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Geoscience outreach- why it matters and how to get involved

Geoscience outreach- why it matters and how to get involved

This post is brought to you by Natasha Dowey, a dear friend and a volcanologist turned petroleum geologist. Just like us, Natasha has a passion for outreach. In this post she explains why it matters and a number of ways you can get involved.

The importance of communication in geoscience is becoming ever more widely recognised. Researchers are being encouraged to step out of their comfort zones, lose the jargon and welcome the outside community into their (typically highly specialised) world. To be truly digestible by the masses, their research ‘stories’ must have a strong focus on narrative and context, and the scientists themselves must be engaging and confident in their approach.

The past decade has seen a shift in how scientists interact with the public; for example, social media is now used widely to report and debate findings, giving scientists a much-needed platform to reach a broader audience (search for #geoscience on Twitter and the variety of topics is mindboggling). To be able to find a place in the ever-more public and publicised world of science, it is vital that early-career geoscientists become adept in breaking their topic down, finding its relevance, and engaging thoughtfully with people from a variety of backgrounds.

An excellent way to gain experience in doing just that is through science outreach.

Outreach can take many guises. Activities may involve performing experiments, giving careers talks, developing fun and messy games that highlight scientific themes, or mentoring students through science projects. Outreach can be done in person (e.g. at schools, museums or science fairs) or digitally (via email interviews and skype chats). Activities not only benefit local communities, where STEM subjects remain particularly undersubscribed by women and minority groups, but also allow scientists to develop valuable transferrable skills. Getting involved in outreach enables researchers to more fully appreciate the relevance of their work, both to the wider world of science and the general public, and to build up crucial presenting, writing and demonstrating skills. Outreach pushes scientists to find interest, fun and clarity in their research, to inspire the next generation of scientists.

Why aren’t more geoscientists involved with outreach?

It is important for early career geoscientists to see science outreach as a significant part of their well-rounded career, be it within academia or industry. However, there is a noticeable lack of geoscientists at outreach training and activities I have attended. The reasons for this aren’t clear. Perhaps geoscientists take the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) banner too literally, and assume that earth science topics do not fit. Chemistry, physics and maths are certainly popular with schools for outreach activities, but schools are also keen for diversity, particularly to highlight the variety of STEM careers out there. In my experience, students of all ages love discovering more about the dynamic earth. As a geologist with experience in volcanology and petroleum, I am often an interesting novelty for students, and questions inevitably lead to career pathways.

It is important for early career geoscientists to see science outreach as a significant part of their well-rounded career, be it within academia or industry. Credit: Natasha Dowey

It is important for early career geoscientists to see science outreach as a significant part of their well-rounded career, be it within academia or industry. Credit: Natasha Dowey

Another possibility is that geoscientists may feel there are no obvious demonstrations or activities to show off their research to young students. However, it’s surprising what you can come up with when you think outside the box (such as encouraging primary school children to ‘drill’ through cake layers with straws to reach treacle ‘oil’!) It’s also important to remember that science outreach can be a careers talk, a presentation, an Q and A interview or some mentoring, and doesn’t necessarily have to involve a hands-on activity. The key thing is to know your audience and adapt your approach for each group you work with.

A lack of free time is likely to be a significant deterrent to early-career geoscientists (and to scientists in other fields). The PhD years of a passionate geoscientist are typically filled to the brim with fieldwork, experiments, writing (…re-doing experiments, re-writing…), dealing with paper submissions, thinking about post-doc applications and attempting to maintain sanity. The life of a post-doctoral researcher, or a geoscientist in the first years of an industry career, is similarly manic. Although time can often feel tight, the diversity of outreach opportunities out there and the availability of the internet as a medium for communication means that time doesn’t have to be a hindrance to getting involved.

Awareness of opportunities may also be an issue; the level of active encouragement to become involved in outreach varies between different universities and employers. I know of many PhD researchers who simply were not aware of the importance of outreach during their postgraduate studies. There are, in fact, a huge amount of activities and events going on all the time; it’s all about knowing how to become involved.

