Tuesday, October 26, 2010

New Blogger -- Hello! & One Example of the Mutual Benefits of Outreach

As a new member of the CSWA and first-time blogger, I thought I'd take this moment to introduce myself: I recently began my first (only?!) postdoc as a CIERA (Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics) fellow at Northwestern University. In my research, I use optical emission line and X-ray diagnostics to identify galaxies that are actively accreting material onto their central supermassive black holes and the role that this accretion (and the consequent feedback) plays in galaxy evolution.

I've kept myself happy and sane by working to protect a life outside of research -- as a roller derby queen with the Mad Rollin' Dolls (my moniker was 'Big Bang'... really, what else could you be as an astronomer crashing around on wheels?), as a stilt walker and trapeze artist (still looking for good names for this alter ego, any suggestions?), etc.

I was also lucky to have been part of a great group of women (and men) graduate students at UW-Madison. Together we formed WOWSAP (Women of Wisconsin Strengthening Astronomy and Physics), a mentoring and networking group for women graduate students, postdocs, and early career faculty. The discussions we had and the professional development we provided for ourselves played a key role in keeping me in this field.

For the Spring 2011 AAS in Boston, CSWA has proposed to host a special session panel discussion on 1) ways to ensure the sustainability of mentoring programs and 2) sharing examples of how departments and institutions have managed to change the climate so that these programs become accepted as the norm. I'd very much appreciate hearing about your experiences with these two aspects of mentoring programs.

Have you had success (or encountered obstacles) promoting the sustainability and institutionalization of a program in your department, university, or other work place? What ways have you found to improve climate and culture with respect to mentoring/networking programs?

Outreach, in its various forms, has also provided an essential counterbalance to my time spent doing research. I'm sure many of you feel the same -- one very much energizes the other. My current postdoc position is ideal for me, with an 80/20 split between research and education/outreach. Which brings me to the real subject of today's blog:

Part of my CIERA appointment is as an advisor to the STEM graduate students involved in Northwestern's recently funded NSF GK12 'Reach for the Stars' program*. 'Reach for the Stars' pairs STEM graduate students with local middle and high-school teachers to develop computational modeling curricula for their K-12 science classrooms and provide authentic research experiences for the K-12 students.

Recently I read Kitts (2009), which provides further supporting arguments for programs like GK12. Kitts presents the results of surveying 2500 rural and urban middle- and high-school students on their attitudes about science as a career. On the positive side, the work of the last 10+ years in portraying scientists as people appears to have paid off -- most students no longer view scientists as 'other', e.g., caricatures in white lab coats. However, not surprisingly, a major hurdle remains the lack of direct interaction with science role models and lack of authentic science experiences**. The opportunity to identify with scientists and envision themselves as scientists greatly enhances youth consideration of science as a career (Kitts 2009).

The GK12 STEM graduate students, in turn, are gaining invaluable experience learning to effectively communicate their science, an extremely important skill that's given too little (if any) focus in most graduate programs. Incorporating their research into the K-12 curriculum forces the grad students to think about the big picture connections and motivations for their research, about audience preconceptions and ways to highlight the relevance to existing interests, about the use of jargon and how best to introduce and use specific terminology, about ways to gauge audience understanding, etc.

What have you found to be effective in developing your ability to communicate your science to a broad audience? What support are you providing for the students you're mentoring to develop this important skill?

My current list:

Within a department/research center:
- promote a culture of support and acceptance so that students have a chance to build their confidence, make mistakes, and constructively learn from these mistakes
- present articles in a journal club setting (not just within your research group)
- take the lead on summarizing an article for an astro-ph setting. Check out http://voxcharta.org -- my new favorite organizational resource
- mentor, mentor, mentor
- practice 2 minute talks (i.e., an engaging, big-picture 2 minute summary of your research for use in informal moments, like during coffee breaks at the AAS).

Through education/outreach in your local community:
- give public lectures for a general audience (look to your local science museum, community centers, retirement homes, etc.)
- lead activities for science clubs at local schools, science museums, community centers, etc.

*The NSF GK12 program, now at over 140 universities, began in 1999. Potential grad students -- check out this great program!

**There were no statistically significant differences between male and female responses in this survey. Differences with respect to race or socioeconomic status were not investigated, although the article notes that minority youth are particularly challenged in constructing a science identity because of cultural stereotypes about their competence (see Hanson 2008).

Kitts. 2009. "The Paradox of Middle and High School Students' Attitudes towards Science vs their Attitudes about Science as a Career", Journal of Geoscience Education, 57, 2