Why grad students go beyond research

…and love it!

I admit that I had never heard of outreach before starting my PhD program at Penn State. My undergraduate institution didn’t encourage volunteer work or internships. And after earning my bachelor’s degree, I was employed by a state funded lab that was mainly concerned with West Nile virus surveillance and associated research. For those of you who are also in the dark, outreach is a tool scientists use to disseminate their knowledge to school age children, the public or specific target groups like farmers. We use outreach to educate people about anything from basic science to specific agricultural practices. Outreach can be in many forms including newsletters, radio spots, pamplets, or events.

Campers ID aquatic insects at Millbrook Marsh

Camper ID aquatic insects at Millbrook Marsh

Many of my fellow graduate students (both in the entomology department and CIDD program) participate in outreach events. We are an integral part of The Great Insect Fair, various after school events like Exploration U, and provide entomology lessons/activities to area elementary schools, and help run camps. Kids learn about entomology and general science and adults learn something new about their gardens or insects that can threaten their health.

Two weeks ago, Amber Brunskill hosted the entomology department’s annual Kids Bug Camp, (see photos here) during which about 14 graduate students, some faculty and other staff members were involved. We volunteer without compensation or course credit, so it got me wondering:

What drives us to take time away from our research to participate in outreach? What do graduate students get out of these events? I asked several graduate students questions about what drives them; their answers and mine are below.

How important is outreach to you?

Being able to see the spark in someone’s eyes after finally understanding a concept or finding out they are loving science is always a pleasure; outreach helps me see that. –Emilia Sola-Gracia

I think outreach is crucial if we ever want to build a society consisting of individuals that have a useful level of science literacy, which can help them follow and interpret the scientific and technical developments even if they choose a non-academic life. One of the biggest mistakes made by the scientific community in the earlier centuries was building a “ivory tower” or “gentlemen’s club” that was isolated from general public. That left most people in dark about the developments and achievements we had through research. Thus, we ended up with crowds unable to understand or appreciate the importance of research while they are heavily using the end products of it such as internet, smart phones, medicine, and agricultural production. –Mehmet (Mali) Doke

Outreach is one of the most important things we can do as graduate students. It gives us a chance to interact with the general public and trains us to be better communicators. It’s also FUN! –Mario Padilla

Outreach is very important to me and I believe that it is a crucial part of science.  It allows scientists such as myself to interact with the community and explain our research to others.  Outreach can be a way to bring the latest advances to the community and can offer ways to implement laboratory findings to make them a part of everyday life.  I believe that such involvement and demonstration of the benefits of scientific research is critical to maintaining community support and funding as well as to encouraging others to enter science.  Especially at a publicly funded institution such as Penn State it is important to give back and pass on knowledge gained to those who directly contribute to our ability to conduct such research.  Outreach can also help researchers develop new questions based on the observations of those in the field.  I believe outreach is one of the most important things I am involved in at Penn State. –Rebecca Johnson

Outreach is essential to bridge the gap between scientists and the public. Plus, people are inherently interested in science and the research we do, so why not teach them in fun and exciting ways, via activities and hands-on approaches? -Me

Why do you volunteer for outreach events?

I wanted to see if I could be a school teacher and just understand how to teach a younger audience about science. –Emilia Sola-Gracia

Because the next Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Sagan, or Crick is sitting in a boring classroom half asleep, learning that all living things are made out of cells, 2 times 2 is 4, or you never end a sentence with a preposition. There’s more than that to learning. Learning can be fun – it must be fun. I believe that our best chance to advance is to extend most recent information in an age appropriate manner to the children. Children are curious and questioning by their nature. All we have to do to keep them in this mindset is give them a spark by sharing our knowledge in engaging ways. Then, they can discover for themselves and become the amazing individuals that will shape our future. –Mehmet (Mali) Doke

I volunteer to help excite kids about insects and science in general. It’s also important to sustain this excitement throughout their middle school and high school years so we can have great scientists for years to come. -Mario Padilla

I volunteer at outreach events to gain personal experience in teaching and public speaking but also to teach others more about science and why it is so exciting.  I love being able to talk to others about insects and science in general and outreach provides an opportunity to do so.  It is encouraging to meet others that are just as excited as I am. -Rebecca Johnson

I wanted practice communicating science to the public, without confusing jargon. I also think there’s a scientist stereotype – think super-nerd with huge glasses and a lab coat, mumbling to himself – and I like to show the public that scientists are actually very diverse (and girls can like bugs too!). -Me

What did you like about volunteering for Bug Camp?

Bug camp was a great way to learn how to teach and manage younger students. It was amazing to see how much these kids know about insects and how keen they are to learn more. Definitely something I would do again. –Emilia Sola-Gracia

It was a unique experience for me since I have never been in a multi-day outreach event. I really liked being able to form a bond with the campers that provided a bridge for the exchange of knowledge and ideas. It was four days of visiting cool places, talking about insects, collecting, and crafting – I liked it all. –Mehmet (Mali) Doke

I enjoyed interacting with the children and asking them questions about insects. Seeing kids excited about insects is especially heartening. -Mario Padilla

I liked meeting kids who were super excited about insects, the outdoors, and anything related to science.  Their enthusiasm helped remind me why I chose to pursue a career in science and gave me some much needed encouragement to keep going forward. -Rebecca Johnson

This is my second year volunteering and I will definitely be involved in the remaining years I’m here. I enjoy it all, but what I like most is answering the kids’ clever questions about entomology and watching their enthusiasm for science grow. -Me

What did you learn?

My little knowledge of insects goes a long way. Nothing can stop a curious mind. –Emilia Sola-Gracia

I learned that not every individual go through the same process as they are taking new information in and using it to improve their abilities or knowledge on a specific subject. One of the impressive collections with proper labels to the species level came from a camper that I wouldn’t have anticipated. Obviously they were paying attention in their own – individual – ways, as I was assuming they weren’t. That was an eye-opener for me, which I will keep in mind while teaching. –Mehmet (Mali) Doke

I learned that many children have a vast knowledge about insects. They’re excited about insect natural history, and know quite a bit about it. -Mario Padilla

I got a lot of teaching experience and gained new understanding in effective ways to make complex topics more approachable.  I learned more about the insects in Pennsylvania and got to solidify some of my basic entomology skills. -Rebecca Johnson

I learned how to lead a successful lesson related to my research (medical entomology), and noticed that the campers gained some new knowledge from it. -Me

If you participate in outreach, I encourage you to comment and share your experience!

About britdodson

Over several years as a research scientist, I’ve realized that we fail to communicate research in fun and exciting ways. We’re often misquoted, not due to journalist errors, but because our scientific language is complicated and riddled with jargon. I want to improve my communication abilities with this blog by using techniques from creative writing and applying them to nonfiction scientific writing. But, in order to be skilled at writing one must practice (so says writers like Stephen King). This blog will serve as my first venture into science writing. I'm very passionate about entomology, infectious diseases and human health, so my posts will initially focus on those topics.
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3 Responses to Why grad students go beyond research

  1. arielrivers says:

    Reblogged this on Ariel Rivers and commented:
    Some really great thoughts on outreach here from some of my fellow PSU grad students. Thanks for sharing, Brittany!

  2. Thank you for sharing. Outreach is important! I enjoy working with young students and getting them interested in science.

  3. britdodson says:

    I’m new to outreach – any tips on how to make science education fun for kids?

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