Getting into science outreach

If you are keen to become involved with outreach, a good start is to find out what your institution or employer already has in place. Most universities get involved with local schools through open days, and it may be possible to volunteer to gain experience in familiar surroundings. These events tend to feel similar to demonstrating to undergraduate students, but with fun experiments tailored to the age of the audience. For industry geoscientists, some companies have their own outreach schemes and allow days off for outreach activities, but may not advertise them widely; a little digging may throw up surprising opportunities.

Why not join societies, local geology or science groups, and organisations that promote STEM subjects? Credit: Natasha Dowey at the Oxfordshire Science Festival.

Why not join societies, local geology or science groups, and organisations that promote STEM subjects? Credit: Natasha Dowey at the Oxfordshire Science Festival.

Joining up to societies, local geology or science groups, and organisations that promote STEM subjects (such as Science Grrl) will provide more opportunities for getting involved in a wide variety of events and science festivals. Societies may offer training days in specific outreach activities, which can be a great help if you’re keen to do something but you’re not sure what (such as the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain’s “Exploration Game” training). Twitter is a great medium for getting involved in outreach, where large networks (e.g. @STEMNET) and independent outreachers (check out @SarahBearchell) advertise their upcoming events and highlight opportunities to the science community.

One of the most effective ways of getting involved in science outreach is to become a STEM Ambassador. You are given induction training at a local branch, which includes an all-important DBS police check. You have an online profile where you can document your activities (handy for your CV), and emails are sent to you letting you know what events are happening in your local area. You can also attend free training and networking events (such as the People Like Me WISE initiative), where you are able to meet like-minded people, brainstorm activity ideas, and build up a network.

Making the most of it

Getting involved with outreach provides geoscientists with an opportunity to interact with people of all ages and from all backgrounds, to hear new opinions on their research (that are bound to be very different from those uttered by peers and colleagues), to develop professional skills and to get engaged with the local community. The break from the daily grind and the fresh perspective is often invaluable, and most importantly, it’s FUN! Once a geoscientist is able to weave a story to explain how geochronology works to a class of primary school students, or can get a room of fourteen year olds excited by geochemistry without the jargon, the world is their oyster- and science communication throughout their career will seem that little bit easier to tackle.

 

By Natasha Dowey

natasha-downey-cropNatasha Dowey is a Geoscientist in the energy sector, specialising in understanding the stratigraphic and tectonic evolution of sedimentary basins. She has a PhD in volcanic geology from the University of Liverpool, and enjoys getting involved with science outreach and communication whenever she can. Natasha tweets at @DrNatashaJSmith.

The coolest way to visualise how planets work

The coolest way to visualise how planets work

It’s not always easy visualising the complex processes which operate on planet Earth. Even more difficult, at least for me, is explaining them to others. That’s why I’m always on the look out for tools that might just help me with that and which I can share with others too. Enter the NASA Visualisation Explorer, and the Scientific Visualization Studio (SVS), which I came across recently.

The first of the two is a cool little app which can you get straight on your mobile device. You can keep up with all of NASA’s most recent findings and search for animations, visualisations and images of the Earth and Sun. I’ve unashamedly taken from the page intro here, but I think it does a great job of explaining what the site aims to do:

“The NASA Visualization Explorer the coolest way to get stories about NASA’s exploration of the Earth, sun, moon, planets and universe.”

Next up, the SVS: If you ask me, a great communication tool, packed with more images, animations and visualisations, which are created by the SVS in collaboration with researchers and scientists. You could literally spend hours exploring the content on the site. The best bit? All the visualisations (of which there are more than 5,500) are free to download!

To showcase just one example of what you can look forward to on the site (just a warning, you could spend hours exploring the content!), I’ve downloaded one of my current favourites: a video showing solar wind hitting Mars’ magnetic field. The video, is part of a series of resources associated with the recent discoveries by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission about how Mars lost it’s atmosphere.

