September 2011

Students on front lines of public engagement

Today, 80 graduate students participate in one or more programs annually. Teigler says the most-cited reason for participation remains the satisfaction of applying specialized scientific training to serve others and give back to the community that supports the work. "However, SITN volunteers also gain practical benefits from the focus on high-quality oral and written science communication," he says, "which provides useful training and résumé-building opportunities for early-career researchers."

8 steps to starting your own Science in the News program

1. Recruit volunteers: You need a core group of dedicated, enthusiastic people with scientific expertise, plus a few contributing volunteers to staff specific efforts.
2. Focus: Start by choosing a single event you want to host or participate in that serves an unfulfilled need in your community. Expand from there, and don't be afraid to try more than once.
3. Know your audience: Design programs with a particular audience in mind. This will improve the quality and reception of the event as well as the effectiveness of advertising.
4. Secure funding: Programs like SITN do not require a lot of funding. Be creative: Ask for donations and apply for public service grants.
5. Advertise: Choose advertising strategies with your audience in mind, and capitalize on joint advertising with other groups or events. Collect data to guide future advertising decisions.
6. Quality control: Determining how to evaluate, maintain and enhance program quality is the secret to long-term success. Ask for details on SITN's quality-control measures and the Science Presentation as a Performing Art course.
7. Collect data: Design surveys and other metrics to gauge the impact and effectiveness of your programs. This will spur continued development in Steps 1 – 6. As you establish your program, don't forget to keep track of your volunteer alumni as well.
8. Contact SITN: SITN has more than a decade of experience implementing public outreach programs and is happy to share successes, failures and insider tips. Start the conversation by emailing sitnboston@gmail.com.

Recently, in collaboration with Harvard science faculty members and Nancy Houfek of the American Repertory Theater, SITN has established a graduate-level short course called Science Presentation as a Performing Art.

Houfek distills theater techniques that aid effective science communication in an interactive workshop for faculty and staff members, postdoctoral researchers and students. Graduate students who take the course for academic credit have small-group follow-up sessions with science faculty members to hone the delivery of their presentations.

A good example

When students at Yale University's chapter of Scientists and Engineers for America heard of SITN's program, they decided to start their own lecture series, which they launched this spring.

"We were impressed by [SITN's] scope, longevity and the level of community involvement they were able to achieve," says Yale SEA chapter President Elizabeth Winograd-Cort. "These are our goals as well, and we had been looking for an effective way to communicate important and often controversial scientific breakthroughs to the New Haven community."

The Yale students took the SITN concept and ran with it, she says.

"We realized that it was not possible or desirable to import the Harvard program wholesale.There are infrastructure disparities between the Harvard group and ours, the differences between Boston and New Haven, and [our] mission, which leads us in a more policy-oriented direction," Winograd-Cort explains. "We adopted a one-hour-long format and chose presentation topics not only because they are interesting but because of surrounding controversy, misunderstanding and lawmaking activity.We want our audiences to be better informed in order to make a difference themselves, either by writing to their representatives, by voting or by raising community consciousness."

Already, participants say, the Yale version of SITN has had a measurable impact.

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