This post is by University of Idaho grad student Katie Peterson.
The idea behind Science After Hours (SAH) began as a one-time event I coordinated in March of 2014 but has morphed over the years into a monthly social gathering of community members. As the Lead Environmental Educator at the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute (PCEI), I hosted the first event as a way for my friends who were in graduate school to have a fun opportunity to talk about their research with a broader audience. Not long after, in the fall of 2014, I began my graduate program in Biology in the Parent Lab at the University of Idaho (UI). The monthly informal science education series SAH was created in spring 2015 by a previous co-worker, Daniel Sidder, and the series has been running ever since. My passion of science outreach and education drew me back to volunteer with the program when the opportunity arose.
The mission of PCEI is to connect people, place, and community and I wanted the mission of SAH to reflect this sentiment. My hopes for the program have always been to connect the Universities with the broader Moscow-Pullman and Palouse communities in a fun setting at a local business, thereby strengthening connections within our region. Thibault Stalder, a Postdoctoral researcher in the Top Lab at UI, described his experience presenting as “a great opportunity to share my work with the local community. It was a great time to sit and (re)think about the professional focus driving my research.” This feeling was also expressed by Jack Sullivan, Professor at UI, about his experience with the program, “It provides a rare, but nevertheless extremely important opportunity for scientists to communicate with members of the lay population in a celebratory environment.”
Since September of 2015, 21 events have occurred at 11 different businesses around downtown Moscow featuring 69 presentations by researchers on the Palouse. An example of the broad range of topics covered include; ecology, evolution, phylogenetics, genetics, botany, art, microbiology, engineering, chemistry, water resources, and citizen science. The evenings usually highlight the research of three to four presenters and each gets approximately 15 minutes to present their work. After which, there is question and answer time and plenty of additional time for mingling between attendees and presenters. The businesses that have hosted have ranged from bookstores to breweries. Through all of this, a network of folks is forming in our community that value camaraderie, scientific curiosity, and inquiry and the events always lead to engaging discussions.
For presenters, I think presenting at SAH is a great opportunity to share their research with the community and gain confidence in their public speaking abilities. Sarah Hendricks, a PhD Candidate in the Hohenlohe Lab at UI, said that for her presenting at SAH allowed her to ponder what aspects of her research are likely to be most important and accessible to a general audience. She continued, “I’ve learned to tell a story regarding the general topic I study and to bring the audience into that story. It helps each person in attendance embrace why they should care about my research.”
Some evenings focus around a specific topic and researchers may come different labs or sometimes even different institutions. Other times, a lab will “takeover” and all presenters will represent the same lab. Hannah Marx, a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Barker/Dlugosch Labs at the University of Arizona, described her experience in a previous lab “takeover” event, “What struck me most about my experience presenting at Science After Hours was the audience, which ranged from young children to college students to local business owners. It was challenging and fun to connect directly with a true sample of the local community, and they all seemed to really enjoy hearing about plant evolution! I think it also helped that a few of us from the same lab presented our research, which really illustrated multiple approaches for understanding diversity through the lens of phylogenetics.”
It has been so rewarding for me to see the program grow over the last few years by engaging more folks and encompassing more scientific fields. During the events I ask attendees if it is their first time attending SAH and am often surprised and appreciative of how many new folks are in attendance, but beyond that, I also ask attendees to raise their hand if it is their first time in the particular business that is hosting that evening. I believe this visual representation of new folks that have come into their business adds an additional value in hosting a SAH event. Carol Price, owner of BookPeople of Moscow and longtime SAH supporter stated, “Our community is full of scientifically-minded people and they are some of my best customers. It’s the reason I am able to stock such a robust section of math and science books, as well as natural history and ecology. I’m also a long-time supporter of PCEI. My teenager has grown up going to and later on volunteering at some of their events such as Animals of the Night. So it was a natural fit for us to host PCEI’s Science After Hours. It gives my regular customers another reason to keep shopping here, and also brings in potential customers, giving me a chance to show off the store and our highly curated selection of books. And besides, it’s just fun. Who doesn’t want to have a drink and talk about science at the same time?!”
Matt Pollard, Lead STEM Teacher at Paradise Creek Regional High School in Moscow and an enthusiastic advocate of the program expressed, “It’s been fun to watch the growth of Science After Hours from a small loose knit group of friends and colleagues to a larger get-there-early-to-get-a-seat affair; its growth has been spectacular, warranting larger venues. I highly value the social implications of Science After Hours: it lets the community be informed about local research programs in a low stakes approachable environment, further tying our community together. In addition, as a local high school science and math teacher, Science After Hours allows me to offer a mature, professional and free extra credit option for all of my students. The varied content always impresses me, but more importantly, the presentations are accessible to all, helping to keep science in the vernacular. The SAH evenings are now part of my family’s monthly routine with my 10, 12 and 16 year-old children eager to listen to a night of science talks!”
I hope the program continues to expand, including more disciplines and increasing the breadth of presentations from different fields. As SAH grows I hope for more involvement from other departments and colleges at the Universities, students from the high schools, industries in the area, and beyond. I want to sincerely thank all past presenters, attendees, and business hosts. I would also like to thank the past and present PCEI employees, namely Daniel Sidder, Cait McGugh, Amanda Argona, and Heather Huston who have helped with coordination, logistical support, and the continued growth and success of Science After Hours. If you have thought about presenting in a similar setting in your area but haven’t, I strongly urge you to! It is a great learning process as a presenter and can be a very rewarding experience.