something new, but I had no idea what was in store for me.
how to be human
Lesson 1: Be creative!
Find unique ways to grab your audience’s attention
My first stop was one of the stands hosted by the South Pole Telescope (SPT) group. These astronomers study the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), which is light almost as old as the Universe itself. At the first table, I watched the children stuff their hands into insulated ziplock bags with lard, feathers, or cotton, before plunging them into a bucket of ice water. All the while, graduate students Wei Quan and Paul Chichura talked to the children about the conditions at the South Pole and the types of animals that lived there. Well, that hardly sounds like astronomy. I thought. Shouldn’t we rather reserve discussions of animals for wildlife biologists? Where is the science?
“Some sciences can be a little esoteric and non-tactile. If I’m talking to you and just showing you something that you can’t touch, that you can’t hold, it’s really hard to keep someone interested and engaged. Juliet told me in a one-on-one conversation about raising public awareness. “[Scientists] may want to focus on discussing their research and adding an activity to engage the audience to show them how exciting space can be just as important. You want to inspire them to want to listen to you and be excited about science.”
That’s the first lesson I learned about raising public awareness: you have to give people a reason to want to to learn more about your science before talking about it! Coming from a past of presenting my research at meetings, I naively believe that the most important aspect of science outreach was to communicate as much scientific information as possible to my audience. After all, I already had a captive audience of science enthusiasts – why would I need to convince them that science is fun?
But, in public outreach, learning to talk about your science isn’t everything. Embrace your natural creativity and show your audience why space is cool! Let your audience play with the wafers you make in your labs, let them draw their own scientifically accurate black hole, or show them all the beautiful astronomical images you spend days shrinking in DS9. These experiences will be just as memorable as the science you teach them.
Lesson 2: Be yourself
Don’t be afraid to show your personality!
The next SPT booth I visited was a photo shoot. Children and teens were encouraged to don the specialized extreme weather parkas that scientists wear at the South Pole when working on SPT. Once enveloped, they stood against a magnificent backdrop of the South Pole, a breathtaking aurora painting the sky above the telescope. Research scientist Tom Crawford, a senior scientist with the SPT group, was ready to answer any questions curious passers-by might have about the South Pole and the science conducted there. It was easy to see why this booth would have an experienced science communicator like Tom waiting, but I couldn’t help but stare at the photo booth. It was creative enough to draw people in, but what could a photo shoot teach audiences if it wasn’t science? Once you inspire your audience, how do you start making an impact?
Plain and simple, “it’s about letting kids see themselves as scientists,” Juliet explained. “The idea is that you can talk to a scientist from the South Pole. You can put on these clothes. You get to be the scientist. Most of the time what happens is that I am the scientist, and you are the general public. But it should be: how can I attract you? How can I make you imagine yourself as a scientist? »
This is the second lesson I learned about audience outreach: once you’ve captivated your audience, you have to try to build real connections. Often, when I present my research, I get into the habit of displaying my “scientist persona”. I explain my research calmly and professionally, almost as if I were in a job interview; that’s how i think i should talk about science. But, sometimes, that’s not always the most effective way to navigate public awareness. Sometimes it can be a lot more impactful to just be yourself. You are as cool as the science you do!
Lesson 3: Be Passionate
Share your enthusiasm for science with others!
My last stop was a table moderated by a group of exoplanet experts. At their table there were a host of different activities, including making your own comet out of foil, foam balls and ribbons, or scratching your own alien. I could never pass up the opportunity to make an alien! While scratching, I chatted with graduate student Louise Gagnon about why she volunteered at the festival and how she got into general public outreach.
“There was an observatory I went to when I was younger, the JJ McCarthy Observatory. They had viewing parties that were open to the public, and it was such a cool experience growing up. That’s what inspired me to pursue astronomy and why I love doing outreach.
As Louise spoke, I couldn’t help but remember Juliette’s words: “I sailed as an educator on a geoscience research vessel for sixty days, and the chief engineer of that vessel was from New Zealand . He used to pick up sand dollars and different things from the beach and line them up along his tub when he was a kid. It’s about finding that first spark. Even if people don’t understand all of science or are interested in other science fields/careers, they can feel your passion.”
And just like that, the whole picture of public awareness fell into place. Every seeker had their first spark that inspired them to pursue science. It could be as simple as thinking the night sky looks cool, or as philosophical as wondering what our place is in the universe. Either way, the real impact of public outreach comes from harnessing your own passion to give others their first spark toward science. Although you sometimes feel like you’re not making a big difference in someone else’s life, sometimes all it takes is a few seashells to make an impact.
The last lesson: anyone can raise awareness!
Although I came home from the South Side Science festival with my own comet and alien in my hand, what I really came away with richer was knowledge. I learned that being an effective science communicator can be easier than you think. All you need is a little creativity, a little personality and a little passion – things we all already have inside of us.
Ultimately, outreach is not about learning the best way to explain all the complexities of CMB as academic communication might teach us. It’s really about people talk to people. It’s just about being human. Because even though we all come from different backgrounds, there is one thing we all have in common: we can all become great scientists.
So I encourage you, no matter who you are, student or graduate, teacher or science lover, to get involved in public outreach if it interests you. It’s not scary! There will always be people like Juliet by your side to help you every step of the way. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Piece or a Leo, you already have all the passion, personality, and creativity you need to make a big impact in someone’s life.
Edited by: sasha warren
Featured image credits: The University of Chicago
About Kayla Kornoelje
I am a freshman graduate student at the University of Chicago studying cosmology and the cosmic microwave background. Outside of research, I love writing science fiction, drawing, petting my cat and hanging out on Twitter @kayla_kornoelje!