August 2012

Rise and shine for science

Saturday Morning Science at the University of Missouri is showing that science is for everyone




Those who want more information about the program or tips for starting a similar program in their own towns can contact Bruce A. McClure at mcclureb@missouri.edu.

Experts say it won’t work: a series of public science talks on Saturday mornings. How many people would give up their Saturday mornings to go listen to academics talk science?

In Columbia, Mo., more than 27,000 people, and counting.

Saturday Morning Science is a popular science lecture series held every Saturday morning on the Columbia campus of the University of Missouri. The public outreach program, which has been running continuously since 2003, has featured more than 200 talks and boasts an average weekly attendance of 150 people, the vast majority of whom are drawn from the community.

“I’ve been in national-level meetings where I’ve heard ‘experts’ explicitly say outreach programs like this don’t work,” said Bruce McClure, MU professor of biochemistry and one of the program’s organizers. “The presumptions are that scientists are poor communicators and that audiences demand the kind of experience they get in science museums.”

Saturday Morning Science team 
Dawn Cornelison, Bruce McClure and Marc Johnson work together to organize Saturday Morning Science at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

Not so, say McClure and his fellow organizers, Dawn Cornelison, associate professor of biological sciences, and Marc Johnson, associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology.

“We all love science. We love talking about science. We love telling people about how science is cool and neat and fun and applicable,” said Cornelison. “Saturday Morning Science is an opportunity to talk about the cool stuff, the stuff that excites us.”

Some of the cool stuff discussed in recent talks includes microbial life at ocean vents, how frogs locate and choose mates, life as a NASA astronaut, tissue regeneration and cold fusion.

The organizers assume this enthusiasm for science and the diversity of topics are what bring people back every Saturday. According to several regular attendees, they are correct.

“I go because it is a great way to learn cool science. The scientists come across as real people who are motivated and funny and full of human foibles but who are driven and passionate,” said Joseph Polacco, a retired professor of biochemistry who has been attending the talks regularly since 2008.

Similar reasons motivate retiree Raymond E. Plue’s regular attendance for the past five years. “Science is so interesting and fun, and the speakers present their information in that manner. I also appreciate the wide range of science disciplines covered in the talks,” he said. Plue, who compared the talks to being “not unlike the Smithsonian magazine,” also has invited several of the scientists to give follow-up talks at his local Rotary meetings.

If you build it, they will come
Saturday Morning Science is the brainchild of Wouter Montfrooij, an MU associate professor of physics. He adapted it from a similar program in Ann Arbor, Mich., called Saturday Morning Physics, which he attended with his father-in-law while a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan. Montfrooij was attracted by the format but was interested in learning about other fields of science.

“The best way for me to do that was to get speakers to tell me about them, and I thought other people would like to listen as well,” recollected Montfrooij.

He was right. McClure attended the first series of talks and was hooked immediately. McClure volunteered to help Montfrooij organize the next round of talks and also pitched in to buy donuts for the audience, which at the time numbered about a couple dozen at most.

Thinking back to those first talks, McClure reflected on how the audience has grown. “If someone is contemplating starting something like this, you should not stop if you have only half a dozen or a dozen people attend. As long as the audience is engaged, that’s all that is important. We started with a handful of people in the room, and now we’re often packing a 250-seat auditorium. We got there by consistently having talks that people want to come hear.”

Johnson, who joined the program as an organizer in 2006, echoed the importance of good talks. “I would venture to guess that 50 percent of our audience now come out of routine. They have faith the talk will be good and that they’ll learn something.”

Local high school physics teacher Matt Zeitz agrees, which is why he often can be seen on Saturday mornings filling up a row of auditorium seats with anywhere between 10 to 15 of his students. “I love having my students attend Saturday Morning Science. It exposes them to the myriad topics that are available for them to pursue as careers and to the spectacularly brilliant professors who present,” said Zeitz.

Although Lee Elementary School teacher Sally Bloom initially was motivated to attend to receive in-service credit, “the varied and interesting talks” have kept her coming back with her husband and teenage son for the past four years. She shared that, although some talks have been “out of my knowledge base, I can honestly say I learned something new at every Saturday Morning Science I attended.”

In response to enthusiastic teachers like Zeitz and Bloom, the organizers in 2009 began videotaping the talks, which they make available on the program’s website (satscience.missouri.edu) and the university’s iTunesU site.

Saturday Morning Science demonstration by Professor Paul Miceli 
During his talk on superconductivity, MU physics professor Paul Miceli demonstrates the temperature-dependent electrical conductivity of metals cooled by liquid nitrogen

Fostering an informal atmosphere
“It is simply not true that scientists are poor communicators,” said McClure. “But it’s important to embrace the differences between a professional talk or a teaching lecture and a public-engagement opportunity.”

Some tips McClure offers speakers include staying away from jargon, starting from the basics, setting a modest goal of getting across one or two big ideas, and using a lot of visuals and ordinary language. Most importantly, however, speakers are strongly encouraged to interact with the audience through an open question format, demonstrations or activities, and by sharing items from their research. Items brought in by speakers have ranged from bear skulls and live bats to DNA and compost. Previous speakers also have arranged visits to facilities, including Columbia’s research reactor and a research farm.

Such interactions help foster an informal atmosphere, which, according to McClure, has been an essential element of the program’s continuing success. “There are few opportunities for that kind of person-to-person engagement between scientists and an interested audience. People cherish the time to engage scientists one on one and vice versa,” said McClure.

Refreshments also help. The vast majority of the program’s budget goes toward providing simple refreshments, such as donuts, bagels, juice and coffee. The program’s budget comes from three on-campus sponsorships as well as one-time monetary gifts from local donors and from Monsanto Corp.

The organizers do not claim running the weekly program is easy. “It’s a labor of love,” said Johnson, who mentions giving up 24 Saturday mornings a year as one of many responsibilities involved in running the program.

Thus, it is perhaps the organizers’ shared commitment to science and science outreach that is at the heart of the program’s success.

“It is our responsibility as scientists to communicate what we do to the public,” remarked Johnson. “The divide between what scientists do and what the public understands seems to be increasing. I like to think we’re giving the public the tools to think about what we do as scientists and its applicability to all our lives.”

“Plus,” he added, “I enjoy the talks myself.”

 

Melody KrollMelody Kroll (krollmm@missouri.edu) is executive staff assistant for the division of biological sciences at the University of Missouri. She also regularly attends Saturday Morning Science.


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Congratulations to all who make this happen and to you, Melody, for taking the time to write about it. More of us should be organizing these. -Suzanne Pfeffer, Stanford University

 

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