GeoTalk: Matt Herod on awesome outreach and education

Matt Herod has long been part of the EGU Blog Network, where he writes about all things geochemistry from his base in the University of Ottawa. In this week’s GeoTalk, we had the chance to talk to Matt about all the other science communication activities he’s been up to – from mentoring kids in Canada to speaking science in schools…

This year GeoSphere had its first birthday as part of the EGU Blog Network, but you’ve been sharing science online for longer than that – what got you started?

Awesome question. I was actually studying for my comprehensive exam at the time and needed something to distract me for a little while so I started a blog. I didn’t actually expect to enjoy blogging so much, but once I started writing and engaging with other bloggers and readers I started to get addicted. The real motivation, besides procrastinating, for starting the blog though was that I was deploring the fact that in Canada, and I suspect other parts of the world, geoscience is left out of elementary and high school curricula. Physics, biology and chemistry are covered extremely well, which is great, but geology, the most integrative of the four is generally left out. It is just not taught at all. I found that really bizarre since I think it is very practical for everyone out there to have a basic knowledge of Earth science. I would hear stories and read articles in the news about fracking and climate change, and mining and a whole slew of other environmental Earth science issues that people were up in arms about all over the world and think “if only they understood a bit more about geology they might not get so panicked, or they might react appropriately when something worth panicking about happened.” The people that I spoke with about geology all expressed an interest in learning more, but they just didn’t know where to start. They had all finished high school and university so they weren’t about to pick up a textbook. Ultimately, the real problem was that the desire to learn about geology was there, but not the access. So to help make geology more accessible I started blogging and have enjoyed it ever since.

Meet Matt! (Credit: Matt Herod)

Meet Matt! (Credit: Matt Herod)

As well as science writing, you get out of the office and into the classroom – what do you get up to? 

As far as science outreach goes my two favourite programs have been the Aboriginal Mentorship Program (AMP) and another called Science Travels (ST). AMP is a program run from the University of Ottawa that pairs science grad students up with one or more local aboriginal students. We go to their school and give science talks, run activities and tell them about ourselves. We then mentor them as they prepare a science fair project using our lab facilities to collect data. The students then come to the University of Ottawa for a science fair, lab tours etc. for about three days later in the year. The program involves monthly visits with the students and I participated for two years.

The other program is called Science Travels. ST sends a group of four graduate students to remote northern communities across Canada to give science presentations in local schools throughout the region over the course of a week. I have been on two trips both to northern Ontario. Often the schools that we visit are in native reserves and can often have issues such as alcoholism and drug abuse in the community. I have also participated for four years with Let’s talk science going in to local Ottawa high school and elementary school classrooms to give science talks.  

What are the highlights of working with school students in the university labs? 

The best thing about bringing students into university labs or going to their classroom is the feeling that my colleagues and I are opening someone’s eyes to science and hopefully inspiring them to consider pursuing science as a career. The goal of having actual researchers leave their labs and enter the classroom is to show elementary and high school students that science does not have to be boring and that it can also be a viable career option. By having researchers present the science it helps to bring validity to the presentation, but also makes something that might seem like a silly science demo more applied and accessible. Bringing students into our labs is also great. It is a cool experience explaining how the “black box” sitting on that bench over there can count atoms and even the most hardened “cool kid” softens when you bring them face to face with a mass spectrometer. Also, things that we take for granted like custom glassware or an oven that can reach 1000 degrees is completely new to these students and it is an eye-opening experience for them and us to teach them about how we use the tools in our labs to answer the big questions about the Earth. FYI showing off a Scanning Electron Microscope might be the best lab tour activity ever…or a flume, and I can’t wait to show of our new Accelerator Mass Spectrometer in a few months, that’ll really blow their minds!

Sharing the excitement of science in schools. (Credit: Matt Herod)

Sharing the excitement of science in a school. (Credit: Matt Herod)

And what are the challenges?

The biggest challenge with science outreach is finding the time. When we are in our own little research bubbles it can often be hard to escape and do something else, and if we do, it is easy to feel a bit guilty that we are not doing research. However, the key is to simply realise that getting out there and teaching science is totally worthwhile and that the work will always be there when we get back…at least that’s how I rationalise it. Preparing presentations and activities can also be pretty time consuming, but there are some great websites (e.g. out there with science activities for kids and if you are part of an organisation like Let’s Talk Science lots of pre-made kits exist that cover a wide range of topics. It is always nice to add a bit of personal experience to talks and presentations though and a good story can really help make the presentation memorable.

Do you have any top tips for scientists that want to work with school kids?

The best piece of advice I can give for anyone that wants to get involved in science outreach is try to find an organisation to work with. Don’t try and go it alone. Find a group that has laid the groundwork and made the connections and start there. The time commitment is as much or as little as you would like to give and the rewards for engaging in outreach and working in your community far outweigh any lost work time. Not only that, it is a great way to practice your speaking and explaining skills in front of a non-critical audience. Getting up at a conference to give a talk is nerve-racking enough even if you are comfortable with public speaking let alone if you have not given that many talks before. My last tip is don’t overthink it. If you go to a classroom and give a talk don’t worry about being perfect. In my experience the students and teachers are too happy to have a visitor, especially one who has experience in research, to try and critique every little aspect of your presentation and activity. The best thing you can do is go in, give your presentation with enthusiasm and enjoy it!

Had your fill of sci comm chat? Find out about the latest geochemical research over at GeoSphere:

1 Comment

  1. I’ve really enjoyed reading this interview. It’s great to know about all the interesting stuff you, Matt, have done to further geoscience education. Keep up the good work!


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