MAVEN has been able to determine that solar wind – a stream of particles, mainly protons and electrons, flowing from the sun’s atmosphere at a speed of about one million miles per hour – stripped the red planet of it’s atmosphere. The findings have huge implications about how crucial it is that the Earth has sustained its magnetic field throughout its lifetime -something which I’ve written about before (and is closely related to my PhD, so I was v. excited about these recent findings).

Help! I’m appearing as a scientific expert on TV

Help! I’m appearing as a scientific expert on TV

At the beginning of the year, the small village of Rutland, in the heart of the UK, was hit by a 3.8 Magnitude earthquake. The quake didn’t cause any significant damage or injuries, but hit the headlines as seismic activity is a bit of a novelty in the UK!

In the wake of the quake, the UK press and media picked up the story and sought the opinions of experts to take part in interviews and give their views on the ground motions. Amongst those approached was my colleague and friend, Steve Hicks, a final year seismology PhD student, at Liverpool University. Steve took part in a BBC children’s TV programme called Newsround. On hearing of his TV appearance, I asked Steve to write a guest post for Jenga; I thought his personal account of his experience with the might be useful for other researchers too. Steve gives a brief account of his TV experience before listing his top 10 tips for talking to the media. You can watch Steve’s appearance on the children’s news programme here.

On Wednesday afternoon at 1.30 pm, our research lab in Liverpool received a call. The caller was a member from the production team of the BBC’s Newsround programme – a national news show aimed for children. They wanted someone from our research group to appear live on their afternoon bulletin at 4.20 pm to talk about a significant earthquake that had occurred the night before.

Our Prof. was tied up with meetings all day. No one else in the lab seemed particularly keen on the idea. I decided to go for it. And I’m so glad that I did.

Preparation was key

Although I didn’t know I was going to be appearing on TV, the preparation actually began the night before. A magnitude 3.8 earthquake struck England’s East Midlands region; it was felt by thousands of people. That night I kept myself updated – mainly via Twitter – with reports from the earthquake and what preliminary results were telling us about this seismic event.

A seismogram being recorded by a seismograph at Weston Observatory in Massachusetts, USA.

A seismograph being recorded by a seismograph at Weston Observatory in Massachusetts, USA.

As part of an on-going outreach project that our research group is involved with, one of my roles is to produce informative PowerPoint slides about significant earthquakes in their immediate aftermath. These resources are aimed at educating schoolteachers, pupils and the general public to educate about earthquake science and their associated hazards. This outreach work meant that I was already fairly clued up about the earthquake, its context, and how to explain some complex scientific ideas to a non-specialist audience.

I had previously taken part in a practice radio interview at a public engagement course; this made me feel slightly more confident, but still, a live TV interview was a massive step up. I felt that with the TV show being tailored for children, if I messed up the interview, then I could maybe get away with not many people knowing about my cock-up!

My colleagues in the lab were awesomely supportive and very helpful. They offered to help me prepare and to get anything I needed to take with me.

Before I knew it, my transport had been organised by the BBC and I was about to arrive at the studio in Manchester.

A surreal experience

As I arrived, I was sat down with a cup of tea and got straight into a discussion with the production team about their proposed plan for my section of the show. Due to issues with booking my transport and the fluid nature of news that day, the production team were a little stressed – there were only 20 minutes left to prepare until we went live on air. I’m sure they are used to such last-minute stress, yet they were still hugely friendly and made me feel very relaxed. The team openly discussed with me the type of questions the presenter will plan to ask. They were even open to me changing the questioning slightly! This freedom made me feel much better and more in control. I knew what they were going to ask me and I could tailor a nice ‘model’ answer.

We went into the control room and I was fixed up with a microphone. Now I was starting to get nervous. However, I did get a view of the famous Blue Peter studio and managed to rub shoulders with some of its presenters! A big tick off the bucket list!

