This post is by UT Austin postdoc Tessa Solomon-Lane. Tessa is working with Hans Hofmann (UT Austin), Travis Hagey (MSU), and Alexa Warwick (MSU) on public engagement at BEACON.
The majority of scientists engage with public audiences about STEM topics, through classroom visits, leading lab tours, giving interviews, writing blogs, hosting podcasts, and more. There are ways to increase the efficacy of engagement using data from the learning and communication sciences. However, these best practices are rarely taught in graduate training programs. This curriculum gap has consequences not only for public engagement, but also for professional development. Public engagement builds skills that are fundamental to professional success, including enhanced communication, teaching, and leadership skills and enriched understanding of one’s own research and field.
We held our first full-day Public Engagement Workshop in February 2017 at the University of Texas at Austin, which aimed to recruit, motivate, and train graduate students and postdocs, and to pair them with engagement opportunities. Resources from the workshop can be found on our UT Austin Libraries Guide.
Here are some of the highlights from the workshop:
Evidence-based practices. Research on how scientists engage with the public about STEM topics can be used to develop evidence-based best practices for public engagement. As organizers who have been involved in public engagement for many years, it was surprising to us to learn about this rich literature. To provide this background and perspective for workshop participants, we welcomed Dr. Anthony Dudo, Assistant Professor in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at UT Austin, to lead the morning session. He provided an overview of the research, context for the current state of public engagement in STEM, and discussed his own work on the science of science communication.
Two main messages from Dr. Dudo’s presentations continued to be discussed throughout the day. They were also especially relevant to our mission of broadening participation and the scope of public engagement. First, when engaging with the public, many scientists still operate within the Deficit Model, in which interactions between STEM professionals and the public eliminate the public’s scientific knowledge deficits. However, simply providing information—no matter how eloquently communicated—does not eliminate knowledge deficits or lead the public to adopt the perspectives of STEM experts. If the goal of engagement is not to educate, what is the purpose? Dr. Dudo’s second main take-away was the importance of identifying your ultimate reasons for engaging with the public. Why is it important to know the scientific information that you’re sharing? Ultimate goals could include promoting careers and diversity in science, advocating for a particular position on policy, supporting increases for scientific funding, and more. Identifying these ultimate goals is critical to developing and evaluating successful engagement. This session was the highlight for many participants!
Resources for engaging public audiences. When the activation energy required to do something new appears high, it is often easier not to participate. During the workshop, we wanted to demonstrate that preparing for public engagement can be time efficient by having participants begin developing their engagement materials during the workshop itself. We used a simple format and scientific materials in which the participant has already invested time. For example, when sharing research with the public, the core scientific storyline can be distilled from scientific manuscripts, talks, posters, and grants. Once developed, the same engagement materials (e.g., presentation or activity / game) can then be adapted for use with audiences of different ages and backgrounds. I have used variations of ‘Build-a-Brain’ with both preschoolers and college students and can attest that everyone enjoys building brains with Play-Doh! We also discussed strategies for assessing audiences and strategies for adapting engagement materials. A number of participants asked questions and offered suggestions for engaging with reluctant audiences. This topic may be especially relevant for those advocating for a specific policy position, such as teaching evolution in Texas schools.
Showcasing public engagement programs. To achieve our goal of broadening participation and the scope of public engagement, it is critical to connect participants with opportunities to engage. Research has shown that this concrete end goal is important to successful training, and scientists who have engaged with the public are more likely to engage again. We assembled a panel of organizers from public engagement programs (primarily at UT Austin) to discuss a wide variety of opportunities to engage. The panel featured Mary Miller, director of UTeach; Becca Tarvin and Katie Lyons, co-founders (along with Lauren Castro) of Austin Science Advocates; Mariana Rodriguez, co-organizer of the Crocket High School Internship Program; Mariska Brady, former organizer of Science Under the Stars; and Amanda Perofsky, co-host of They Blinded Me with Science. Check out the BEACON Science Communication Resources for more information on how to get involved at your Institution!
Impact of our Public Engagement Workshop. We surveyed participants before and after the workshop to quantify workshop efficacy, identify changes in participant perceptions about public engagement, and improve future workshops. Overall, our feedback was overwhelmingly positive! The majority of participants agreed or strongly agreed (89%) that the goals of the workshop were met and that the information presented was relevant (100%). All participants reported that they were likely or very likely to use their new information to improve their public engagement (100%), and almost everyone was likely or very likely to engage more often (83%). We also asked questions related to internal and external efficacy, which are good predictors of engaging with the public in the future. We asked participants 1) if they were a skilled communicator, 2) if scientists can effect change, and 3) if colleagues were supportive of their public engagement efforts. Although we are limited by a small sample size, more participants rated their communication skills as higher after the workshop and fewer rated their skills as lower (Figure 1), suggesting the workshop had a positive impact on this metric. No change in efficacy or colleague support was detected. We have also begun integrating feedback to improve future workshops. For example, more participants were neutral towards the lunch panel, independent work time, and audience appropriateness sessions than the others; therefore, we will focus on feedback to improve these sessions. We will also be sure to provide background and original research in future workshops because nearly all participants rated Dr. Dudo’s session as useful or very useful (94%). Finally, participants suggested a number of topics for future workshops that we hope to incorporate, including engagement with policy and policy makers.
We want to thank our participants from four different BEACON Institutions who attended in person and via video conferencing! Stay tuned for more updates and future events.