I know that I am in an extremely privileged position being a scientist who is able to take part in science engagement activities. I have lost count of the scientists I know who would love to talk about what they do or talk about science but don’t because they don’t have the time or don’t have the permission to speak about their jobs. This post is for busy scientists who do want to be part of science outreach. It can be done.
My workload is high. Here’s the breakdown of work and science engagement activities:
- Writing science news articles – 25 hours a month
- Working as Chemist/Metallurgist – 192 hours a month
- Murdoch University STAR Peer Tutor – 12 hours a month
- CSIRO Scientists in Schools – 15 hours a month
- Blogging – 15 hours a month
- Social Media – 20 hours a month
The numbers are confronting. In fact it’s a little bit frightening, now that I’ve quantified it but it’s what I do and I’m happy doing this. I definitely don’t prescribe this for everyone. It’s a hectic life. I only include this to provide some sort of evidence that I am busy. I am not in high level management with the freedom to dictate my working hours and as always, there is no one else to do my role when I am not around.
So how do I do it?
- I make time. I started by looking at my schedule honestly determined to find time for science outreach. This was the first thing I did. I didn’t think of a project. I made the time available first because it isn’t readily available. There is no point looking at the number of activities being run if you have no time for it. I’ve found that if I really want to get something done, I will move mountains to get it done. Once that time was set, I treated it like an immovable committee meeting and anything new would have to fit around it.
- Once I’ve got the time I then look for a project that suits my availability and commitment. There are quite a number out there. They range from ongoing commitment to one-off events. These are ones I know in Australia and I am sure there are plenty more.
- CSIRO Scientists in Schools/Mathematicians in Schools - A nationally Australian run programme where scientists and teachers work in partnership bringing science into a classroom environment. The classroom can either be in high school or primary school, it’s your choice. You get to choose what works for you and what type of classes you want to work with. There’s a range of activities available ranging from online interaction to excursions.
- I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here Australia – This programme originated in the UK and it is a free online event where school students meet and interact with scientists online with moderated live chats and in a Q&A forum. It sounds friendly but it’s also an X Factor/Idol competition between scientists because after the first week, scientists can face evictions with students voting for their favourite scientists. The scientist with the least amounts of votes is evicted. The prize for scientists is a sum of money for the use of communicating their work with the public.
- University Open Days – In Australia, universities literally throw open their doors to welcome the community onto their grounds. Of course anyone can drop in any other time of the year but Open Days are special. They are specifically designed to welcome and encourage people to enter buildings and explore lecture theatres, laboratories, tutorial rooms and facilities. This is a perfect opportunity for scientists to get involved and not just for people involved in academia. Industries get involved to meet and greet people and they are a very real link between academic pursuits and the real world.
- [Insert Your Field Here] Week – Being a science news writer I have become aware that in the 52 weeks of the year, most weeks have a week celebrating a field of science usually organised, hosted or promoted by a professional organisation. There are many opportunities to get involved in events in bringing a higher profile to your field or for the organised, opportunities to run your own events and add it to the number of activities available for the public. If you don’t have a week for your field, look for a National Science Week to be part of. In my experience, the organising committee are always welcome to new events, ideas and people to hop on board.
- Regular reviews of activities – Just like a job has performance reviews, so too does my volunteering activities. It’s the only way I can remind myself that science outreach is a partnered approach and that all stakeholders need to benefit including me. I take on board feedback from the people I work with to make sure that I meet their expectations and needs. At the same time I look after myself by making sure that I am enjoying giving time to a project. This is a key factor especially when involved in volunteering. If the enjoyment is gone, it does become a chore which is a terrible thing to happen.
- Relax and have fun. This is really important and it did take a while for me to relax. I’m good with experiments and getting the results I want but this is in a controlled environment. When it comes to working with other people and involving people, leave any notion of control at the door. I used to worry about every single person who I felt I hadn’t met their expectations or couldn’t answer every question they had but I had to realise that I’m a human being, not a machine and part of my role was to show that I am human and not infallible. I have learned that some people are impossible to please no matter what you do and for questions I can’t answer I suggest where answers could be found.
Apologies to everyone who has been waiting for this post. I did try to get it out sooner but I was swamped with a lot of things at once. One of the things was becoming President of the Western Australian branch of Australian Science Communicators, a network of over 400 people working in science and technology communication across Australia and overseas. I’ve been spending most of my available time in the handover of the role. Should be back up to speed on things in weeks.
If anyone has any helpful advice for scientists to get involved in science outreach, leave them in the comments or if I haven’t covered something, leave a comment.