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The Black Hole

Isn’t Science Just for Eggheads? The Importance of Science Outreach

BY BETH | NOV 09 2009

As Dave mentioned in his previous post, part of the job of a scientist is to create interest in, and awareness of, the sciences, as well as to promote “science literacy” (i.e., the ability to understand and use scientific information). This is beneficial for a number of reasons, including:

  • People use science in their everyday lives; personal (e.g., should I get vaccinated for H1N1?) as well as policy (e.g., what should Canada do about climate change?) decisions requiring an understanding of science are made all that time.  We want people to have the knowledge and skills to weigh the facts and be able to make evidence-based decisions. ((see my previous post))
  • We need people to become the scientists of the future.  For that to happen, we need kids to be excited enough about science that when they reach high school, they choose to continue to taking science classes and when they reach university, they choose a degree in the sciences…. and then choose grad school and ultimately a career in research.
  • Most of the money that supports science (e.g., through grants, scholarships, and the funding of universities and other research centres) comes from the taxpayers, so we have a responsibility to conduct research that will ultimately be of benefit to the world ((note that when I say “benefit”, I’m thinking broadly here – increasing knowledge for knowledge sake (as oppose to, say, strictly for economic gain) is a “benefit”)).  If the general public doesn’t understand why your research is important, they aren’t going to want to fund it.  This doesn’t mean we should only research was popular at the moment, but rather that we need to communicate clearly why what we do matters.
  • Further, if the public is aware of the importance of your field of research ((again, see Dave’s previous posting for more on this)), there is a greater chance that there will be the political support for it being a “priority area” for funding and/or for people to donate money to support your research.

In response to these (and I’m sure other) things, all kinds of science outreach organizations have sprung up.  Here’s some of the ones I’m familiar with – feel free to add more in the comments section and I’ll add them to the list:

  • Let’s Talk Science – this is a science outreach organization with which I was involved for many years ((in fact, it’s how Dave and I met.  And really, how I met a fair number of my friends!)) . LTS aims to promote science, engineering and technology to youth from pre-school through high school with a number of programs, such as volunteers going to classrooms and community events to do hands-on science activities with kids, and training scientists in how to do science outreach activities effectively.
  • Actua – I don’t know much about Actua, as I never did any work with them myself, but my understanding is that they are similar to LTS in that they promote science, engineering and technology to youth through workshops and summer camps.
  • Science and Technology Awareness Network (STAN) – a Canadian organization that brings together science and technology outreach organizations together under one umbrella, so that groups working towards the same goal can do so in an organized, and thus more efficient and effective, way
  • STEM Education Coalition – a US organization that comprises more than 1,000 groups working to support science, technology, engineering and math education.
  • Stem Cell Network – in addition to their role of networking stem cell researchers, they also provide information about stem cell research to the public
  • Granting Councils –  have become more active in promoting science and science literacy to the public through such initiatives as NSERC’s PromoScience (funds science outreach) and CIHR’s Synapse program (linking youth with scientist mentors) and Cafe Scientifique series.
  • Cafe Scientifique – is actually a much bigger initiative than just the CIHR-funded cafes.   Cafe Sci are held by groups all over the world.  They involve a bunch of people (scientists and nonscientists alike) getting together at a cafe or bar to listen to a scientist speak about some issue, then have a discussion about it.
  • Canadian Science Writers Assocation – aims to foster quality science communication.
  • Bacon & Eggheads – brings together scientists and Parlimentarians to promote an understanding of the scientific issues of the day among our elected officials.  Run by the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering (PAGSE).
  • Vancouver School Board’s Scientist in Residence Program (SRP) – this is another one in which I have been involved.  The SRP links up Vancouver elementary schools with scientists who bring a series of hands-on science activities to the classroom.
  • Sanofi-Aventis BioTalent Challenge – “encourages young Canadians to pursue studies and careers in the exciting field of biotechnology.” ((props to SubC for bringing this one to our attention))
  • Canada Wide Science Fair (CWSF)– the kids who “win” at the school, then regional, then district level science fairs get to compete at the CWSF. I’ve had the honour of judging CWSF twice – once in London, ON and once in Vancouver, BC – and both times I was absolutely blown away by the kids and their projects. Being a judge is a great way to be a role model to aspiring scientists, but the added bonus is that I always come away from science fairs inspired by the kids!

These are just a few of the ones that I know about.  You can find a more comprehensive list for science outreach organizations in BC & the Yukon in the BC Science Outreach Directory

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  1. SubC / November 19, 2009 at 18:18

    Great post ! As a postdoctoral researcher, I have always tried to “infect” others with the scince “bug”. Mentoring undergraduate students and participating in high school science projects (either as a mentor or judge) is always a good idea. I would also encourage ppl to post their scientifically valid opinions on puiblic forums such as those on Globeandmail, Macleans or CBC as well as in various blogs. My personal feeling is that a lot of future discourse will be taking on these places and it is our duty to promote science and counter pseudo-science on whatever public forums are availble.

  2. Beth / November 19, 2009 at 18:35

    Thanks, SubC, I’ve added that to the list. And your mention of science fairs alerted me to the fact that I’d completely overlooked mentioning them – so I’ve added the Canada Wide Science Fair as well.
    I agree that a lot of discourse takes place on public forum and blog comment sections (not to mention Facebook walls!) and we really should be countering the pseudoscience we see there. I have to admit that I often get quite discouraged by all the misinformation I see in places like that – perhaps if we all made an effort to post in places like that, it would go along way!

  3. Ian / November 30, 2009 at 19:02

    I worked with the Actua affiliate at the University of Alberta last summer – DiscoverE. In May-June we did ~1 hour presentations in classrooms (usually elementary, but we had demos for older grades too) and covered the region from just South of Edmonton to Tuktoyaktuk in NWT. I presented in Edmonton, Ft. McMurray, and Slave Lake. Then in July-Aug we ran student-programmed summer camps in most of those same communities. I ran many camps in Edmonton and a week in Yellowknife and a Metis reserve called Kikino. We aimed to keep all our costs as low as possible and many camps for First Nations were heavily sponsored (some to the point where they paid students to attend). Actua and DiscoverE have won several awards for their presentations and outreach.

  4. Susan / January 26, 2011 at 18:46

    Hi Beth. Thank you so much for this list of science outreach programs in Canada! I’ve been searching the net for opportunities to pursue my passion for making science “accessible” to the public, and this list has given me some great ideas!