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Successful science outreach means connecting with the people you’re trying to reach.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Let’s say you think science is cool, or fun, or important to understand (or to do) in our modern world. Let’s say you want to get others who don’t (yet) see science as cool, or fun, or important, to appreciate how cool, how fun, how important it is.

Doing that, even on a small scale, is outreach.

Maybe just talking about what you find cool, fun, and important will help some others come to see science that way. But it’s also quite possible that some of the people to whom you’re reaching out will not be won over by the same explanations, the same experiences, the same exemplars of scientific achievement that won you over.

If you want your outreach to succeed, it’s not enough to know what got you engaged with science. To engage people-who-are-not-you, you probably need to find out something about them.

Find out what their experiences with science have been like — and what their experiences with scientists (and science teachers) have been like. These experiences shape what they think about science, but also what they think about who science is for.

Find out what they find interesting and what they find off-putting.

Find out what they already know and what they want to know. Don’t assume before doing this that you know where their information is gappy or what they’re really worried about. Don’t assume that filling in gaps in their knowledge is all it will take to make them science fans.

Recognize that your audience may not be as willing as you want them to be to separate their view of science from their view of scientists. A foible of a famous scientist that is no big deal to you may be a huge deal to people you’re trying to reach who have had different experiences. Your baseline level of trust for scientists and the enterprise of scientific knowledge-building may be higher than that of people in your target audience who come from communities that have been hurt by researchers or harmed by scientific claims used to justify their marginalization.

Actually reaching people means taking their experiences seriously. Telling someone how to feel is a bad outreach strategy.

Taking the people you’re trying to reach seriously also means taking seriously their capacity to understand and to make good decisions — even when their decisions are not precisely the decisions you might make. When you feel frustration because of decisions being made out of what looks to you like ignorance, resist the impulse to punch down. Instead, ask where the decisions are coming from and try to understand them before explaining, respectfully, why you’d make a different decision.

If your efforts at outreach don’t seem to be reaching people or groups you are trying hard to reach, seriously consider the possibility that what you’re doing may not be succeeding because it’s not aligned with the wants or needs of those people or groups.

If you’re serious about reaching those people or groups ask them how your outreach efforts are coming across to them, and take their answers seriously.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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