I’ve written several entries over the past year or so about my interest in science outreach—sharing my enthusiasm for science through hands-on activities to engage with different groups of people beyond the university campus where I work. (See “Informal Science,” “Sharing Science: Teaching and Learning About Communication,” and “Scientists in Our Neighborhoods” for more.) This fall, I’ve continued to think about science, communication, and community in new ways. Most of my motivation has come from planning and teaching a new community engagement course for my undergraduate students. The goal: partner with a community agency to engage students off campus, in our city, interacting with new groups of people and expanding their educational experience beyond the classroom. Our version of the course has students designing and presenting hands-on science activities for children and families on multiple occasions over a semester.
Between my class and my own pursuits, over the past month alone I’ve had the pleasure of engaging with others in my community through science in several new ways. First, my students took my place at our tables of hands-on activities at the annual Celebrate Science Indiana science expo event. Thousands of children and their adults interacted with local undergraduate and graduate students, expert scientists, teachers, and community resource providers on a single day dedicated to promoting curiosity, science literacy, science research, education, and technology in our state. Because my students were busy learning first-hand some of the challenges and rewarding moments of communicating about their activity with different audiences, I had time to visit other booths, talk with many people, and learn more about the science resources and opportunities connecting people all across my state.
A couple of weeks later, a colleague and I presented a hands-on activity—DNA bracelets—to groups of Girl Scouts attending a local event called “Circle the City.” Thousands of girls and their adults explored dozens of booths featuring science, art, outdoor and life skills, and other activities. It was really fun to introduce girls as young as kindergarten to DNA: that there’s a chemical inside their bodies that stores information and helps build them into a unique person. The girls enjoyed stringing beads to make the pattern of part of a gene from humans or another organism. I think butterfly DNA was the most popular choice among the youngest girls! It was really fun to see science, art, and other pursuits all on display side by side at this event, celebrating curiosity and fun across all types of interests, with many different types of people in our community representing their work and hobbies.
Finally, I made it out one evening last week to a different kind of community event: a talk and panel discussion with Rebecca Skloot, author of the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, alongside two members of the Lacks family: Shirley Lacks and Veronica Robinson. Skloot’s landmark book, published almost 10 years ago now, represented many years of effort to discover the human story behind HeLa cells, a cancer cell line that has played a central role in biomedical research for decades. This public presentation was co-sponsored by our local public library and Indiana Humanities, an organization that promotes reading, conversation, and, yes, community. I appreciated hearing updates on what has taken place since the book was published; for example, the Lacks family has been involved in decision-making alongside researchers about the genetic information compiled about HeLa cells. Also, many commemorations in honor of Henrietta Lacks (the woman whose tumor cells have continued to grow and divide in cell cultures all around the world) have been added in the communities where Henrietta Lacks or her descendants have lived, as well as in other locations impacted by HeLa cell research. The presentation I saw—a conversation about the writing process, the book itself, family, ethics, and scientific research—created a truly interdisciplinary opportunity for hundreds of people in my own community to hear something new, and to reflect for themselves on connections among history, science, family, ethics, and race.
My new community engagement class features quite a bit of reflection about what “community” means to each person, in the different contexts in which we find ourselves and at different times during our lives. It feels more important than ever to consider our various personal communities, especially here at the end of another week in which violent threats and actions by a handful of individuals—apparently driven by fear or pure hate—have left people all over my country feeling raw, scared, frustrated, or even disconnected from each other, in some cases despairing that it is possible to find common ground with people who have very different points of view.
Science is not the only topic people need to learn about in life, or engage with. It’s not the only career path for people to consider. We need people with diverse perspectives, interests, and talents to contribute to society in the ways that suit them best. But I’m trained as a scientist, and I’m also an educator. I make an effort to share my skills and vocation in my community (especially with young people) to try to create one more link in promoting a curious, enthusiastic, and, yes, scientifically literate society. I remain hopeful that by sharing our own talents and expertise and making personal connections in our neighborhoods, organizations, and cities, we can continue moving forward together toward a more civil, peaceful, caring, and creatively productive society that will sustain us for generations to come.