Scientists in our neighborhoods

As a young child, my first lessons in “community” came from errands and outings with my family, interactions with neighbors, school and extra-curricular activities I participated in…and public television. I grew up with now-classic episodes of “Sesame Street” and “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood,” which taught me about the basics of positive communities and the people who live there. Through Muppets and songs, live actor appearances, and adults modeling their interactions, I enjoyed learning about the different types of people with important contributions that I might encounter in my own neighborhood, if I looked around for them:

But few of these TV or real-life moments showed me any scientists as people in our neighborhoods. Scientists were featured regularly on TV science documentaries, but they felt far away from where I lived, doing work such as space or ocean exploration, that I couldn’t connect to my own community in the middle of the American Midwest. Other TV shows, such as “3-2-1 Contact,” helped me learn that anyone could be a scientist—even kids!—but I don’t remember actually seeing any adults in my community doing science. We learned about science in school, we knew some people grew up to be doctors or dentists or nurses, or engineers at the local factory, but that was about the extent of “scientists in my neighborhood.” When I decided I wanted to get serious about the study of biology in high school and college, I really didn’t have any role models for where that might take me as a career, or what my own contributions might be.

As a graduate student, I decided to try volunteering at a fledgling, grassroots science museum in my community and was quickly hooked. By day, I conducted hours of painstaking science experiments to unravel the mystery of a tiny piece of genetic programming in a mushroom. But on weekends, I learned to explain why science was fun to school-age kids and their adults, or to make a messy science activity for a birthday party. In my adopted community, I tried to do my part to bridge the gap between science at the university and a small city full of different kinds of people, all contributing in their own way.

Professionally, I landed in one of several traditional niches for scientists: teaching college students the basics of biology to help them launch successful careers of their own—either in science or another area altogether. I still do quite a bit of community science “outreach” outside the formal classroom environment. (See my post on “Informal science” from last year for more on this topic.) This week, I’ve been particularly busy on that front. I entered the “Flame Challenge” from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science for the second year in a row: a classroom of 11-year-olds in some other community will judge my entry about the theme, “What is climate?” I’m also gathering materials to engage next weekend with middle school girls, using hands-on activities and working with other women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) to promote the idea that girls and women are welcome and important participants in these disciplines. I even participated in a local science book discussion about “Hidden Figures,” sponsored by a science outreach group for adults in my community. (See my previous post about the book for my impressions.) It was a nice mix of STEM professionals and science-curious citizens who gathered for an hour or so to talk about science in a casual atmosphere.

And yet. How many children actually get to meet scientists working in their communities these days? How many adults encounter professional scientists in the working world? How many people can even name a scientist? This question, and adults’ perceptions of science policy topics, were addressed in a recent survey (see this link for some of the results and one analysis of the findings). The upshot: most adults can’t name a living scientist, but nonetheless think that scientists make important contributions to health, innovation, and other areas and should be valued for their expertise. I suspect that in many communities—like the one in which I grew up—scientists simply are underrepresented. Many scientists are employed in larger cities, or at universities and medical centers, or at larger private companies in limited geographic regions. Field scientists, on the other hand, might cover a large geographic area, and be hard to find working permanently in one location. If you live in one of these areas, you may have met someone who works as a scientist. But if not, scientists may be still as mysterious to many people as they were to me years ago. Also, in every geographic area, many people face poverty, family struggles, or other serious concerns that may understandably limit their interest in or access to information about science in their community. For people in minority groups, seeing scientists who “look like them” also may be rare, adding one more layer of difficulty in representing science in and to diverse communities. Yet, providing visibility of different types of scientists—especially to children—may help inspire broader support for scientific pursuits and policies and participation by a new generation of potential scientists.

Many efforts are underway to help scientists embrace the idea of broader communication of their own work, and to build the skills to do it better. I applaud these efforts and wrote a little about it a few months ago. Today, the internet helps expand the reach of science and scientists, through articles, interviews, videos, traditional journalism, and more, and much is made about how to use these tools for broader science communication. But how much do scientists actually reach a broader audience with their efforts? Is anyone listening if they talk? This question nags at me, as I sit here typing my blog into mostly an echo chamber of family, friends, colleagues and associates, and people who already enjoy reading about science topics. A blog is one tool for communication, but it probably isn’t going to reach someone who’s not looking for it, unless it is widely distributed. And even then, only people who spend time reading things in general—and probably online—will be the audience. There are natural limits to any approach for scientific communication.

One approach for new engagement might be simply to encourage more scientists to go to places where they can meet with new audiences in person. Getting out into our communities and sharing our stories—face-to-face, even one-on-one, making a human connection—this seems to me to be one of the most important aspects of science communication that is often overlooked. The hardest part is that it takes a lot of time, and a lot of effort, to meet people where they are and share a moment together. Heck, it’s sometimes hard just to find the time to spend with friends and family! It seems to me that scientists face some of the same struggles that many artists have to share their music, dance, paintings, and so forth with a wider audience. But like artists, many scientists have a drive (and even an obligation) to share what we find with the world, to expand our understanding, our sense of wonder, and to spark new questions and ideas. If we’re just talking with each other or asking people to seek us out to engage with us, we’re falling short.

I’ll be out in my community over the next few weeks, sharing science with children and families. And I welcome the new adult science conversation events around town. How else can we take science “on the road” and have some fun with different people around our communities? I’ve been intrigued for some time by the idea of mobile science labs that take standards-based educational science activities to schools. I’ve also read about creative science displays, such as the ones by MICRO, an organization that is taking science into public spaces in a whole new way. The emerging trend of “pop-up museums,” which take small displays into different community spaces to promote dialog and engagement, might also be a welcome experiment. Scientists like experiments. We shouldn’t be afraid to dig in and try some new things. What about a science flash mob?

I’d love to have the scientists in my neighborhoods be as familiar to kids as all the other professions I value that make my community a good place to live. But it will take new efforts, ongoing dialog with others in the community, and sometimes just a nice face-to-face conversation—like Bob on Sesame Street has with his fictional neighbors—to help us connect. What experiences have you had that have helped you connect with science in your community?

Meet a Scientist

My equipment from a family science outreach event at a museum last year. How else can scientists engage with others in our communities?



3 thoughts on “Scientists in our neighborhoods

  1. Pingback: Scientist fiction | Mulled Science

  2. Pingback: Fostering community, through curiosity and connection | Mulled Science

  3. Pingback: February science connections | Mulled Science

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