Organizing outreach events in the biological sciences

By Sheela Turbek

A basic understanding of biological processes is necessary for informed decision-making on societal issues such as public health, food security, and conservation. However, despite scientific consensus on many biological topics, including the validity of evolutionary theory, the benefits of vaccination, and the contributions of human behavior to climate change, these ideas continue to be subject to widespread debate by the general public. The United States is particularly culpable of low levels of scientific literacy. A 2015 poll by the Pew Center, for example, revealed that only 62% of U.S. adults believe that humans and other living beings have evolved through time. A mere 33% of the surveyed adults conceded that these beings evolved as a result of natural processes. One must look no further than the results of this poll to recognize the major disconnect that often exists between scientific consensus and public opinions regarding scientific topics.

As graduate students in the biological sciences, we have a responsibility to close this gap between scientific consensus and public understanding by learning how to effectively communicate our findings in a manner that is accessible to the general public. Organizing outreach events is a great way to practice science communication skills and break down common misconceptions about biological ideas and the scientific process. These events can range from one-time activities that require a low level of commitment (e.g., organizing a public lecture on a scientific topic or visiting a school to discuss careers in the biological sciences) to lasting partnerships with local organizations in order to enhance scientific literacy.

Below are several ideas for outreach activities that would be feasible to organize as graduate students. However, feel free to get creative! The possible ways in which to engage the general public in scientific research are endless.

  • Partner with a local museum to organize a monthly or annual event aimed at increasing public understanding of biological concepts such as evolutionary theory
  • Organize a public lecture that targets non-traditional audiences or coordinate with an established program that connects scientists with the public in informal settings such as coffee shops, restaurants, and bars (e.g., Science CafĂ©s and Pint of Science)
  • Organize a nature walk that introduces participants to the natural history of local flora and fauna
  • Incorporate a citizen science component into your research. Check out this website for a cool project that leverages citizen science to study the abundance and diversity of native bees and wasps in Colorado
  • Participate in 30-60 minute Q&A sessions about the life of a scientist with classrooms around the world through Skype a Scientist
  • Organize an interactive event for undergraduate students (particularly non-science majors) at your university to enhance public understanding of evolutionary principles
  • Work with local middle and high school teachers to develop science curriculum through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program
  • Hold a training workshop for public middle and high school teachers that provides innovative ways to teach topics such as climate change or evolutionary theory in the classroom

Depending on the type of outreach event that you are interested in planning, you may require financial support. Several funding sources exist to promote educational outreach activities in ecology and evolutionary biology:

In addition, some universities offer internal funding for outreach initiatives aimed at making research more accessible to the general public and strengthening relationships with the community.

In the post-truth era in which we arguably now live, it is more important then ever to convince the public that our research matters and that continued support for the biological sciences is a worthwhile endeavor. Organizing outreach events to increase scientific literacy and share recent scientific findings with the broader community will not only heighten public awareness of the importance of ongoing research, potentially improving our ability to secure funding in the future, but also increase diversity in the biological sciences by making science more accessible to audiences that have traditionally been excluded from the scientific process. Finally, participating in outreach initiatives will allow you to practice communicating the impact and relevance of your work clearly and concisely to diverse audiences, thereby making you a more effective writer, educator, and scientist.