Know your audience

A blueprint for successful science outreach

Published May 4 2016

Kids at Rockefeller’s annual Science Saturday festival watch a liquid nitrogen demonstration. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE ROCKEFELLER UNIVERSITY

Science outreach can mean many things, and the effectiveness of any particular outreach endeavor can vary just as much as the array of activities that fall under the science outreach umbrella.

As director of the Science Outreach Program at The Rockefeller University in New York City, a full-time program aimed at establishing equitable access to science research opportunities for urban K – 12 communities, I have learned that being effective at science outreach has little to do with fancy equipment, elaborate presentations or expensive reagents. Instead, effectiveness really comes down to one simple question: How well do you connect with your target audience?

By presenting science in contexts that are familiar to our audiences, we have been able to grow our program, establish partnerships, and engage and support local students and teachers. Here’s how we do it.

We try to understand who our audience is and where they come from

At Rockefeller, we serve K – 12 students and teachers from communities within New York City. If, in this urban context, I am going to center outreach activities on, say, ecosystems, I will avoid introducing the topic using unfamiliar examples, such as salt marshes or microbiomes. Instead, I might ask the students to highlight all of the things that exist at a subway station, and use their daily experiences riding the train as an entry point for teaching about relationships and networks. When the students map out how different conditions, such as leaks from heavy rains or track fires from too much garbage, can affect the entire subway system, it opens up conversations about ecosystem connectedness. Once basic, familiar frameworks are established through the subway example, I can then move on and talk about the variety of the planet’s ecosystems.

Students learn about ethics and the genetics of disease in Rockefeller’s LAB Experience program.

We map out goals and relevant talking points

Through much trial and error, we have learned that less is often more when it comes to communicating science. Because science encompasses such an amazing breadth of information about our world, those of us doing outreach should be equipped with a roadmap of relevant goals and talking points for every outreach project. Without this kind of defining framework, we can ramble and our message can lack purpose.

Science Saturday, our annual science festival for 5- to 13-year-olds, features more than 35 unique, hands-on learning stations. With just a few minutes to engage kids at each station, we work ahead of time to define a few core elements of the communication strategy for each station.

First, we identify the ultimate goal of the station. Is it meant to educate, raise awareness, dispel misconceptions or perhaps promote specific ideas? Once we’re clear on the goal, we arrive at the three most important talking points we need to cover to get to that goal.

For instance, our “Sweet hide and seek” learning station, facilitated by Rockefeller’s bionutrition department, aims to educate young kids about the link between obesity and sugar and promote healthy eating habits. This learning station is designed as a game, and kids have to guess how many grams of sugar are in common drinks like juice and soda. The conversations about this activity name three main talking points: many common drinks have sugar in them; when you drink them, sugar gets into your body; when there is too much sugar in your body, it can affect your health.

We try to tell a good story that is relatable

A Rockefeller LAB student swabs the floor of a cheese cave for microbes.

Once we’ve identified our goals and talking points, we think about how to weave them into a narrative that includes relatable elements. These narratives can take the form of a few sentences or a series of interrelated and fun activities that convey real-world application. We might even do something as simple as ask the audience a question, such as, “Do you ever wonder how digestion works?”

This strategy has been really helpful for our Learning at the Bench After School Program, which aims to teach New York high school students about metagenomics and microbial community formation. These topics by themselves could be daunting to any teenager. To make them more accessible, we tell this particular story through food. Our program has teamed with New York’s iconic store, Murray’s Cheese. Murray’s has its own cheese caves, and our students are able to visit and observe the microbiome of the caves and learn how microbial communities affect the aging process and flavors of cheese.

We stay flexible

While it is important to plan your outreach strategy, it is also important to be able to go where your audience takes you. There are times when I have spent ages planning an outreach event or curriculum, keeping in mind every possible detail and direction that could interest my audience, just to have to throw it all out the window. I’ve learned that, no matter how prepared I think I am, when my material is not connecting, I need to switch it up.

A few weeks ago, about 20 students from a specialized high school came on a school field trip to our learning lab through our LAB Experience program. These students had a history of truancy, were behind in their academic credits, and were, on average, much older than our typical high school classes. I started teaching our normal curriculum, but the students were not engaged at all and were saying things like “I don’t trust scientists” and “I’m too dumb for science.” I realized that, in order to make an impact, I had to toss our planned agenda and do something totally different. So I took them to the cafeteria for coffee, and then we set out on a walk around campus.

To keep things relaxed while building their trust, I invited them to bring up any ideas or questions they had about science. Letting them lead the conversation as we strolled, I periodically pointed out some of our interesting lab spaces or cool equipment, which opened the door for deeper conversations about scientific issues that were relevant to them, such as vaccinations, the development and treatment of cancer, and how to become a scientist.

We emphasize connection

We have had thousands of students and teachers come through our program in the past few years, and successful execution of our events always comes down to how relevant we’ve made them for our audiences. We’ve learned that being able to relate to, understand, prepare for and respond with flexibility to our audiences is often the difference between an outreach project that engages and one that fizzles. For more about doing successful outreach, please check out the outreach miniseries on our blog, The Incubator.

Jeanne Garbarino Jeanne Garbarino directs the science outreach program at The Rockefeller University in New York City.