Screenshot of Steve's appearance on the BBC children's programme, Newsround.

Screenshot of Steve’s appearance on the BBC children’s programme, Newsround.

The countdown starts … 5,4,3,2,1, … and the show is on air! In a flash, the show is over. Surprisingly, I wasn’t as nervous as I had expected. I have definitely been more nervous when giving conference talks. Maybe it had something to do with not having an audience in sight. There were only four crewmembers in the studio and talking with the presenter felt like a fairly regular conversation. I’m very glad I chose to bring a couple of props to explain the earthquake. I brought a seismometer and a trusty slinky, which were very popular with the production team and presenter.

I hate hearing my own voice so I haven’t yet watched the full video without the audio being muted!

My Top 10 Tips for Giving a Media Interview

  1. Get involved in outreach and public engagement projects

Getting accustomed to outreach work will you to get you used to telling stories about your field of research that can capture the imagination of a lay audience.

  1. Get involved with the conversation on social media.
Use social media as a source of information. ( SMM-Jigsaw-Banner, by greyweed pn Flickr)

Use social media as a source of information. (
SMM-Jigsaw-Banner, by greyweed on Flickr)

Using Twitter and Facebook will help you to find out more about a topical subject and will give you an idea of what your fellow scientists in the community are saying about a newsworthy topic.

  1. Get on a public engagement short course.

Public engagement courses may be offered by a society or funding body in your field. Your PhD support funds may be able to pay for such a course. I attended the Natural Environment Research Council’s excellent public engagement training course. This was free and were able to carry out a valuable mock radio interview with an actual radio show presenter. Laura, do you know of any other media training courses here that you add here? Your University/Institution’s Press Office may also be able to provide some basic media training.

  1. Try to get a gig on local radio.

Speak to your University/Institution’s Press Office and say that you would like some media interview experience. Most local radio channels will love to hear about some ground-breaking research that is being done at their local university. This can be a great way to get some media experience without having to face a camera and a large audience. Try to persuade your Press Office to add you to their directory of experts, which media outlets often use to get people they want.

  1. Don’t rely on your undergraduate degree / PhD research alone to get you through the interview.

In all likelihood, your audience will not be interested in convoluted theories and innocuous scientific methods. The educational pages of a well-known institution in your research field that regularly communicates with the public and media can be priceless. I found the British Geological Survey and IRIS websites particularly helpful for ideas on answering frequently asked questions and for providing me with a few basic statistics that I could recite.

  1. Speak to your supervisor/boss before accepting any offer to give an interview.

Many outlets – depending on the programme and audience – may prefer to interview someone more youthful than an ancient Prof. It is also likely that your supervisor is an old hand at media interviews, but they may be too busy and might offer an interview to another member of the research group. If they have media experience, they may give you some valuable tips and will tell you whether or not they think you will cope with the interview.

  1. Props are priceless.

The production team are always keen to have a ‘hands on’ aspect during your piece, especially if the audience is quite young. A prop or two may also mean that you do not have to think on your feet for as much time.

  1. Be prepared for a last-minute call up.

Keep some key props in your lab that you can take to an interview. Your look: maybe keep a smart-ish shirt in your office in case you get an emergency call-up. But, you need not look too smart. I hadn’t shaved and my woollen jumper still had dog hairs on from my previous home visit! But nobody seemed to care or notice. They didn’t give me any make-up either!

  1. Be patient with the production team.

The show’s team have probably had just as much, if not more, of a stressful day as you. The show structure will constantly change as breaking news comes in. They have got to get guests in at very short notice. Making a live TV show is hard work! It is also possible that someone has asked you to appear on their show, but you get cancelled at the last minute; news programme schedules change fast, so this can happen often.

  • Most importantly of all, go for it!

You’ll regret it if you don’t take the opportunity and it will any future decision a little bit harder. Body language is key – smile, keep your back straight and enjoy the moment!

By Steve Hicks, PhD student, University of Liverpool