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How to Do Science Outreach

Physics Girl

It should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid.
— Albert Einstein

Do you feel an overwhelming desire to explain the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to a gaggle of second graders? Perhaps a cramping guilt to complete the outreach portion of your science grant? It sounds like you would like to do some physics outreach.

First of all, why do outreach? If you’re not already convinced by your insatiable need to shout Schrödinger’s equation from the rooftops, there are other reasons science outreach is important. Maybe you want crowdsource funding from the general public, or you feel a moral obligation to give back to the public whose tax dollars are funding your research. It’s possible! If you’re still not sure, these peeps have a few more reasons for doing outreach, perhaps worded more elegantly, here and here.

Crowdsourcing has been used as an effective method for science outreach funding

Crowdsourcing has been used as an effective method for science outreach funding

Now back to useful outreach suggestions. . . The American Physical Society outreach guide is a great place to start. The APS has outlined more types of outreach than I could possibly plan and execute. Plus they offer extensive advice and resources. Here's a quick summary of the types of outreach they can help you get started with:

  • Physics on the Road
  • Physics Lectures
  • Open Houses
  • Science Cafes (these seem really cool!) 
  • On-campus Demo Shows
  • Working with a Museum

This list is of more traditional types of outreach (boring! Just kidding...), so the website does not touch on online outreach or outreach in the media (which is ironic because they are reaching out online haha). But there is a huge community of bloggers, videographers, and science writers who post science outreach materials online and in print. Here's a short intro to video outreach, and some tips on writing about science, if that is what you fancy. There are advantages and disadvantages to outreach online. You may be able to reach a larger audience, but you have to market yourself (yawn) and you cannot necessarily target specific audiences.

Demonstrating a Van De Graaff generator for a group of middle school girls at UCSD for Tech Trek

Demonstrating a Van De Graaff generator for a group of middle school girls at UCSD for Tech Trek

In my experience, the most rewarding outreach is in person.  I have primarily done outreach events at middle schools or with groups of students in a science camp. It is at these events where you can easily connect with students, help break science stereotypes by showing what you do, and inspire curiosity by letting students play with science demos. Getting hands-on with an experiment, literally, can be the most rewarding part of learning. 

Though not as rewarding, the most fun outreach for me is online! I get to write about what I want, make videos about what I want and let my quirky personality shine (blind you?) through. So whether you are a scientist, teacher, or physics enthusiast, outreach is like a job––in order to be motivated, you must choose the type that you also enjoy!

Do you have any suggestions for physics outreach opportunities or reasons why you do outreach? Post them in the comments!