With public engagement, it’s also okay to start small

Yesterday, I had a post about how it’s okay to start small when it comes to learning R or any other new technical skill. Today’s post takes that same “it’s okay to start small” message and applies it to public engagement.

Sometimes, a colleague will ask about a recent public engagement activity my lab worked on. After I describe it, they sometimes say something like “I’d like to do more outreach work, but my lab isn’t as big as yours – I don’t have those people to help me!” Often, that is said with a sense of resignation that it won’t be possible for them to do outreach. Or perhaps the conversation centers around an upcoming NSF proposal, where a colleague is trying to figure out what they could propose for the broader impacts section, feeling like they want (or need) to propose something, but that there’s no way for them to do that if they are just starting out or haven’t done much public engagement in the past. In these conversations, my messages are:

  • it’s okay to start small, and
  • take advantage of existing opportunities.

To give examples of ways my lab has worked with existing programs:

  • At Georgia Tech, the teaching center helped faculty who were interested in hosting teachers in their lab find teachers from the Atlanta area who were interested in doing a summer research project (e.g., supported by an NSF Research Experience for Teachers award); through this, we hosted a teacher from an Atlanta public school in my lab one summer.
  • In Atlanta, we partnered with an existing camp and developed activities for them. I was interested in working with this camp both because it was in Midtown Atlanta and because the park that hosted it had a lake. The first year, I just gave a brief presentation about plankton. The second year we set up microscopes next to a lake and had campers collect plankton tows and look at them. In the third year we led a longer activity where the campers developed hypotheses, thought about ways to test them, and then designed and carried out a project.
  • At Michigan, there is a wonderful student-run group called FEMMES that runs Saturday Science capstones that bring in middle school girls from southeast Michigan.
    My lab develops and runs one specific activity that a subset of the girls participate in.
  • I participated in a Science Café hosted by the UMich Museum of Natural History, where I talked about the value of basic scientific research.

My point is not that you should try to do any one of those specific activities (and I realize that the existing structures vary tremendously between places), but that there are ways to start small with public engagement, where you don’t have to develop a program from scratch. And there are lots of reasons why it’s better not to invent new programs from scratch (at least, not without doing lots of work ahead of time to identify needs and opportunities). Among other reasons, taking advantage of existing structures can help protect you – as one specific example, I’m not sure I would have thought to do background checks on all instructors when I first started out doing public engagement with school groups, but now I know that that is something that needs to happen.

You may be thinking, “That’s easy for you to say! You’re at Michigan where there are lots of resources and lots of things already going on!” That is true, but I will note two things:

  • the conversation examples I started out with (where someone says they wish they could do public engagement but it’s just too hard to start a big project) have happened multiple times with colleagues here at Michigan; and
  • there are lots of opportunities outside colleges/universities (such as the example from Atlanta where I partnered with a camp run by a local non-profit). Check out local museums, libraries, camps, clubs, lake associations, etc. to see if there are ways to partner.

Over time, you might want to expand your public engagement, but it can still be a good idea to link with existing opportunities. As an example of this, I was interested in doing more work with middle or high school students from Southeast Michigan, and was especially interested in doing work related to data literacy. I was having a hard time figuring out where or how to do that, though, and was initially reaching out to people who might have connections in the schools through their kids. But then I happened to see a colleague when we were both picking up lunch, and, on the way back to our building, she told me about Wolverine Pathways, a new program at Michigan that works in Detroit, Southfield, and Ypsilanti. I reached out to the people who run that program and we talked about what their needs were and what my lab and others might be able to offer. Based on those conversations, we developed Prove It, which is a project that aims to help high school students use publicly available data to answer questions they care about. That project has involved substantially more effort on my part than our other outreach activities, but still wouldn’t be possible without the existing structure provided by Wolverine Pathways. It’s also something that only works because of the dialogue that took place at the start, to identify what would be useful to the program. And we’re probably going to modify it next year, based on changing needs of the program.

I’m curious to hear from others who do public engagement and outreach activities: how did you get started? What things would have made it easier to get started?

And, for those who would like to do more public engagement than they currently do: what are the barriers (other than time, which is, of course, a pretty important one!)

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