Why is science outreach important?
Issued: 23 Jan 2018

Griffith University’s PhD student Heidi Walkden provides three good reasons to invest in science outreach.

Griffith University’s PhD student Heidi Walkden provides three good reasons to invest in science outreach.

As a scientist, what does outreach look like? Is it when you talk about the brain with the person serving you at the shops? Is it when you buy your younger relatives a small telescope? Or is it when you are on stage performing experiments? The truth is, outreach is all of these things, plus more! Here are three reasons why it is so important:

1. You develop new skills

Just imagine that you had prepared a presentation for a class of 17 year olds about you and your research. You arrive at the school on the day of your talk only to be told that you would also be presenting to 8 year olds, what would you do? This is exactly the scenario I found myself in during National Science Week last year as part of the ‘Catch A Rising Star’ program. The ability to adapt to unexpected situations, while on the road, is just one of many skills that I have developed through outreach opportunities.

Another valuable skill is the ability to communicate complex research in a way that everyone can understand. Getting involved with outreach and discussing your work with others are the best ways to familiarise yourself with the level of knowledge that others have about your field. Things that seem simple to you could easily be new information for others. Read Presenting my research in three minutes for more reasons why this is so important.

2. It is important for the next generation

I don’t think that I would be a scientist today had it not been for the many mentors and role models that I have had throughout my career. Take a moment to think about your career pathway. How did you end up in research? Chances are you had a very motivated teacher somewhere in your past. As scientists we are in a unique position to educate others about our areas of research and to get them excited about our work. I was first exposed to research through competitions held for high school students. One of these was the Australian Brain Bee Challenge where I found my passion for neuroscience while studying for the state finals.

Celebrating National Science Week — courtesy National Science Week

The importance of reaching out to those still in school should not be overlooked. I am now involved with the ‘That’s RAD! Science’ initiative which aims to promote science in a fun and interactive way for primary school children. One way we are doing this is by publishing books written by real scientists. Our first book My Mum is a Parasite Scientist. That’s RAD!, by Professor Kathy Andrews, has already been distributed to more than 400 children and several school libraries. Who knows which of these children will be encouraged to pursue a career in science and/or research after reading one of these books?

3. Professional development

By getting out there and promoting science to the general community I have been able to learn to talk to people from all walks of life. Through my work with the ‘That’s RAD! Science’ initiative I have met science communicators who work for the government. These connections have been invaluable and have provided me with extra opportunities for professional development that I otherwise would never have had. Not only did I enjoy travelling to schools in Bundaberg for the ‘Catch A Rising Star’ program but my participation has helped me to network and to develop my communication skills. My involvement in this program also provided me with the opportunity to talk about my experiences on ABC radio.

So, how can you get involved in science outreach? A good place to start is by looking at opportunities that may already exist within your institute. One example includes the Three Minute Thesis competition where competitors explain their research to a generalised audience within three minutes (watch my Asia-Pacific 3MT Final presentation). Local museums and science centres often have events that you could volunteer for, example the World Science Festival. Other ways to engage with the public include giving public talks, writing blogs, posting on YouTube and other forms of social media.

Anyone involved with science and research can be a science communicator. It just takes a bit of well-invested time and motivation. You never know who you will encourage, who you will have the chance to meet or where these opportunities may lead you!

Thanks to Heidi Walkden for her blog to help us promote the great science happening in Queensland.

If you’d like to submit a blog email info@chiefscientist.qld.gov.au. And don’t forget to follow Queensland Science Facebook.